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Bladel quits as Council chair as GoDaddy ruled “ineligible” for election

Kevin Murphy, June 14, 2017, Domain Policy

GNSO Council Chair James Bladel has resigned, after it emerged that GoDaddy, his employer, is not eligible for office under registrar rules.

He will continue to occupy the post on an interim basis until a new election is held.

Bladel was elected to represent the Registrars Stakeholder Group on the Council back in 2013 and was elected by the Council as chair in late 2015.

However, the RrSG has just discovered that he’s actually ineligible for elected office under its charter because GoDaddy is also a dot-brand registry.

The RrSG charter states that in order to avoid conflicts of interest, a registrar that also has a Specification 9 exemption from the registry Code of Conduct in an ICANN registry conduct may not hold office.

GoDaddy signed its .godaddy registry agreement, which includes the Spec 9 exemption, in July 2015. The gTLD is not currently being used.

GoDaddy is of course the largest registrar in the industry, but it appears its ability to wield power in ICANN’s policy-making bodies now appears to be hamstrung by its foray into new gTLDs.

Bladel’s resignation is not expected to have any significant impact on GNSO Council work.

He’s been reappointed by the RrSG executive committee on an interim basis until elections can be held for a replacement. His term is due to expire in November anyway.

GNSO faces off with governments over IGO cybersquatting

Kevin Murphy, January 27, 2017, Domain Policy

A defiant ICANN working group looking at cybersquatting rules for intergovernmental organizations is sticking to its guns in an ongoing face-off with the Governmental Advisory Committee.

In a report published for public comment this week, the GNSO working group recommended that IGOs should be given the right to use the UDRP and URS rights protection mechanisms, despite not being trademark owners.

But the recommendations conflict with the advice of the GAC, which wants ICANN to create entirely new mechanisms to deal with IGO rights.

I explored a lot of the back story of this argument in two posts a few months ago, which I will not rehash here.

The latest development is the publication of the proposed initial report of the GNSO IGO-INGO Access to Curative Rights Protection Mechanisms Initial Report (pdf) for comment.

The WG was tasked with deciding whether changes should be made to UDRP and URS to help protect the names and acronyms of IGOs and INGOs (international non-governmental organizations).

For INGOs, including the special cases of the International Olympic Committee and the Red Cross/Red Crescent, it decided no changes and no new mechanisms are required, concluding:

Many INGOs already have, and do, enforce their trademark rights. There is no perceivable barrier to other INGOs obtaining trademark rights in their names and/or acronyms and subsequently utilizing those rights as the basis for standing in the existing dispute resolution procedures (DRPs) created and offered by ICANN as a faster and lower cost alternative to litigation. For UDRP and URS purposes they have the same standing as any other private party.

The case with IGOs is different, because using UDRP and URS requires complainants to agree that the panel’s decisions can be challenge in court, and IGOs by their nature have a special legal status that allows them to claim jurisdictional immunity.

The WG recommends that these groups should be allowed access to UDRP and URS if they have protection under Article 6ter of the Paris Convention, a longstanding international intellectual property treaty.

This rule would actually extend UDRP and URS to hundreds more IGO names and acronyms than the GAC has requested protection for, which is just a few hundred. WIPO’s 6ter database by contrast currently lists 925 names and 399 abbreviations.

To deal with the jurisdictional immunity problem, the WG report recommends that IGOs should be allowed to file cybersquatting complaints via a third-party “assignee, agent or licensee”.

It further recommends that if an IGO manages to persuade a court it has special jurisdictional immunity, having been sued by a UDRP-losing registrant, that the UDRP decision be either disregarded or sent back to the arbitration for another decision.

The recommendations with regard IGOs are in conflict with the recommendations (pdf) of the so-called “small group” — a collection of governments, IGOs, INGOs and ICANN directors that worked quietly and controversially in parallel with the WG to come up with alternative solutions.

The small group wants ICANN to create separate but “functionally equivalent” copies of the UDRP and URS to deal with cybersquatting on IGO name and acronyms.

These copied processes would be free for IGOs to use and, to account for the immunity issue, would not be founded in trademark law.

The WG recommendations are now open for public comment and are expected to be the subject of some debate at the March ICANN meeting in Copenhagen.

Privacy risk under new domain transfer policy

Kevin Murphy, November 30, 2016, Domain Registrars

ICANN’s new domain Transfer Policy, which comes into effect tomorrow, creates risks for users of privacy/proxy services, registrars and others haved warned.

The policy could lead to private registrants having their contact information published in the public Whois for 60 days, the GNSO Council expects to formally tell ICANN this week.

“This could threaten privacy for at-risk registrants without clear benefit,” the Council says in a draft letter to the ICANN board.

