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ICANN sets March deadline for new TLDs

Kevin Murphy, January 28, 2011, Domain Registries

ICANN appears determined to put debates about its new top-level domains program to bed at its San Francisco meeting in March.

The resolutions from Tuesday’s ICANN board meeting, published this evening, give every indication that ICANN wants an end to the delays.

This seems to mean it will take a hard line with its Governmental Advisory Committee, with which it is due to meet in Brussels at the end of February.

The board resolved that it “intends to progress toward launching the New gTLD Program, as close as practically possible to the form as set out in the Proposed Final Applicant Guidebook.”

It remains open, however, to take action on the GAC’s concerns, which include trademark protection and the treatment of geographic strings.

It wants the final GAC consultation, which is mandated by its bylaws, to take place March 17, the day before the board meets in San Francisco.

This is encouraging news for anybody who wants to apply for a new TLD, as it means ICANN would be able to launch the program shortly thereafter.

If that happens, it could be able to start accepting applications possibly as early as mid-July (although a late-August/early September window may be more likely).

More on this tomorrow.

.XXX demands approval in Brussels

Kevin Murphy, January 25, 2011, Domain Registrars

ICM Registry has called on ICANN to quickly give final approval to its .xxx top-level domain contract after its meeting with governments next month.

Company president Stuart Lawley, in a letter to ICANN (pdf), said ICM has “invested extraordinary resources” in its TLD proposal and has waited almost seven years to get into the DNS root.

Its hopes of getting the nod from ICANN’s board of directors in Cartagena last month were dashed, when it was decided that a final consultation with the Governmental Advisory Committee was required.

That consultation is set to take place in Brussels at the end of February (although ICANN’s announcement of the meeting last Friday conspicuously made no mention of .xxx).

Lawley writes:

ICM Registry urges the ICANN Board to fulfill its explicit commitments to ICM Registry and to the ICANN community, and to uphold the integrity of the ICANN process by conducting and completing its consultations with the GAC

Neither ICM Registry nor the ICANN community can be expected to stand by while ICANN allows yet another self-imposed deadline on this matter to come and go without a plausible explanation.

The letter notes that it’s almost a year since ICANN’s Independent Review Panel told the organization that, despite its protestations to the contrary, .xxx had already been approved.

Lawley tells me ICM is spending, on average, $100,000 a month to keep the company ticking over. He believes that the proposed registry contract has dealt with all of the GAC’s concerns.

The one concern it will never be able to avoid, of course, is that .xxx is for porn, and there are plenty of governments (be they Middle Eastern theocracies, communist Asian states or conservative Western democracies) opposed to porn in principle.

The GAC said in an official Communique in 2006 that “several members of the GAC are emphatically opposed from a public policy perspective to the introduction of a .xxx sTLD.”

As far as I can tell, that’s pretty much the only major stumbling block remaining before ICM can sign a registry contract.

UK GAC rep Mark Carvell told me yesterday that the GAC believes the 2006 statement constitutes “advice” that ICANN is duty-bound to take into account, even though it was not a consensus GAC position.

In my opinion, ICANN has no choice but to disregard this advice.

If we suddenly start living in a world where the public policies of a handful of backward nations are sufficient to veto a TLD, then we may as well pack up the whole internet and move it to Saudi Arabia or Utah.

Governments to take trademark concerns to ICANN

Kevin Murphy, January 24, 2011, Domain Registries

ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee will head to Brussels next month determined to persuade ICANN to strengthen the trademark protections in its new top-level domains program.

The GAC is set to take many of the concerns of the trademark lobby to its meeting with ICANN’s board of directors, UK GAC representative Mark Carvell said in an interview today.

“It’s very important that the interests of trademark holders are fully respected and that the costs that might flow to them are mitigated as much as possible,” he said.

“Their interests should not be undermined in any way that creates unnecessary burdens for them – it interferes with trade, business development and so on.”

The GAC is currently working on 12 “scorecards” that enumerate its concerns with the Applicant Guidebook for new TLDs, as well as more “overarching” issues with the program.

Carvell has been charged with writing the scorecard on trademark protection. He recently met with several large brand interests in London, as World Trademark Review reported last week.

I get the impression that the GAC’s position will be less hard-line than some of the IP lawyers WTR quoted, who want a wholesale return to their proposals of two years ago.

