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Big Content calls for government new gTLD oversight

Kevin Murphy, August 1, 2011, Domain Policy

The music, movie and advertising industries have backed a US move that could see governments getting more control over the approval of new top-level domains.

They’ve urged the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to keep a proposed rule that would force ICANN to show a new gTLD is in the “global public interest” before giving it the nod.

But they are opposed by many other stakeholders who responded to the NTIA’s Further Notice Of Inquiry on the renewal of ICANN’s IANA contract.

The FNOI resulted in about 35 responses, from companies and organizations on five continents.

The most controversial question posed by the NTIA was whether the IANA contract should include this provision:

For delegation requests for new generic TLDS (gTLDs), the Contractor [ICANN] shall include documentation to demonstrate how the proposed string has received consensus support from relevant stakeholders and is supported by the global public interest.

This was broadly interpreted as a way for governments to have a de facto veto over new gTLD applications, via ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee.

The proposed measure has now been supported by the Recording Industry Association of America, the Association of National Advertisers, and the Coalition for Online Accountability, which represents the music and movie industries.

Brand owners want another bite

In his strongly worded response, ANA president Robert Liodice wrote that the new gTLD program “is likely to cause irreparable injury to brand owners”, adding that it supported the NTIA’s proposal.

[It] provides a layer, however thin, of contractual protection that gTLDs will not be deposited to the authoritative root zone without appropriate justification. While the ANA believes that these protections are marginal at best, and that a more secure, safe and permanent solution must be found to prevent the harms to brand owners and consumers described above; nonetheless, “something is better than nothing”

Special interests

The RIAA said in its filing that it “strongly supports” the proposal, on the basis that it thinks .music, if approved as a gTLD, could lead to more online music piracy.

there are no concrete obligations in the latest application guidebook to implement heightened security measures for these types of gTLDs that are focused on particular industries such as record music. Given the the risk that such a gTLD application could pass through the ICANN process without committing to such measures, it should be incumbent on the IANA contractor to document how its entry into the root would meet the “global public interest” standard.

It’s a drum the RIAA, never afraid of making special-interest arguments on matters of internet governance, has been beating for some time.

It stopped short of asking for all existing TLDs (and IP addresses, in the case of peer-to-peer applications) to be banned outright, which would presumably do much more to prevent piracy.

Oh no you ditn’t!

The COA, which includes the RIAA among its members, has the honor of being the first of ICANN’s critics to raise the Peter Dengate Thrush Situation to officially bash the organization.

PDT, as you’ll recall, joined Minds + Machines, likely to be a volume gTLD applicant next year, just a few weeks after he helped push through ICANN’s approval of the gTLD program.

COA counsel Steve Metalitz wrote:

This development tends to confirm COA’s view that “the new gTLD process, like so much of ICANN’s agenda, has been ‘led’ by only a small slice of the private sector, chiefly the registrars and registries who stand to profit from the introduction of new gTLDs.”

If a “check and balance” on addition of these new gTLDs to the root was advisable prior to this announcement, it now appears to be indispensable.

Plenty of ICANN stakeholders on both sides of the new gTLD debate have been calling for a review of ICANN’s ethics policies recently, so the COA is far from alone in highlighting the perception problem PDT’s move, and others, may have created.

It looked dodgy, and people noticed.

But on the other hand…

Many responses to the FNOI take the opposing view – saying that the “global public interest” requirements appear to run contrary to IANA’s technical coordination mandate.

IANA’s statement of work, which mandates IANA staff independence from ICANN policy-making, seems like a very odd place to introduce a vague and highly policy-driven oversight check.

Opposition came from the gTLD registry community and likely applicants, as you might expect, as well as from a number of ccTLD operators, which was perhaps less predictable.

A typical response, from the ccNSO, was:

While recognising and supporting the need for ensuring that new gTLDs have consensus support and are consistent with the global public interest, the ccNSO suggests that the IANA contractor’s role should simply be to verify that ICANN has followed the Guidebook process and that all the evaluation criteria (not just the two referred to) have been met.

A number of responses also call for the strict separation of IANA staff from ICANN’s policy-making functions to be relaxed. The way the NTIA’s proposal is currently worded, it’s not clear if IANA’s experts would be able to provide their input to important work.

