Belgium comes out against Donuts’ .spa bid

Kevin Murphy, April 15, 2014, Domain Policy

Belgium wants Donuts’ application for .spa rejected after the new gTLD applicant declined to sign a deal with the city of Spa.

In a March 20 letter to ICANN, published today, the Belgian deputy prime minister Johan Vande Lanotte said “negotiations between the stakeholders are closed”, adding that Belgium:

requests the Board of Directors of the ICANN to delegate the new “.spa” gTLD to the candidate who has a formal agreement with the local authorities of Spa and in respect of the public interest.

That’s the other applicant in the two-horse .spa race, Asia Spa and Wellness Promotion Council, which has promised to earmark up to 25% of its European profits to spa-related uses in the environs of Spa.

The letter was sent a week before the Governmental Advisory Committee issued its Singapore communique, which noncommittally noted that it “welcomes” the agreement between Spa and ASWPC.

ICANN may or may not be currently in receipt of firm, consensus GAC advice to accept or reject either of the remaining .spa applications.

In Beijing a year ago, the GAC put .spa on a list of gTLD strings where “further GAC consideration may be warranted” and asked ICANN to “not proceed beyond Initial Evaluation”.

At the Durban and Buenos Aires meetings last year the GAC said ICANN should not “proceed beyond initial evaluation until the agreements between the relevant parties are reached.”

Given that Donuts and Spa evidently cannot come to an agreement, ICANN presumably remains advised to keep one or both .spa applications on hold. The advice is pretty vague.

The string “spa” is not a geographic name within the rules of the new gTLD program. Donuts argues that it’s too generic nowadays to belong just to Spa.

Applicant claims “rogue” GAC rep killed its gTLD

Kevin Murphy, April 2, 2014, Domain Policy

The unsuccessful applicant for the .thai top-level domain has become the third new gTLD hopeful to file an Independent Review Process complaint against ICANN.

Better Living Management had its bid for the restricted, Thailand-themed TLD rejected by ICANN in November due to a consensus objection from the Governmental Advisory Committee.

Now the company claims that the Thailand GAC representative who led the charge against its bid has never been formally authorized to speak for the Thai government at ICANN.

BLM says it has sued Wanawit Ahkuputra, one of three Thailand GAC reps listed on the GAC’s web site, in Thailand and wants ICANN to unreject its application pending the case’s outcome.

In the IRP request, BLM claims that Ahkuputra was appointed to the GAC by previous rep Thaweesak Koanantakool without the authorization of the Thai government.

It further claims that while Koanantakool was “invited” by the Thai government to be Thailand’s GAC rep, he was never formally “appointed” to the role. He was “erroneously recruited by the GAC”, BLM alleges.

Following that logic, Ahkuputra could not claim to be a legitimate GAC rep either, BLM claims.

From the IRP alone it looks like a bit of a tenuous, semantics-based argument. Is there any real difference between “invited” and “appointed” in the platitude-ridden world of diplomacy?

Nevertheless, BLM claims that by pushing the rest of the GAC to object to the .thai bid at the ICANN Beijing meeting a year ago, Ahkuputra acted against the wishes of the Thai government.

BLM says it has letters of support from five Thai government ministries — including the one Koanantakool works for — all signed during the new gTLD application and evaluation periods in 2012 and 2013.

Those letters were apparently attached to its IRP complaint but have not yet been published by ICANN.

BLM says it has sued Koanantakool and Ahkuputra, asking a Thai court to force them to drop their objections to the .thai bid.

This is not the first time that an unsuccessful new gTLD applicant has alleged that a GAC member was not properly appointed. DotConnectAfrica has level similar accusations against Kenya.

DCA claims (pdf) that Alice Munyua spoke against its .africa application in the GAC on behalf of Kenya but against the wishes of Kenya, which DCA says did not oppose the bid.

However, ICANN and GAC chair Heather Dryden rubbished these claims in ICANN’s reply (pdf) to DCA’s complaint, citing evidence that Kenya did in fact oppose the application.

EU buys more time for .wine talks after surprise GAC objection

Kevin Murphy, March 27, 2014, Domain Policy

The ICANN Governmental Advisory Committee deposited a shock fly into the wine-related gTLD ointment tonight, asking ICANN to delay approval of .wine and .vin on a technicality.

ICANN’s board of directors had at the weekend basically approved the two new gTLDs, over the objections of the European Union, but the GAC today said the board’s decision hadn’t followed the rules.