One protection the IP lobby wants restored to the Guidebook is the Globally Protected Marks List, which would take a lot of the cost out of defensive registrations in new TLDs.

The GPML was proposed by brand holders, but did not make it into the current version of the Guidebook.

“Whether we can simply go back to that, I doubt, but we may discuss it,” Carvell said. “I’d be hesitant to simply revert to a set of proposals that did not get full support.”

He added that protections granted in the launches of .eu and .co – which had a Specially Protected Marks List similar to the GPML – could also provide the basis for discussion.

Another protection, the Uniform Rapid Suspension policy, designed to allow trademark holders to quickly block blatant cases of cybersquatting, has been watered down quite a lot since its first iteration.

“The URS does not achieve its original objectives,” Carvell said. The GAC will push for it to be strengthened, not fundamentally revisited, he said.

“We don’t want the Trademark Clearinghouse completely remodeled, we’re not looking for the URS to be totally reshaped, we want to work with ICANN to improve these mechanisms,” he said.

The two-day Brussels meeting, scheduled for February 28, will not all be about trademarks, of course. Other issues include geographical name protection and the treatment of “controversial” strings.

There’s a feeling in some parts of the GAC that TLDs deemed so controversial they they are likely to be blocked by certain nations (think .sex, .gay etc) should be given an “early warning” dissuading them from continuing with their applications.

Unsurprisingly (given its role in overseeing the DNS root) but ironically (given its First Amendment) it is the US GAC representative who has been assigned work on this particular scorecard.

It seems to me that the list of concerns the GAC will take to Brussels is going to be quite substantial. We’re likely not talking about only minor edits to the Guidebook.

While ICANN may feel under some pressure to officially launch the new TLDs program at the close of its splashy San Francisco meeting in March, it’s my growing feeling that this may not be realistic.

If the GAC gets even half of what it intends to ask for, ICANN’s rules could well call for another public comment period before it can sign off on the Applicant Guidebook.

Carvell said that the GAC is very sensitive to the concerns of applicants, eager to launch their TLDs, saying the GAC has been placed “in a very unfortunate position”.

“Nobody wants this to go beyond San Francisco,” he said. “One would hope not, but we can’t rule out that possibility.”

He suggested that some of the GAC’s issues could be deferred in the interests of timing.

Trademark and geographic string protections refer directly to the content of the Guidebook, but other issues, such as economic analysis and supporting applications from developing countries, do not.

“It may be that some of these issues could be further explored and discussed in parallel with the launch,” he said, noting that there’s a four-month buffer period envisioned between the approval of the Guidebook and the opening of the first round of applications.

New TLDs may face more GAC delay

Kevin Murphy, January 22, 2011, Domain Registries

ICANN has finally confirmed the date for its groundbreaking meeting with its Governmental Advisory Committee, and it doesn’t look like great news for new top-level domain applicants.

The GAC and ICANN’s board of directors will meet for a two-day consultation in Brussels, starting February 28, according to an announcement late yesterday.

Attendees will be tasked with identifying the problems the GAC still has with the Applicant Guidebook, and trying to resolve as many as possible.

The devil is in the detail, however. ICANN stated:

This meeting is not intended to address the requirements/steps outlined in the Bylaws mandated Board-GAC consultation process.

This means that, post-Brussels, a second GAC consultation will be required before the ICANN board will be able to approve the Guidebook.

Under ICANN’s bylaws, when it disagrees with the GAC, it has to first state its reasons, and then they must “try, in good faith and in a timely and efficient manner, to find a mutually acceptable solution.”

ICANN appears to have now confirmed that it has not yet invoked this part of the bylaws, and that Brussels will not be the “mutually acceptable solution” meeting.

The best case scenario, if you’re an impatient new TLD applicant, would see the second consultation take place during the San Francisco meeting, which kicks off March 13.

The board would presumably have to convene a special quickie meeting, in order to officially invoke the bylaws, at some point during the two weeks between Brussels and San Francisco.

That scenario is not impossible, but it’s not as desirable as putting the GAC’s concerns to bed in Brussels, which is what some applicants had hoped and expected.

The GAC is currently writing up a number of “scorecards” that enumerate its outstanding concerns with the Guidebook.