Could .om become the next typo TLD?

Will Oman’s .om domain follow in the footsteps of .co? Or .cm? Or neither?

The country-code top-level domain is set to be transferred to a new manager following an ICANN vote this coming Thursday.

The redelegation is one item on a unusually light agenda for the board’s July 28 telephone meeting. It’s on the consent agenda, so it will likely be rubber-stamped without discussion.

The domain is currently assigned to Oman Telecommunications Company, but the new owner is expected to be the national Telecommunications Regulatory Authority or an affiliated entity.

The Omani TRA was given authority over the nation’s domain names by Royal Decree in 2002.

It has already successfully had the Arabic-script ccTLD .عمان approved by ICANN for use as an internationalized domain name, but the IDN has not yet been delegated.

AusRegistry International this March won a $1.3 million contract with the TRA to provide software and services for the .om and .عمان registries.

At the time, the TRA said it planned to market both Latin and Arabic extensions to increase the number of domain registrations.

The .om ccTLD is of course a .com typo, like .co and .cm, but squatting is not currently possible due to its strict registration policies.

Only Omani entities may register .om domains today, and only third-level domains (such as example.com.om and example.net.om) may be registered. Domains may not be resold.

I have no particular reason to believe this situation will change under new stewardship, but it will certainly be worth keeping an eye on the TLD for possible policy changes.

When Cameroon’s .cm opened up, it implemented a widely vilified blanket wildcard in an attempt to profit from .com typos.

Colombia’s .co of course took the responsible route, disowning wildcards and embracing strong anti-squatting measures, even if its mere existence was still a headache for some trademark owners.

Why we won’t see dotless domain names

Kevin Murphy, July 20, 2011, Domain Tech

Will http://google ever work?

Will any of the hundreds of .brand gTLDs expected to be approved by ICANN in its first round of new top-level domains resolve without dots?

Will users be able to simply type in the name of the brand they’re looking for into their browser’s address bar and have it resolve to the company’s official site?

Probably not, according to the experts.

ICANN’s Applicant Guidebook answers this question, but you need to know where to look, and to know a little about DNS records, to figure it out what it actually says.

Section 2.2.3.3 of the Guidebook (page 75 of the May 30 PDF) provides a list of the permissible contents of a new gTLD zone.

Specifically not allowed are A and AAAA records, which browsers need in order to find web sites using IPv4 and IPv6 respectively.

“To facilitate a dotless domain, you would need to place an A or a AAAA record in the zone, and these are not on the list of permitted record types,” said Kim Davies, root zone manager at IANA. “The net result is a default prohibition on dotless domains.”

Applicants may be able to obtain A/AAAA records if they specifically ask for them, but this is very likely to trigger an Extended Evaluation and a Registry Services Review, according to Davies and the Guidebook.

There’s an additional $50,000 fee for a Registry Services Review, with no guarantee of success. It will also add potentially months to the application’s processing time.

(Incidentally, ICANN has also banned DNS “wildcards”. You cannot have an infinite SiteFinder-style catch-all at the second level, you need to allocate domain names individually.)

Applicants that successfully obtain A/AAAA records, enabling dotless domains, would face a far greater problem than ICANN’s rules – endpoint software probably won’t support them.

“As it stands, most common software does not support the concept,” Davies said. “There is a common assumption that fully qualified domain names will have at least one dot in them.”

You can type IP addresses, host names, domain names or search terms into browser address bars, and dots are one of the ways the software figures out you’re looking for a domain.

You can test this today. There are already a handful of top-level domains, probably fewer than 20 and all ccTLDs, that have implemented an A record at the TLD level.

On some platforms, you may be able to get URLs such as http://io and http://ac to work.

They don’t revolve on any Windows 7 browser I’ve tested (Firefox/IE/Chrome), but I’d be interested in hearing your experiences, if you’d be so good as to leave a comment below.

Given the lack of software support, it may be a poor use of time and resources to fight ICANN for a dotless gTLD that most internet users won’t even be able to resolve.

According to a recent CircleID article by Paul Vixie, chairman of the Internet Systems Consortium, many browsers treat domains without dots as local resources.