In its communique (pdf) issued at the end of the just-concluded ICANN 49 meeting in Singapore, the GAC said: “In the final deliberation of the Board there appears to be at least one process violation and procedural error”.

The procedure in question is the part of the ICANN bylaws that says the GAC “shall have an opportunity to comment upon any external advice received prior to any decision by the Board.”

The GAC therefore advises:

That the Board reconsider the matter before delegating these strings.

The GAC needs to consider the above elements more fully. In the meantime concerned GAC members believe the applicants and interested parties should be encouraged to continue their negotiations with a view to reach an agreement on the matter.

The only “external advice” referenced in the ICANN decision on .wine was the legal opinion (pdf) of French law professor Jerome Passa.

Reading between the lines (I have not yet listened to all of the GAC’s public deliberations this week, so I’m speculating) it seems Passa’s opinion was not provided to the GAC before the ICANN board made its call.

I’m further assuming that the EU or one of its member states spotted the bylaws provision about external advice notice and cunningly used it to revive the .wine debate.

The GAC has declined to object to .wine and .vin because countries such as the US and Australia disagree with the EU’s position on the international law governing geographic indicators such as “Champagne”.

But no matter what other GAC members think about the European demands GI protections, it would have been very hard for them to argue in favor of an ICANN board decision that violated process.

Even if there’s very little chance of rustling up a consensus objection against these two gTLDs, the EU seems to have successfully added delay to the approval process, giving it leverage over the applicants.

I’m impressed.

While this may not change the eventual outcome, it at least buys the EU more time to negotiate with the .wine and .vin applicants about protection for geographic indicators.

This apparent oversight, coupled with the controversy this week about rights protection mechanisms for intergovernmental organizations, makes me wonder whether ICANN’s legal department might need a refresher course on the ICANN bylaws.

Or maybe, more likely, the bylaws are just such a bloody mess that even the smartest guys in the room can’t keep track of them any more.

Belgians do want a piece of Donuts’ new gTLD action

Kevin Murphy, March 16, 2014, Domain Policy

The Belgian government is blocking approval of Donuts’ bid for the new gTLD .spa until the company agrees to hand over up to 25% of its .spa profits to the community of the city of Spa.

It emerged in a letter from Spa published by ICANN this weekend that the city is also demanding a role in managing the TLD at the registry operator’s expense.

The gTLD has been applied for by Donuts and the Asia Spa and Wellness Promotion Council.

Not only does the string .spa match the name of the city, but also the English dictionary word “spa” is actually named after Spa, which has been known for centuries for its “healing” springs.

Despite this, Spa is not a capital city — it has roughly 10,000 inhabitants — so it does not qualify as a protected geographic string under the rules of ICANN’s new gTLD program.

Spa nevertheless wants a role in the TLD’s management, in order to protect the interests of itself and its local community, and wants some of the profits to benefit its local businesses.

According to the letter (pdf) from Spa outside attorney Phillippe Laurent, ASWPC has already signed a memorandum of understanding with the city. That MoU, published with the letter, states:

The turnover generated by the exploitation of the .SPA registry will be used in priority to defray reasonable out-of-pocket expenses incurred by the City as a result of its participation in the SPARC or any other of its activity related to the management and governance of the .SPA extension.

Additionally, 25% of the net profit generated by the domain names registered in the .SPA registry by any Belgian, Dutch, Luxembourgish, French or German person or entity will be earmarks to be contributed towards Internet and spa & wellness activities development in and for the City of Spa and its region, especially as related to the scope of the “.SPA” TLD, to be directed by the City of Spa.

The deal would also see ASWPC reserve 200 .spa domain names (included potential premiums such as poker.spa and golf.spa) for the city to do with as it pleases.

Donuts has refused to sign the MoU, saying it’s inconsistent with the Applicant Guidebook and sets a “bad precedent”. Spa has therefore refused to endorse its application.

The city has its national government on its side. In the April 2013 Beijing communique of the ICANN Governmental Advisory Committee, the GAC listed .spa as one of several bids needing “further consideration”.

This was reiterated in its Durban and Buenos communiques, with the GAC noting that “discussions” between “relevant parties” were “ongoing”.

Essentially, the GAC is delaying .spa from approval while Spa tries to get Donuts to agree to hand over part of its of .spa profits.

There was a somewhat testy exchange at the Buenos Aires meeting in November, after an ICANN director asked the GAC if it was appropriate for a governmental entity to try to get a financial benefit from an applicant.

The Belgian GAC representative responded later that “no money will flow to the city of Spa”, conceding that “a very small part of the profits of the registry will go to the community served by .spa”.

