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Olympic showdown spells doom for ICANN, film at 11

Kevin Murphy, March 19, 2012, Domain Policy

ICANN’s 43rd public meeting, held in Costa Rica last week, was a relatively low-drama affair, with one small exception: the predicted death of ICANN’s Generic Names Supporting Organization.

The drama went down at the GNSO Council’s meeting last Wednesday – or “the day that everyone is going to remember as the downfall of the current GNSO Council” as vice-chair Jeff Neuman put it.

It had all the elements one might expect from an ICANN showdown: obscure rules of engagement, government meddling, special interests, delayed deadlines, whole oceans of acronym soup, commercial and non-commercial interests facing off against each other…

…and it was ultimately utterly, utterly pointless and avoidable.

The GNSO Council – which is responsible for forwarding community policies to ICANN’s board of directors – was asked to vote on a resolution giving special trademark protections to the International Olympic Committee and Red Cross and Red Crescent movements.

The resolution would have made it possible for the IOC/RC/RC organizations to apply for new gTLDs such as .olympic and .redcross while also disallowing confusingly similar strings from delegation.

The motion was created by a Drafting Team on the instruction of the ICANN board of directors, itself responding to a request from a heavily lobbied Governmental Advisory Committee.

The timing of the vote was crucial – the GNSO Council was not set to meet again until April 12, coincidentally the same date that ICANN stops accepting applications for new gTLDs.

If the vote didn’t happen last week, the IOC and Red Cross could have been basically banned from applying for new gTLDs until the second application round, years from now.

Confusingly similar strings would be eligible for delegation in the first round, however, which could mean both organizations would be locked out of the program permanently.

The resolution enjoyed broad support and was set to attract positive votes from every constituency group with the exception of the Non-Commercial Stakeholders Group.

The Non-Coms were unhappy that the Drafting Team recommendations underlying the resolution were, and still are, open for public comment.

While it’s not a unanimous view, they’re also ideologically opposed to the idea that the IOC and Red Cross should get special protection when a cheap way to object to confusing gTLDs already exists.

And the NCSG is far from alone in its concern that the decision to grant special privileges to these groups was a top-down decree from the ICANN board, lobbied for by the GAC.

Rather than simply voting “no”, however, the NCSG decided instead to force a deferral of the vote.

NCSG councilor Rafik Dammak said the resolution was “questionable on the merits and contrary to ICANN’s processes” and said the group had decided it had “no option but to defer this motion at least until the public comment period is closed”.

The GNSO Council has an unwritten but frequently used convention whereby any stakeholder group request to defer a vote until the next meeting is honored by the chair.

Barely a Council meeting goes by without one stakeholder group or another requesting a deferral. Usually, it’s requested to give a constituency group more time to study a proposal.

“The deferral request is intended to give people time to consider motions,” Council chair Stephane Van Gelder told Dammak. “The statement you just read is a statement against the motion itself.”

As Van Gelder noted, the NCSG did not have the usual excuse. Drafting Team chair Jeff Neuman had spent a few weeks prior to Costa Rica making damn sure that every stakeholder group, as well as the ICANN board, knew exactly what was coming down the pike.

As a veteran GNSO wonk, Neuman knew that a Non-Com deferral was likely. Even I predicted the move over a week before the Costa Rica meeting kicked off.

He was a little pissed off anyway. Neuman said:

For us to not be able to vote today is a failure. It’s a failure of the system under the guise of claiming you want more public comment. It’s a convenient excuse but in the end it’s a failure – nothing more, nothing less. This is a slap in the face to the governments that have asked us to decide.

You already know how you’re going to vote, it’s clear the vote is going to be no, so why don’t you stand behind your vote and vote now and vote no. That is what you really should be doing.

I want everyone to remember today – March 14, 2012 – because it this is the day that everyone going to remember as the downfall of the current GNSO Council as we know it and the policy process as we know it. Mark my words, it will happen. The GAC has asked us to act and we have failed to do so.

See? Drama.

Neuman noted that the deferral tradition is an unwritten politeness and called for the Council to vote to reject the NCSG’s request – an unprecedented move.