Only if the browser’s “DNS search list” cannot find a local resource matching the dotless TLD will it then go out to the internet to look for it.

In some organizations, a local resource may have been configured which matches a new gTLD. There may be a local server called “mail” for example, which could clash with a .mail gTLD.

A recent article in The Register quoted security people fretting about what would happen if a malicious hacker somehow persuaded ICANN to approve a string such as .localhost or .lan.

These worries appear to be largely reliant on an erroneous belief that getting your hands on a gTLD is going to be as simple as registering a domain name.

In reality, there’s going to be months of technical evaluation – conducted in a fish-bowl, subject to public comment, applicant background checks and, in the case of a request for A records, the aforementioned Registry Services Review – before a gTLD is approved.

If everything works according to plan, security problems will be highlighted by this process and any gTLDs that would break the internet will be caught and rejected.

So it seems very unlikely that we’re going to see domains without dots hitting the web any time soon.

Domain names are designed to help people find you. Dotless domains today will not do that, even if ICANN does approve them.

Legal fight breaks out over .pr domains

The University of Puerto Rico has accused the manager of the .pr top-level domain of hoodwinking ICANN in order to “illegally” take over the registry.

It recently filed a lawsuit seeking to regain control of .pr, saying that the current registry operator has made an estimated $2 million from domain registrations since it somehow took over the ccTLD.

The lawsuit and other documents tell a remarkable story, one in which a University department quietly spun itself out as a private for-profit company and took .pr with it.

If the claims are true, ICANN may have made a huge screw-up by inadvertantly allowing the ccTLD to be transferred from the University into private hands.

According to an archived copy of the IANA delegation record for .pr, the ccTLD was from 1988 until about 2007 delegated to:

University of Puerto Rico
Gauss Laboratory
Facundo Bueso Building
Office 265
Rio Piedras 00931
Puerto Rico

That’s the Sponsoring Organization. The administrative and technical contacts also stated that UPR was in charge of the domain. The contact email address was @uprr.pr, the University’s domain.

Today, the IANA record is quite different:

Gauss Research Laboratory Inc.
Calle Vesta 801
San Juan 00923
Puerto Rico

The University is no longer listed. The contact email addresses are now @nic.pr. These new details have been in effect apparently since some time in 2007.

To my eye, this looks like the stewardship of .pr was transferred from one organization, the University of Puerto Rico, to another, Gauss Research Laboratory Inc.

But IANA never produced a redelegation report – as it must when a registry changes hands – and the ICANN board never voted to redelegate.

According to a July 2007 letter (pdf) circulating this week from David Conrad, who was then IANA general manager at ICANN, the changes merely reflected a “structural reorganization” of the registry:

Since the underlying organization performing registry services for .PR did not change (it was Gauss Laboratory before and after the change), this is not considered a full redelegation, and therefore does not result in a public report with board approval.

But the University claims that long-time manager Oscar Moreno set up Gauss as a non-profit organization to handle .pr when he retired from UPR, then in 2007 changed it to the for-profit corporation that is now the designated registry manager.

A 2009 letter from UPR to ICANN general counsel John Jeffrey (pdf), which emerged on mailing lists last week, said Moreno was trying to sell his company, and the ccTLD, to a third party.

IANA, according to the letter, was fooled into thinking the University backed the transfer of control due to a letter from a faculty member who did not have the authority to authorize the changes.

The University sued Moreno in late May (pdf), seeking an injunction ordering him to transfer .pr back to UPR and to return the $2 million it believes .pr domain sales have raised since 2007.

IANA redelegations are rarely straightforward.

A recent report from the Country Code Names Supporting Organization found that ccTLD redelegations have been basically a bloody mess – unpredictable, opaque and poorly documented.

ICANN does not discuss IANA requests, but I’m currently aware of a handful of ongoing redelegation battles, such as those over Niue’s .nu and Rwanda’s .rw.

It is suspected that Irish operator IEDR is currently trying to have .ie taken away from its nominal sponsor, University College Ireland, which has put the fear into at least one registrar.

US extends ICANN’s IANA contract

Kevin Murphy, June 28, 2011, Domain Policy

ICANN has received a six-month extension to its crucial IANA contract, apparently in order to give the US government more time to take public comments and make amendments.