Mark Carvell, the UK representative, has been tasked with writing the scorecard for trademark protection. Other scorecards will likely also discuss, for example, the problem of objecting to TLD applications on “morality and public order” grounds.

ICANN’s board, meanwhile, is due to meet this coming Tuesday to agree upon the “rules of engagement” for handling disagreements with the GAC under its bylaws.

When these rules are published, we should have a better idea of how likely a San Francisco approval of the Applicant Guidebook is.

Surprisingly, the ICANN announcement yesterday makes no mention of ICM Registry’s .xxx TLD application, which is the only area where the board has officially invoked the bylaws with regards the GAC’s objections.

The Brussels meeting, ICANN said, will be open to observers, transcribed live, and webcast.

ICANN given 27 New Year’s resolutions

Kevin Murphy, January 3, 2011, Domain Policy

There’s a pretty big shake-up coming to ICANN in 2011, following the publication late last week of a report outlining 27 ways it should reform its power structures.

The final recommendations of its Accountability and Transparency Review Team (pdf) notably direct the organization to figure out its “dysfunctional” relationship with governments once and for all.

ICANN will also have to revamp how it decides who sits on its board of directors, when its staff can make unilateral decisions, how the voices of stakeholders are heard, and how its decisions can be appealed.

The ATRT report was developed, independently, as one of ICANN’s obligations under its Affirmation of Commitments with the US government’s Department of Commerce.

As such, ICANN is pretty much bound to adopt its findings. But many are written in such a way to enable some flexibility in their implementation.

The report covers four broad areas of reform, arguably the most important of which is ICANN’s relationship with its Governmental Advisory Committee.

As I’ve previously noted, ICANN and the GAC have a major stumbling block when it comes to effective communication due mainly to the fact that they can’t agree on what GAC “advice” is.

This has led, most recently, to delays with the TLD program, and with ICM Registry’s application for .xxx.

The ATRT report tells ICANN and the GAC to define “advice” before March this year.

It also recommends the opening of more formalized communications channels, so ICANN can tell the GAC when it needs advice, and on what topics, and the GAC can respond accordingly.

The report stops short of telling ICANN to follow GAC advice on a “mandatory” basis, as had been suggested by at least one GAC member (France).

The ICANN will still be able to overrule the GAC, but it will do so in a more formalized way.

ICANN’s public comment forums also look set for a rethink.

The ATRT report recommends, among other things, separating comment periods into at least two flavors and two phases, giving different priorities to different stages of policy development.

It could also could break out comment periods into two segments, to give commentators the chance to, in a second phase, rebut the earlier comments of others.

The three ICANN appeals processes (its Ombudsman, the Reconsideration Request process and the Independent Review Process) are also set for review.

The ATRT group wants ICANN to, before June, hire “a committee of independent experts” to figure out whether these procedures can be make cheaper, quicker and more useful.

The IRP, for example, is pretty much a rich man’s appeals process. The Ombudsman is seen as too cozy with ICANN to be an effective avenue for complaints. And the Reconsideration Request process has too many strict prerequisites to make it a useful tool.

The report includes a recommendation that ICANN should, in the next six months, clarify under what circumstances its is able to make decisions without listening to bottom-up consensus first:

The Board should clarify, as soon as possible but no later than June 2011 the distinction between issues that are properly subject to ICANN’s policy development processes and those matters that are properly within the executive functions performed by the ICANN staff and Board

ICANN has also been told to address how it selects its directors, with emphasis on:

identifying the collective skill-set required by the ICANN Board including such skills as public policy, finance, strategic planning, corporate governance, negotiation, and dispute resolution.

Other the recommendations themselves, the ATRT spends part of its 200-page report moaning about how little time (about nine months) it had to carry out its work, and how little importance some ICANN senior staff seemed to give to the process.

All of the 27 recommendations are expected to be implemented over the next six months. The report is currently open for public comment here.

ICANN sets date for GAC showdown

Kevin Murphy, December 23, 2010, Domain Registries

ICANN and its Governmental Advisory Committee will meet for two days of talks on the new top-level domains program in Geneva from February 28, according to GNSO chair Stephane Van Gelder.