Van Gelder was clearly uncomfortable with the idea, as were others.

NCSG councilor Bill Drake said Neuman’s call for a vote on the deferral was “absolutely astonishing”.

“I never would have imagined I could say ‘well I don’t like this, this annoys me’ and so I’m going to demand we get a vote together and try to penalize a minority group that’s standing alone for some principle,” he said. “If that’s how we going to go about conducting ourselves perhaps this is the end of the Council.”

The Non-Com position also found support from other constituencies.

While Mason Cole of the Registrars Stakeholder Group said he would have voted in favor of the resolution, he said the way the policy was created looked like “a circumvention of the bottom-up policy development process”.

To cut a long story short (too late), after a spirited debate that lasted over an hour Van Gelder honored the NCSG deferral request, saying “something that we’ve always allowed in the past for everyone else should not be overturned in this instance”.

This would have pushed the vote out to the April 12 meeting — the NCSG would have effectively killed off the resolution purely by virtue of the new gTLD program timetable.

Neuman, however, had already invoked another quirk of the GNSO rules of engagement, demanding an emergency Council teleconference to vote on the resolution.

That’s now scheduled for March 26. Assuming the resolution is approved, the ICANN board will have just three days to rubber-stamp it before ICANN’s TLD Application System stops accepting new users.

If the Olympic or Red Cross organizations have any plans to apply for new gTLDs matching their brands, they’re going to have to be very quick.

Frankly, the IOC/RC issue has been a bit of a clusterfuck from beginning to end. This is one of those cases, it seems to me, in which every party involved is wrong.

The GAC was wrong to demand unnecessary special protections for these bodies back in June.

The ICANN board of directors was wrong to overturn established bottom-up policy when it gave the GAC what it wanted at the Singapore meeting.

The ICANN staff implementation that made it into the Applicant Guidebook last September was wrong and full of loopholes.

The Drafting Team was wrong (albeit through no fault of its own) to assume that it was refining established law rather than legislating.

The GNSO Council was wrong to consider a resolution on a policy that was still open for public comment.

The Non-Coms were wrong to abuse the goodwill of the Council by deferring the vote tactically.

There are probably a few typos in this article, too.

But does it spell the end of the GNSO?

I don’t think so. I suspect Neuman’s doomsaying theatrics may have also been somewhat tactical.

The GAC, which wields the hypothetical kill-stick, has yet to say anything about the drama. This may change if the GAC doesn’t get what it wants by the Prague meeting in June, but for now the GNSO is, I believe, safe.

UDRP reform put on hold for four years

Kevin Murphy, December 20, 2011, Domain Policy

ICANN’s cybersquatting rules, including the Uniform Dispute Resolution Policy, will be reviewed and possibly reformed, but probably not until 2016 at the earliest.

The Generic Names Supporting Organization Council voted last Thursday to put the start of UDRP reform on hold until 18 months after the first new top-level domains go live.

The review will also take into account other cybersquatting policies including Uniform Rapid Suspension, which will be binding on all new gTLD registries but has yet to be be tested.

This is the relevant part of the resolution:

the GNSO Council requests a new Issue Report on the current state of all rights protection mechanisms implemented for both existing and new gTLDs, including but not limited to, the UDRP and URS, should be delivered to the GNSO Council by no later than eighteen (18) months following the delegation of the first new gTLD.

An Issue Report is compiled by ICANN staff and often leads to a Policy Development Process that creates policies binding on registries, registrars and ultimately registrants.

Because the first new gTLDs are not expected to be delegated until the first quarter of 2013 at the earliest, the Issue Report would not be delivered until half way through 2014.

After ICANN public comment and analysis, the GNSO Council would be unlikely to kick off a PDP until the first half of 2015. The PDP itself could take months or years to complete.

In short, if UDRP is going to be reformed, we’re unlikely to see the results until 2016.

The Council resolution, which was in line with Governmental Advisory Committee advice, was proposed by the registries, following many months of ICANN public outreach and discussion.

Non-commercial users in the GNSO were most strongly in favor of an accelerated timetable, but a request to reduce the 18-month breather to a year failed to find support.