The contract may have been extended some weeks ago, but I believe the first public acknowledgment from ICANN came in a presentation before the ccNSO at its meeting in Singapore last week.

The IANA contract is what gives ICANN the power to make changes to the DNS root – including adding new top-level domains to the internet.

It is granted by the US National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

The contract is now set to expire March 31, 2012, towards the end of the newly approved first-round new gTLDs application window, which is expected to be open from January 12 until April 12.

It would be helpful, from an applicant confidence perspective, if the contract is renewed on a longer-term basis before January 12, when money will start changing hands.

The NTIA currently has a Further Notice Of Inquiry (pdf) open, soliciting public comments on what terms should and should not be included in the contract.

Quite a few civil liberty types are annoyed about the fact that the NTIA has added a clause that may enable it to block new gTLDs from the root if governments find them disagreeable.

Hot topics for ICANN Singapore

Kevin Murphy, June 17, 2011, Domain Policy

ICANN’s 41st public meeting kicks off in Singapore on Monday, and as usual there are a whole array of controversial topics set to be debated.

As is becoming customary, the US government has filed its eleventh-hour saber-rattling surprises, undermining ICANN’s authority before its delegates’ feet have even touched the tarmac.

Here’s a high-level overview of what’s going down.

The new gTLD program

ICANN and the Governmental Advisory Committee are meeting on Sunday to see if they can reach some kind of agreement on the stickiest parts of the Applicant Guidebook.

They will fail to do so, and ICANN’s board will be forced into discussing an unfinished Guidebook, which does not have full GAC backing, during its Monday-morning special meeting.

It’s Peter Dengate Thrush’s final meeting as chairman, and many observers believe he will push through some kind of new gTLDs resolution to act as his “legacy”, as well as to fulfill the promise he made in San Francisco of a big party in Singapore.

My guess is that the resolution will approve the program in general, lay down some kind of timetable for its launch, and acknowledge that the Guidebook needs more work before it is rubber-stamped.

I think it’s likely that the days of seemingly endless cycles of redrafting and comment are over for good, however, which will come as a relief to many.

Developing nations

A big sticking point for the GAC is the price that new gTLD applicants from developing nations will have to pay – it wants eligible, needy applicants to get a 76% discount, from $185,000 to $44,000.

The GAC has called this issue something that needs sorting out “as a matter of urgency”, but ICANN’s policy is currently a flimsy draft in desperate need of work.

The so-called JAS working group, tasked with creating the policy, currently wants governmental entities excluded from the support program, which has made the GAC, predictably, unhappy.

The JAS has proven controversial in other quarters too, particularly the GNSO Council.

Most recently, ICANN director Katim Touray, who’s from Gambia, said the Council had been “rather slow” to approve the JAS’s latest milestone report, which, he said:

might well be construed by many as an effort by the GNSO to scuttle the entire process of seeking ways and means to provide support to needy new gTLD applicants

This irked Council chair Stephane Van Gelder, who rattled off a response pointing out that the GNSO had painstakingly followed its procedures as required under the ICANN bylaws.

Watch out for friction there.

Simply, there’s no way this matter can be put to bed in Singapore, but it will be the topic of intense discussions because the new gTLD program cannot sensibly launch without it.

The IANA contract

The US National Telecommunications and Information Administration wants to beef up the IANA contract to make ICANN more accountable to the NTIA and, implicitly, the GAC.

Basically, IANA is being leveraged as a way to make sure that .porn and .gay (and any other TLD not acceptable to the world’s most miserable regimes) never make it onto the internet.

If at least one person does not stand up during the public forum on Thursday to complain that ICANN is nothing more than a lackey of the United States, I’d be surprised. My money’s on Khaled Fattal.

Vertical integration

The eleventh hour surprise I referred to earlier.

The US Department of Justice, Antitrust Division, informed ICANN this week that its plan to allow gTLD registries such as VeriSign, Neustar and Afilias to own affiliated registrars was “misguided”.

I found the letter (pdf) utterly baffling. It seems to say that the DoJ would not be able to advise ICANN on competition matters, despite the fact that the letter itself contains a whole bunch of such advice.