As well as the Applicant Guidebook (AGB) for new TLDs, the meeting is also expected to address the GAC’s outstanding concerns with the .xxx TLD application.

While I’d heard Geneva touted as a possible location, this is the first time I’ve heard a firm date put to it. As well as Van Gelder, other sources have heard the same date.

Talks ending March 1 would give ICANN less than two weeks before its public meeting in San Francisco kicks off to get the AGB into GAC-compatible shape before the board votes to approve it.

Is that a realistic timeframe? I guess that will depend on how the GAC meeting goes, the depths of the concessions ICANN decides to make, how receptive the GAC is to compromise, and whether it is felt that more public comment is needed.

Also, as I speculated last week, ICANN may have to officially invoke the part of its bylaws that deals with GAC conflicts, which it does not yet appear to have done, if it wants to approve the Guidebook at the end of the San Francisco meeting in March.

If the program is approved in March, that would likely lead to applications opening in August.

There’s likely to be one ICANN board meeting between now and Geneva – its first meeting of the year is usually held in late January or early February – so there’s still time for ICANN to make changes to AGB based on public comment, and to get its process ducks in a row.

There’s also plenty of time for the GAC to provide its official wish-list or “scorecard” of AGB concerns, which I believe it has not yet done.

Van Gelder also wonders on his blog whether the Geneva meeting will take place in the open or behind closed doors.

ICANN’s director of media affairs, Brad White, put this question to ICANN chair Peter Dengate Thrush during a post-Cartagena interview. This was his answer:

We haven’t actually resolved the rules of engagement with the GAC on this particular meeting but the standard position for all organizations within ICANN is that they are open… On the other hand if at any point think we the negotiation could be assisted by a period of discussing things in private I guess we could consider that.

That looks like a “maybe” to me.

What next for new TLDs? Part 4 – GAC Concerns

Kevin Murphy, December 15, 2010, Domain Policy

Like or loathe the decision, ICANN’s new top-level domains program appears to have been delayed again.

But for how long? And what has to happen now before ICANN starts accepting applications?

In short, what the heck happened in Cartagena last week?

In this four-part post, I will attempt an analysis of the various things I think need to happen before the Applicant Guidebook (AGB) is approved.

In this fourth post, I will look at areas of the AGB that the Governmental Advisory Committee is still concerned about.

GAC Concerns

The GAC’s laundry list of objections and concerns has grown with every official Communique it has released during an ICANN public meeting over the last few years.

While it has not yet published its official “scorecard” of demands for the home-stretch negotiations, it has released a list of 11 points (pdf) it wants to discuss with the board.

These 11 points can be grouped into a smaller number of buckets: objections and disputes procedures, trademark protection, registry-registrar separation, and the treatment of geographical names.

I wrote about the trademark issue in part one of this post.

The GAC appears to have adopted many of the arguments of the IP lobby – it thinks the AGB does not currently do enough to ensure the costs to business of new TLDs will be minimized – so we might expect that to be a major topic of discussion at the GAC-Board retreat in February.

I’ll be interested to hear what it has to say about registry-registrar separation.

The GAC has been pushing for some looser cross-ownership restrictions, in order to foster competition, since 2007, and most recently in September.

It has previously been in favor of restrictions on “insider” companies with market power, but for a more relaxed environment for new entrants (such as “community” TLDs that may largely operate under agreements with their local governments).

This position looks quite compatible with ICANN’s new vertical integration policy, to me, so I’m not sure where the GAC’s concerns currently lie.

The issue of disputes and objections may be the trickiest one.

The GAC basically wants a way for its members to block “controversial” TLD applications on public policy grounds, without having to pay fees.

The “Rec6” policy, previously known as “morality and public order objections” is one of the issues the ICANN board has specifically acknowledged is Not Closed.

This is from its Cartagena resolution:

Discussions will continue on (1) the roles of the Board, GAC, and ALAC in the objection process, (2) the incitement to discrimination criterion, and (3) fees for GAC and ALAC-instigated objections. ICANN will take into account public comment including the advice of the GAC, and looks forward to receiving further input from the working group in an attempt to close this issue.

GAC members on the Rec6 working group repeatedly highlighted objection fees as a deal-breaker – governments don’t want to have to pay to object to TLD applications.