The Intellectual Property Constituency had proposed an amendment that would have kicked off the process after 100 UDRP and 100 URS cases had been heard in new gTLDs, rather than after a specified time, but the motion was defeated.

Full UDRP reform unlikely until 2017

Kevin Murphy, October 4, 2011, Domain Policy

The often-criticized Uniform Dispute Resolution Policy is unlikely to see fundamental changes for at least five years, following an ICANN review published yesterday.

ICANN has recommended, after talking to the community, that full UDRP reform should be put on the back-burner until at least a year and a half after the first new gTLDs go live.

Since that isn’t likely to happen until early 2013, ICANN is unlikely to address the subject until mid-2014. The chances of a revamped UDRP going live before 2017 are therefore slim.

The new Final Issue Report (pdf), prepared by ICANN staff and sent to the GNSO Council yesterday, says:

Staff recommends that a [Policy Development Process] on the UDRP not be initiated at this time. Staff recommends that a PDP be delayed until after the New gTLD Uniform Rapid Suspension System (URS) has been in operation for at least eighteen months. Doing so would allow the policy process to be informed by data regarding the effectiveness of the URS, which was modelled on the UDRP, to address the problem of cybersquatting.

The report was informed by a number of stakeholder webinars and questionnaires sent to UDRP providers earlier this year, as well as a round of public comments.

It notes that UDRP has remained the same since October 1999, but that it still has proved flexible enough to react to changes in the domain industry and cybersquatting tactics.

The report states:

After carefully evaluating the issues and concerns expressed by the ICANN community regarding the UDRP, Staff has concluded that many relate to process issues associated with the implementation of the UDRP, rather than the language of the policy itself.

In the absence of root-and-branch reform, ICANN has suggested the formation of an “expert panel” to investigate whether smaller changes could be made to the periphery of the UDRP.

It could, for example, look at amendments to the Supplemental Rules that UDRP providers use to handle complaints and responses. ICANN wrote:

To the extent that these expert recommendations result in modifications to certain of the UDRP Rules or suggested changes for provider Supplemental Rules to align with the UDRP Rules, these may be adopted by the ICANN Board without the necessity of undertaking a complete PDP.

Consultations have shown that there’s little appetite for massive reform from either side of the debate; it’s probably not too cynical to say that the status quo will be maintained largely by paranoia.

Trademark holders would ideally prefer a cheaper, faster system that is more accommodating to their own interests, whereas domain investors would like to see an end to forum-shopping and panelists who give too much deference to big business.

But both sides are terrified that the actual process of reforming UDRP would be captured by their opponents, ultimately tilting the balance of power against their own interests.

The trademark lobby is convinced that ICANN policy-development is the plaything of the domain name industry, and vice versa.

What we’re left with is a system where cybersquatting still pays and in which reverse domain hijacking can sometimes be a cheap way to get your hands on a domain you want.

And it looks like it could stay that way for some time to come.

The Final Issue Report now needs to be considered by the GNSO Council, presumably at its public meeting in Dakar, Senegal later this month.

I think the Council will almost certainly accept the report’s recommendations against a PDP with little argument – everybody has far too much other stuff to be worrying about at the moment.

It’s less clear to me whether the idea of an “expert panel” will find favor, however. That may be one of Dakar’s more interesting open questions.

Poor nation support crucial to new TLD talks

Kevin Murphy, May 23, 2011, Domain Policy

Whether to provide discounts for new top-level domain applicants from poor countries has become a critical obstacle in the process of getting ICANN’s new gTLD program approved.

Not only are its policy-making bodies going through a bout of infighting over proposals to help developing nations, but it is also being seen as a “major political risk” to ICANN’s global credibility.

Sources say that the Governmental Advisory Committee is increasingly concerned that a lack of support for poorer nations could used to bash the gTLD program and discredit ICANN itself.

There are fears that the Group of 77 could use the perception that ICANN works primarily for the benefit of the developed world to push for more UN-based governmental control of the internet.

These concerns were apparently raised during the ICANN Board-GAC teleconference on Friday, and will continue to be discussed in the run-up to the Singapore meeting.