The letter has basically scuppered VeriSign’s chances of ever buying a registrar, but I don’t think anybody thought that would happen anyway.

Neustar is likely to be the most publicly annoyed by this, given how vocally it has pursued its vertical integration plans, but I expect Afilias and others will be bugged by this development too.

The DoJ’s position is likely to be backed up by Europe, now that the NTIA’s Larry Strickling and European Commissioner Neelie Kroes are BFFs.

Cybercrime

Cybercrime is huge at the moment, what with governments arming themselves with legions of hackers and groups such as LulzSec and Anonymous knocking down sites like dominoes.

The DNS abuse forum during ICANN meetings, slated for Monday, is usually populated by pissed-off cops demanding stricter enforcement of Whois accuracy.

They’ve been getting louder during recent meetings, a trend I expect to continue until somebody listens.

This is known as “engaging”.

Geek stuff

IPv6, DNSSEC and Internationalized Domain Names, in other words. There are sessions on all three of these important topics, but they rarely gather much attention from the policy wonks.

With IPv6 and DNSSEC, we’re basically looking at problems of adoption. With IDNs, there’s impenetrably technical stuff to discuss relating to code tables and variant strings.

The DNSSEC session is usually worth a listen if you’re into that kind of thing.

The board meeting

Unusually, the board’s discussion of the Guidebook has been bounced to Monday, leading to a Friday board meeting with not very much to excite.

VeriSign will get its .net contract renewed, no doubt.

The report from the GAC-board joint working group, which may reveal how the two can work together less painfully in future, also could be interesting.

Anyway…

Enough of this blather, I’ve got a plane to catch.

ICANN independence request denied

Kevin Murphy, June 11, 2011, Domain Policy

ICANN’s request for greater independence has been rejected by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

In its new Further Notice Of Inquiry (pdf) investigation into the IANA contract, through which ICANN is granted its internet management responsibilities, the NTIA said:

NTIA reiterates that it is not in discussions with ICANN to transition the IANA functions nor does the agency intend to undertake such discussions.

Transitioning the IANA functions would have meant less power over the domain name system for the US government and more for ICANN.

Privatizing the DNS was one of the original goals when ICANN was set up in 1998 — it was meant to happen before Clinton left office — but the US government has been dead set against such a move since at least 2005.

The latest decision was expected. NTIA assistant secretary Lawrence Strickling had flagged up the agency’s position in a recent speech.

Nevertheless, it’s a blow to ICANN and its CEO, Rod Beckstrom, who since the San Francisco meeting in March has been pushing for the IANA contract to be re-framed into a longer-term “cooperative agreement” to better reflect ICANN’s international nature.

But the NTIA said this would not be possible:

NTIA does not have the legal authority to enter into a cooperative agreement with any organization, including ICANN, for the performance of the IANA functions.

To drive the point home, the FNOI also calls for the functional aspect of IANA – the updates it makes to the DNS root database – to be clearly separated from the policy-making side of ICANN.

On the bright side, ICANN can rest assured that the NTIA seems to have put aside thoughts of breaking up the IANA functions and distributing them between different entities.

This notion was put to bed primarily because the organizations most likely to take over roles such as protocol and IP number administration (such as the NRO and the IAB) did not seem to want them.

The FNOI also suggests a raft of process and technology requirements that ICANN’s IANA team will have to abide by after the contract is renewed.

The process for redelegating ccTLDs is currently an absolute bloody mess – utterly opaque and with no historical consistency with how decisions for transferring ownership of TLDs are made.

The ccNSO is working on this problem, but its policy development is likely to take a year or two.

In the meantime, the NTIA will mandate through the IANA contract at least one major nod to ccTLD redelegation reform, in the form of the “respect rule” I blogged about earlier.

Under the heading “Responsibility and Respect for Stakeholders”, the proposed IANA Statement of Work says: “the Contractor shall act in accordance with the relevant national laws of the jurisdiction which the TLD registry serves.”

This provision is already included in most of the agreements ICANN has signed with ccTLD registries and ICP-1, the policy that governs its redelegation processes.

US resurrects the controversial new TLDs veto

Kevin Murphy, June 11, 2011, Domain Policy

The US government intends to give itself greater oversight powers over ICANN’s new top-level domains program, according to a partial draft of the next IANA contract.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration has proposed what amounts to a Governmental Advisory Committee veto over controversial new TLDs.