This appears to been cast as some kind of sovereignty-based matter of principle, although I suppose it could just as easily be an “in this economic climate” budgeting concern.

ICANN’s position is that the GAC as a whole can object for free, but that individual governments have to pay. Fees for some objection procedures will run into tens of thousands of dollars.

The GAC also has beef with the AGB’s treatment of geographic strings.

This is an area where ICANN says the AGB already “substantially reflects the views of the ICANN community” but intends to take GAC comments into account.

ICANN has already made substantial concessions on the geographic names issue, but there may still be a few loopholes through which territory names could slip through the net and be approved without the endorsement of their local governments.

Finally, the GAC wants to include amendments to the Registrar Accreditation Agreement, previously recommended by law enforcement agencies, in the AGB discussion.

The appears to have come completely out of the blue, without any direct relevance to the new TLD program.

It’s a long list covering a lot of issues, and it could get longer when the GAC publishes its official “scorecard”. We’ll have to wait and see.

What next for new TLDs? Part 3 – The .xxx Factor

Kevin Murphy, December 14, 2010, Domain Registries

Like or loathe the decision, ICANN’s new top-level domains program appears to have been delayed again.

But for how long? And what has to happen now before ICANN starts accepting applications?

In short, what the heck happened in Cartagena last week?

In this four-part post, I will attempt an analysis of the various things I think need to happen before the Applicant Guidebook (AGB) is approved.

In this third post, I will look at the state of play with the .xxx TLD application, and what that means for the new TLD process.

The .xxx Factor

At some time in February, the ICANN board and its Governmental Advisory Committee plan to meet (possibly in Geneva) to discuss both the AGB and the .xxx TLD proposal.

While these are two separate issues, how .xxx is being handled may have an impact on the timetable for the AGB’s approval.

Let’s first look at what’s happening with .xxx.

As you will have almost certainly already read, the ICANN board resolved on Friday that it “intends to approve” .xxx, despite GAC advice that may be to the contrary.

The ICANN-GAC power structure is governed by an 11-point charter in ICANN’s bylaws. The last two points, J and K, deal with what happens when the two parties disagree.

Under what, for the sake of brevity, I’m going to call “GAC-J” (instead of “ICANN Bylaws section Article XI, Section 2, Paragraph 1(j)”), ICANN has to call a meeting with the GAC when it plans to disregard GAC advice.

Specifically, if the ICANN board “determines to take an action” that is not consistent with GAC advice, it has to “inform” the GAC, stating why it decided to not follow the advice, then “try, in good faith and in a timely and efficient manner, to find a mutually acceptable solution”.

GAC-J has, to the best of my knowledge, never been invoked before. There isn’t even a procedure in place for handling this kind of official consultation.

But on Friday, the board stated that it intends to not follow the GAC’s advice on the .xxx application and “hereby invokes the consultation as provided for in ICANN Bylaws section Article XI, Section 2, Paragraph 1(j).”

Now that GAC-J has been invoked, the GAC and board will meet to find their “mutually acceptable solution”.

Should such a solution prove elusive, the ICANN board has to make a final decision, stating why it has disregarded the GAC’s advice. That’s handled by what I’ll call GAC-K.

What does all this have to do with new TLDs and the timetable for the publication and approval of the final Applicant Guidebook?

As ICM Registry president Stuart Lawley pointed out in a comment on CircleID, the procedures being created to resolve the .xxx dispute could very well soon be applied to the AGB.

As Lawley points out, ICANN has not yet put the GAC on notice that it plans to disagree with any of the 11 concerns outlined in the Cartagena GAC Communique.

While the Communique “assumes” ICANN has invoked GAC-J with regards new TLDs, the board has not explicitly done so.

This is uncharted territory, but I think it’s possible that this oversight (if it is an oversight) has the potential to add latency to the new AGB approval timetable.

ICANN might be well-advised to pass a resolution officially invoking GAC-J before the February bilateral meeting, in order to turn it into a bylaws-compatible consultation.

As long as it invokes the bylaws before March, the San Francisco meeting will be able to host a GAC-Board consultation under the terms of GAC-J, enabling the AGB to be approved that week.

If ICANN does not take either of these options, the GAC will be able (if it wants to be a pain) to further delay the process by demanding another inter-sessional consultation, like it just did in Cartagena.