That now seems to be not entirely accurate.

The MoU sees Spa getting reimbursed for its self-imposed cost of inserting itself into the management of the registry, so some money will flow to it. But it will presumably be revenue-neutral to the city.

The issue of the 25% profit cut is a bit ambiguous though.

While the money would not flow directly into city coffers, the city would get the ability to direct how it was spent. Presumably, it could be spent on projects that Spa locals would otherwise look to the city to pay for.

With Donuts and Spa apparently at an impasse, ICANN recently told the GAC that it won’t sign contracts with either applicant, yet, but that it wants “a timeline for final consideration of the string”.

It also wants the GAC to “identify the ‘interested parties’ noted in the GAC advice.”

With Laurent’s letter and the MoU seemingly spelling out exactly what Spa wants and why, perhaps ICANN can move the issue closer to resolution at the Singapore meeting next week.

Is it a shakedown? Is it appropriate behavior for the GAC to hold an application hostage while it tries to obtain financial benefit for its local businesses? Or is Donuts unreasonably trying to exploit a city’s centuries-old cultural heritage for its own economic gain?

ICANN puts .islam and other gTLD bids in limbo

Kevin Murphy, February 8, 2014, Domain Policy

Or should that be Barzakh?

Rather than making the tricky decision on whether to approve .islam and .halal new gTLD applications, ICANN seems to have place both bids into permanent limbo.

It’s also put off calls on applications for .spa, .amazon, .wine and .vin, due to objections from the Governmental Advisory Committee.

On .islam and .halal, ICANN chair Steve Crocker wrote to Turkish applicant Asia Green IT System to say that the New gTLD Program Committee will not address the bids until AGIT has worked out its differences with the Organization for Islamic Cooperation.

He noted that AGIT has expressed a willingness in the past to work with the OIC, but that the OIC has formally decided to object to the two applications. Crocker wrote:

There seems to be a conflict between the commitments made in your letters and the concerns raised in letters to ICANN urging ICANN not to delegate the strings. Given these circumstances, the NGPC will not address the applications further until such time as the noted conflicts have been resolved.

This is not a formal rejection of the applications, but ICANN seems to have placed them in a limbo that will only be resolved when AGIT withdraws from the program or secures OIC support.

There’s also delaying treatment for .wine and .vin, which have become the subject of a raging row between Europe on the one hand and the US, Canada and Australia on the other.

Europe wants these two wine-related gTLDs to be subject to strict rules on who can register domains containing geographic indicators, such as “Champagne”. The others don’t.

ICANN in response has commissioned a third-party study on GIs, which it expects to be able to consider at its Singapore public meeting next month. Again, a decision has been avoided.

The two applicants for .spa don’t have any closure either.

Spa is the name of a town in Belgium, whereas the two applicants — Donuts and Asia Spa and Wellness Promotion Council — intend to use the string in its English dictionary sense.

There was a bit of a scandal during the Buenos Aires meeting last November when it was suggested that Belgium was using its position on the GAC to shake down the applicants for money.

Belgium denied this, saying the city of Spa didn’t stand to gain financially from the deals that it was trying to make with applicants. Some money would go to “the community served by .spa”, Belgium said, without elaboration.

ICANN has now decided to put .spa on hold, but wants to know more about these talks:

ICANN will not enter into registry agreements with applicants for the identified string at this time. The NGPC notes concern about concluding the discussions with the applicants and will request the GAC to (1) provide a timeline for final consideration of the string, and (2) identify the “interested parties” noted in the GAC advice.

Finally, ICANN has yet again delayed making a call on Amazon’s application for .amazon — until at least Singapore — out of an abundance of legal caution.

The GAC recommended that ICANN should reject .amazon because a few Latin American states claim ownership of the string due to it being the same as the Amazon region they share.

Amazon and others claim that it would be in violation of international law that prevents governments interfering with the use of trademarks for the GAC to block .amazon.

ICANN’s NGPC said:

ICANN has commissioned an independent, third-party expert to provide additional analysis on the specific issues of application of law at issue, which may focus on legal norms or treaty conventions relied on by Amazon or governments. The analysis is expected to be completed in time for the ICANN Singapore meeting so that the NGPC can consider it in Singapore.

In my view, the .amazon issue is the one most likely to bring a lawsuit to ICANN’s doorstep, so the organization clearly wants to get its legal position straight before making a call one way or the other.

All these decisions were made on Wednesday. You can read the NGPC’s resolution here and the important details here.