The revised Transfer Policy was designed to help prevent domain hijacking.

The main change is that whenever there’s a “change of registrant”, the gaining and losing registrants both have to respond to confirmation emails before the change is processed.

However, “change of registrant” is defined in such a way that the confirmation emails would be triggered even if the registrant has not changed.

For example, if you change your last name in your Whois records due to marriage or divorce, or if you change email addresses, that counts as a change of registrant.

It now turns out that ICANN considers turning a privacy service on or off as a change of registrant, even though that only affects the public Whois data and not the underlying customer data held by the registrar.

The GNSO Council’s draft letter states:

ICANN has advised that any change to the public whois records is considered a change of registrant that is subject to the process defined through IRTP-C. Thus, turning a P/P service on or off is, from ICANN’s view, a change of registrant. It requires the CoR [change of registrant] process to be followed and more importantly could result in a registrant exposing his/her information in the public whois for 60 days. This could threaten privacy for at-risk registrants without clear benefit.

My understanding is that the exposure risk outlined here would only be to registrants who attempt to turn on privacy at their registrar then for whatever reason ignore, do not see or do not understand the subsequent confirmation emails.

Depending on implementation, it could lead to customers paying for a privacy service and not actually receiving privacy.

On the other side of the coin, it’s possible that an actual change in registrant might not trigger the CoR process if both gaining and losing registrants both use the same privacy service and therefore have identical Whois records.

The Council letter also warns about a possible increase in spam due to the changes:

many P/P services regularly generate new email addresses for domains in an effort to reduce spam. This procedure would no longer be possible, and registrants may be subject to unwanted messaging. Implementing the CoR for email changes that some providers do as often as every 3-5 days is not feasible.

ICANN has been aware of these issues for months. Its suggested solution is for registrars to make themselves the “Designated Agent” — a middleman permitted to authorize transfers — for all of their customers.

As we reported earlier this week, many large registrars are already doing this.

But registrars and the GNSO Council want ICANN to consider reinterpreting the new policy to exclude privacy/proxy services until a more formal GNSO policy can be created.

While the Policy Development Process that created the revised transfer rules wound up earlier this year, a separate PDP devoted to creating rules of privacy/proxy services is still active.

The Council suggests that this working group, known as PPSAI, could assume the responsibility of clearing up the mess.

In the meantime, registrars are rather keen that they will not get hit with breach notices by ICANN Compliance for failing to properly implement to what seems to be a complex policy.

Should new gTLDs be first-come, first-served?

Kevin Murphy, November 3, 2016, Domain Policy

Who needs rounds? The idea of allocating new gTLDs on a first-come, first-served basis is getting some consideration at this week’s ICANN 57 meeting.

Such a move could have profound implications on the industry, creating new business opportunities while scuppering others.

Whether to shift to a FCFS model was one of many issues discussed during a session today of the GNSO’s working group tasked with looking at the next new gTLD round.

Since 2000, new gTLDs have been allocated in strict rounds, with limited application windows and often misleading guidance about when the next window would open, but it’s not written in stone that that is the way it has to be.

The idea of switching to FCFS — where any company could apply for any gTLD at any time — is not off the table.

FCSC would not mean applicants would merely have to ask for a string and automatically be granted — there’d still be multiple phases of evaluation and opportunities for others to object, so it wouldn’t be just like registering a second-level domain.

Depending on how the new process was designed, doing away with rounds could well do away with the concept of “contention” — multiple applicants simultaneously vying for the same string.

This would basically eliminated the need for auctions entirely.

No longer would an applicant be able to risk a few hundred thousand bucks in application expenses in the hope of a big private auction pay-day. Similarly, ICANN’s quarter-billion-dollar pool of last-resort auction proceeds would grow no more.

That’s potentially an upside, depending on your point of view.

On the downside, and it’s a pretty big downside, a company could work on a solid, innovative gTLD application for months only to find its chances scuppered because a competitor filed an inferior application a day earlier.

A middle way, suggested during today’s ICANN 57 session, would be a situation in which the filing of an application starts a clock of maybe a few months during which other interested parties would be able to file their own applications.

That would keep the concept of contention whilst doing away with the restrictive round-based structure, but would present plenty of new opportunities for exploitation and skulduggery.

Another consequence of the shift to FCSC could be to eliminate the concept of Community gTLDs altogether, it was suggested during today’s session.

In 2012, applicants were given the opportunity to avoid auction if they could meeting exacting “Community” standards. The trade-off is that Community gTLDs are obliged to be restricted to their designated community.

If FCSC led to contention going away, there’d be no reason for any applicant to apply for a Community gTLD that could unnecessarily burden their business model in future.