I’ll discuss the GAC’s actual concerns in the fourth part of this post.

What next for new TLDs? Part 2 – The GAC Bottleneck

Kevin Murphy, December 14, 2010, Domain Registries

Like or loathe the decision, ICANN’s new top-level domains program appears to have been delayed again.

But for how long? And what has to happen now before ICANN starts accepting applications?

In short, what the heck happened in Cartagena last week?

In this four-part post, I will attempt an analysis of the various things I think need to happen before the Applicant Guidebook (AGB) is approved.

In this second post I will look at the process problems presented by ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee.

The GAC Bottleneck

The main meta-story of Cartagena was ICANN’s turbulent relationship with its Governmental Advisory Committee, which is either maturing or (less likely) heading to towards a shattering collision.

The two big proposals that were widely expected to get the ICANN board’s nod last Friday – the new TLD final Applicant Guidebook and the .xxx TLD – were both delayed in whole or part by the GAC.

It’s become abundantly clear that the overall ICANN decision-making process has become subject to what I’m going to call the GAC Bottleneck.

If ICANN is serious about getting things done to its desired timetable in future, it will need to start paying attention to the GAC much earlier and much more seriously.

There’s been a failure to communicate over the last several years, the inherently problematic results of which were clearly embodied in sessions last Monday in which the GAC and the ICANN board discussed the definition of “advice”.

If there’s an “advisory” committee, and neither the committee nor the body its “advises” knows what “advice” means, that’s a pretty big stumbling block to constructive dialogue, which helps nobody.

The GAC believes that this historic uncertainty is the main reason why the new TLD program has hit an impasse at this late stage in the process.

The official Cartagena GAC Communique said:

the GAC considers that these [unresolved GAC concerns with the AGB] result primarily from the fact that the Board adopted the GNSO recommendations on new gTLDs without taking due account of GAC advice at that time, thereby creating a flawed process.

That’s pretty strong stuff – the GAC is basically saying that all the thousands of discussions the community has endured since 2007 have been carried out under faulty assumptions, because ICANN failed to pay heed to GAC advice when it was writing the rules of engagement for developing new TLD policy.

It’s also the reason we’re looking at the need for a GAC-Board retreat next February, at which ICANN will attempt to address the GAC’s outstanding concerns, before the AGB can be approved.

More on that in part three of this post.

ICANN new TLD launch delayed (again)

Kevin Murphy, December 10, 2010, Domain Registries

ICANN’s new top-level domains program has been delayed, likely for a few months at least, after governments submitted a laundry list of issues they believe are still unresolved.

The Governmental Advisory Committee is mainly bothered that the Applicant Guidebook fails to adequately protect trademark rights and that the cost of the program could outweigh the benefits.

The ICANN board resolved at its meeting here in Cartagena earlier today to meet with the GAC for an unprecedented consultation next February.

(The meeting will also discuss the .xxx application, which I’ve reported on for The Register).

The actual board resolution is hopelessly lengthy and confusing at first reading. Take this doublethink:

ICANN considers that the solutions developed to address the overarching issues of trademark protection, mitigating malicious conduct, and root-zone scaling substantially reflect the negotiated position of the ICANN community, but ICANN will take into account public comment including the advice of the GAC.

Some delegates here tell me they think this means the book has been closed on the portions of the guidebook dealing with IP protection mechanisms, for example.

(J Scott Evans, head of the IP constituency, stormed out of the room in a huff when this part of the resolution was read aloud.)

But the text of the resolution pretty clearly states that IP protections and the other overarching issues are still open for negotiation with the GAC and could be amended based on comments filed this week.

The resolution is open to interpretation with regards these three “overarching issues”.

It does, however, refer to other issues that are explicitly unresolved in ICANN’s view, namely the treatment of geographic names and the handling of “morality and public order” objections.

Both are singled out as needing more work before they can be finalized.

What does all this mean for the launch timetable? I think it means there isn’t one. Again.

[The ICANN board] Directs staff to synthesize the results of these consultations and comments, and to prepare revisions to the guidebook to enable the Board to make a decision on the launch of the new gTLD program as soon as possible.

“As soon as possible” is either meaningless or, taken literally, means the board’s next meeting. That’s likely to be late January, if previous years are any guide.