Merely applying for a new gTLD will cost a minimum of $185,000 in direct ICANN fees, potentially rising dramatically in the case of complex or contested applications.

That sum also excludes the many more hundreds of thousands of dollars required to create an application that meets ICANN’s stringent financial and technical stability demands.

Many have estimated that an application for a new gTLD could require an first-year outlay of easily over $1 million.

Unsurprisingly, this may exclude applicants from poorer nations, particularly non-profit and community-based initiatives.

There’s a worry that if support mechanisms are not in place for the first round of applications, culturally or commercially valuable IDN gTLDs will get snapped up by wealthy western companies.

Warning: More Acronyms Ahead

To come up with solutions to this problem, ICANN in April 2010 asked for what is now called the “Joint SO/AC Working Group on New gTLD Applicant Support” – JAS for short.

JAS was chartered by, and comprised of members of, the Generic Names Supporting Organization and the At Large Advisory Committee, two of ICANN’s policy bodies.

Earlier this month, JAS submitted its draft second milestone report (pdf) was submitted to the ICANN board. It’s more of a collection of ideas than a structured framework for applicant support.

It calls for, among other things, fees and financial commitments reduced by as much as three quarters for applicants from about 50 poor nations, if they can show they are (essentially) worthy and needy.

It also suggests that such applicants could have their requirements to support the new DNSSEC and IPv6 technologies from day one – which would raise start-up costs – eliminated.

Unfortunately, the GNSO and ALAC apparently had quite different expectations about what the JAS would produce, and since January the group has been working under a split charter.

Registries and registrars were (and are) worried that JAS was going too far when it recommended, for example, discounted application fees.

Because ICANN has priced applications on a cost-recovery basis, there’s a real concern that discounts for poor applicants will translate into higher fees for wealthier applicants.

Broadly, it’s an example of the usual tensions between commercial domain name industry stakeholders and other groups playing out through quite arcane due process/jurisdictional arguments.

For the last couple of weeks, this has manifested itself as a row about the fact that JAS submitted its report the report was submitted to the ICANN board before it was approved by the GNSO.

Mind The GAC

If it’s the case, as sources say, that the GAC is urgently pressing for applicant support measures to be available in the first round of new gTLD applications, this puts another question mark over ICANN’s ability to approve the Applicant Guidebook in Singapore a month from now.

The GAC “scorecard” of problematic issues has since November stated that ICANN should adopt the findings of the JAS.

But today the JAS is nowhere near producing a comprehensive solution to the problem. Its recommendations as they stand are also unlikely to attract broad support from registry/registrar stakeholders.

Many of its current suggestions are also highly complex, calling for ICANN to establish special funds, staggered payment or repayment programs and additional applicant background checks.

They would take time to implement.

There’s been some talk about the idea that ICANN could approve the Applicant Guidebook before the JAS work is complete, but I’m not sure how realistic that is or whether it would receive the GAC blessing.

If the GAC is worried that ICANN’s very legitimacy could be at risk if it goes ahead with the program before the developing world is catered for, we could be looking at another big roadblock.

Two-horse race for ICANN board seat

Kevin Murphy, April 24, 2011, Domain Policy

A seat on ICANN’s board of directors opens up in June, and two people have been nominated to fill it.

Avri Doria and Bill Graham will face a ballot to see who will replace Rita Rodin Johnson, whose term expires at the end of ICANN’s Singapore meeting, June 24.

It’s not an open ballot, of course. The seat is designated to be occupied by a member of ICANN’s Generic Names Supporting Organization’s Non-Contracted Parties House.

That’s basically the half of the GNSO policy-making body made up of representatives of organizations that are not domain name registrars or registries — they have no contracts with ICANN.

Doria works at a Swedish university. She sits in the Non-Commercial Stakeholders Group, and is a former chair of the GNSO Council.

Graham was once Canada’s representative on and vice-chair of ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee, and is now head of strategic global engagement at the Internet Society.

Only 13 members of the NCPH get to vote. Whichever candidate receives eight votes or more, wins.