For those strongly in favor of community gTLDs, such as governments, this could be an unwelcome outcome.

Instinctively, I think FCSC would be a bad idea, but I think I’d be open to persuasion.

I think the main problem with the round-based structure today is that it’s unpredictable — nobody knows when the next round is likely to be so it’s hard to plan their new gTLD business ideas.

Sure, FCSC would bring flexibility, allowing companies to apply at times that are in tune with their business objectives, but the downsides could outweigh that benefit.

Perhaps the way to reduce unpredictability would be to put application windows on a predictable, reliable schedule — once a year for example — as was suggested by a participant or two during today’s ICANN 57 session.

The discussions in the GNSO are at a fairly early stage right now, but a switch to FCSC would be so fundamental that I think it needs to be adopted or discarded fairly quickly, if there’s ever going to be another application round.

RANT: Governments raise yet another UN threat to ICANN

Kevin Murphy, October 31, 2016, Domain Policy

ICANN’s transition away from US government oversight is not even a month old and the same old bullshit power struggles and existential threats appear to be in play as strongly as ever.

Governments, via the chair of the Governmental Advisory Committee, last week yet again threatened that they could withdraw from ICANN and seek refuge within the UN’s International Telecommunications Union if they don’t get what they want from the rest of the community.

It’s the kind of thing the IANA transition was supposed to minimize, but just weeks later it appears that little has really changed in the rarefied world of ICANN politicking.

Thomas Schneider, GAC chair, said this on a conference call between the ICANN board and the Generic Names Supporting Organization on Thursday:

I’m just urging you about considering what happens if many governments consider that this system does not work. They go to other institutions. If we are not able to defend public interest in this institution we need to go elsewhere, and this is exactly what is happening currently at the ITU Standardization Assembly.

This is a quite explicit threat — if governments don’t like the decisions ICANN makes, they go to the ITU instead.

It’s the same threat that has been made every year or two for pretty much ICANN’s entire history, but it’s also something that the US government removing its formal oversight of ICANN was supposed to help prevent.

So what’s this “public interest” the GAC wants to defend this time around?

It’s protections for the acronyms of intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) in gTLDs, which we blogged about a few weeks ago.

IGOs are bodies ranging from the relatively well-known, such as the World Health Organization or World Intellectual Property Organization, to the obscure, such as the European Conference of Ministers of Transport or the International Tropical Timber Organization.

According to governments, the public interest would be served if the string “itto”, for example, is reserved in every new gTLD, in other words. It’s not known if any government has passed laws protecting this and other IGO strings in their own ccTLDs, but I suspect it’s very unlikely any have.

There are about 230 such IGOs, all of which have acronyms new gTLD registries are currently temporarily banned from selling as domains.

The multi-stakeholder GNSO community is on the verge of coming up with some policy recommendations that would unblock these acronyms from sale and grant the IGOs access to the UDRP and URS mechanisms, allowing them to reclaim or suspend domains maliciously exploiting their “brands”.

The responsible GNSO working group has been coming up with these recommendations for over two years.

While the GAC and IGOs were invited to participate in the WG, and may have even attended a couple of meetings, they decided they’d have a better shot at getting what they wanted by talking directly to the ICANN board outside of the usual workflow.

The WG chair, Phil Corwin of the Internet Commerce Association, recently described IGO/GAC participation as a “near boycott”.

This reluctance to participate in formal ICANN policy-making led to the creation of the so-called “small group”, a secretive ad hoc committee that has come up with an opposing set of recommendations to tackle the same IGO acronym “problem”.

I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to call the the small group “secretive”. While the GNSO WG’s every member is publicly identified, their every email publicly archived, their every word transcribed and published, ICANN won’t even say who is in the small group.

I asked ICANN for list of its members a couple of weeks ago and this is what I got:

The group is made up of Board representatives from the New gTLD Program Committee (NGPC), primarily, Chris Disspain; the GAC Chair; and representatives from the IGO coalition that first raised the issue with ICANN and some of whom participated in the original PDP on IGO-INGO-Red Cross-IOC protections – these would include the OECD, the UN, UPU, and WIPO.

With the publication two weeks ago of the small group’s recommendations (pdf) — which conflict with the expect GNSO recommendations — the battle lines were drawn for a fight at ICANN 57, which kicks off this week in Hyderabad, India.

Last Thursday, members of the GNSO Council, including WG chair Corwin, met telephonically with GAC chair Schneider, ICANN chair Steve Crocker and board small group lead Disspain to discuss possible ways forward.

What emerged is what Crocker would probably describe as a “knotty” situation. I’d describe it as a “process clusterfuck”, in which almost all the relevant parties appear to believe their hands are tied.

The GNSO Council feels its hands are tied for various reasons.

Council chair James Bladel explained that the GNSO Council doesn’t have the power to even enter substantive talks.

“[The GNSO Council is] not in a position to, or even authorized to, negotiate or compromise PDP recommendations that have been presented to use by a PDP working group and adopted by Council,” he said.

He went on to say that while the GNSO does have the ability to revisit PDPs, to do so would take years and undermine earlier hard-fought consensus and dissuade volunteers from participating in policy making. He said on the call:

By going back and revisiting PDPs we both undermine the work of the community and potentially could create an environment where folks are reluctant to participate in PDPs and just wait until a PDP is concluded and then get engaged at a later stage when they feel that the recommendations are more likely adopted either by the board or reconciled with GAC advice.

He added that contracted parties — registries and registrars — are only obliged to follow consensus policies that have gone through the PDP process.

Crocker and Disspain agreed that the the GAC and the GNSO appear to have their hands tied until the ICANN board makes a decision.

But its hands are also currently tied, because it only has the power to accept or reject GNSO recommendations and/or GAC advice, and it currently has neither before it.

Chair Crocker explained that the board is not able to simply impose any policy it likes — such as the small group recommendations, which have no real legitimacy — it’s limited to either rejecting whatever advice the GAC comes up with, rejecting whatever the GNSO Council approves, or rejecting both.

The GNSO WG hasn’t finished its work, though the GNSO Council is likely to approve it, and the GAC hasn’t considered the small group paper yet, though it is likely to endorse it it.

Crocker suggested that rejecting both might be the best way to get everyone around a table to try to reach consensus.

Indeed, it appears that there is no way, under ICANN’s processes, for these conflicting views to be reconciled formally at this late stage.

WG chair Corwin said that any attempt to start negotiating the issue before the WG has even finished its work should be “rejected out of hand”.

With the GNSO appearing to be putting up complex process barriers to an amicable way forward, GAC chair Schneider repeatedly stated that he was attempting to reach a pragmatic solution to the impasse.

He expressed frustration frequently throughout the call that there does not appear to be a way that the GAC’s wishes can be negotiated into a reality. It’s not even clear who the GAC should be talking to about this, he complained.

He sounds like he’s the sensible one, but remember he’s representing people who stubbornly refused to negotiate in the WG over the last two years.

Finally, he raised the specter of governments running off to the UN/ITU, something that historically has been able to put the willies up those who fully support (and in many cases make their careers out of) the ICANN multistakeholder model.

Here’s a lengthier chunk of what he said, taken from the official meeting transcript:

If it turns out that there’s no way to change something that has come out of the Policy Development Process, because formally this is not possible unless the same people would agree to get together and do the same thing over again, so maybe this is what it takes, that we need to get back or that the same thing needs to be redone with the guidance from the board.

But if then nobody takes responsibility to — in case that everybody agrees that there’s a public interest at stake here that has not been fully, adequately considered, what — so what’s the point of this institution asking governments for advice if there’s no way to actually follow up on that advice in the end?

So I’m asking quite a fundamental question, and I’m just urging you about considering what happens if many governments consider that the system does not work. They go to other institutions. They think we are not able to defend public interest in this institution. We need to go elsewhere. And this is exactly what is happening currently at the ITU Standardization Assembly, where we have discussions about protection of geographic names because — and I’m not saying this is legitimate or not — but because some governments have the feeling that this hasn’t been adequately addressed in the ICANN structure.

I’m really serious about this urge that we all work together to find solutions within ICANN, because the alternative is not necessarily better. And the world is watching what signals we give, and please be aware of that.

The “geographic names” issue that Schneider alludes to here seems to be a proposal (Word .doc) put forward by African countries and under discussion at the ITU’s WTSA 2016 meeting this week.

The proposal calls for governments to get more rights to oppose geographic new gTLD applications more or less arbitrarily.

It emerged not from any failure of ICANN policy — geographic names are already protected at the request of the GAC — but from Africa governments being pissed off that .africa is still on hold because DotConnectAfrica is suing ICANN in a California court and some batty judge granted DCA a restraining order.

It’s not really relevant to the IGO issue, nor especially relevant to the issue of governments failing to influence ICANN policy.

The key takeaway from Schneider’s remarks for me is that, despite assurances that the IANA transition was a way to bring more governments into the ICANN fold rather than seeking solace at the UN, that change of heart is yet to manifest itself.

The “I’m taking my ball and going home” threat seems to be alive and well for now.

If you made it this far but want more, the transcript of the call is here (pdf) and the audio is here (mp3). Good luck.