The agency last night published a Further Notice Of Inquiry (pdf), which includes a proposed Statement Of Work that would form part of ICANN’s next IANA contract.

The IANA contract, which is up for renewal September 30, gives ICANN many of its key powers over the domain name system’s root database.

The new documents seem to fulfill NTIA assistant secretary Lawrence Strickling’s promise to use the IANA contract “as a vehicle for ensuring more accountability and transparency” at ICANN.

If the new draft provisions are finalized, ICANN would be contractually obliged to hold new gTLD applicants to a higher standard than currently envisaged by the Applicant Guidebook.

The FNOI notes that the US believes (my emphasis):

there is a need to address how all stakeholders, including governments collectively, can operate within the paradigm of a multi-stakeholder environment and be satisfied that their interests are being adequately addressed

The Statement Of Work, under the heading “Responsibility and Respect for Stakeholders” includes new text that addresses this perceived need:

For delegation requests for new generic TLDS (gTLDs), the Contractor [ICANN] shall include documentation to demonstrate how the proposed string has received consensus support from relevant stakeholders and is supported by the global public interest.

The current Applicant Guidebook does not require “consensus support from relevant stakeholders” before a new gTLD is approved.

It gives applicants the opportunity to show support from self-defined communities, and it gives communities the right to object to any application, but it does not require consensus.

Earlier this year, the GAC asked ICANN to beef up the Guidebook to make community support or non-objection a proactive requirement for applicants, but ICANN declined to make the change.

The .xxx Factor

The NTIA’s proposed “respect rule” alludes to the approval of .xxx, which the US and other governments believe was both not in the global public interest and unsupported by the porn industry.

Had the rule been applicable in March, ICANN could very well have found itself in breach of the IANA contract, and the NTIA could have been within its rights to block the TLD.

One way to look at this is as a US government safeguard against ICANN’s board of directors overruling GAC objections to new TLDs in future.

The Guidebook currently gives the GAC the right to object to any application for any reason, such as if it believed a proposed string was not supported by a community it purported to represent.

But the Guidebook, reflecting ICANN’s bylaws, also gives ICANN the ability to disagree with GAC advice (including its new TLD objections) and essentially overrule it.

Under the NTIA’s proposed IANA contract language, if ICANN were to overrule a GAC objection to a controversial application, the NTIA would be able to claim that the gTLD was approved without stakeholder consensus, in violation of the IANA contract.

The new gTLD program would have, in essence, a backdoor GAC veto.

While these changes are being made unilaterally by the US, they are certain to be supported by the European Commission and probably other members of the GAC.

Commissioner Neelie Kroes urged Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke to block or delay .xxx back in April, and subsequently met with Strickling to discuss their mutual opposition to the TLD.

Kroes and Strickling seem to agree agree that ICANN should not have signed the .xxx registry contract over the (weak, non-consensus) objection of the GAC.

The FNOI will shortly open for 45 days of public comment, so we’re not likely to know precisely how this is going to play out in the new IANA contract until August.

ICANN is now in the tricky position of trying to figure out how to incorporate this mess into the Guidebook, which it has indicated it plans to approve just over a week from now.

Singapore is going to be very interesting indeed.

How the GAC could derail new TLDs in Singapore

Kevin Murphy, June 1, 2011, Domain Policy

The pieces are moving into place for what could be the final battle over new top-level domains between ICANN and its Governmental Advisory Committee, in Singapore later this month.

ICANN made few concessions to the GAC’s biggest concerns in the latest Applicant Guidebook, which begs the question of whether the United States will now be asked to play its trump card.

Earlier this week, European Commissioner Neelie Kroes made threatening noises in ICANN’s direction, saying that by approving the controversial .xxx domain over GAC advice, ICANN had showed that it cannot be trusted with new top-level domains.

If the ICANN board chooses to move forward [with .xxx] despite significant governmental concerns, what does this tell us for the next meeting in Singapore, which is widely expected to launch the next batch of TLDs? The concerns of governments in this process are not trivial, ranking from trademark protection to cooperation with law enforcement

The current Guidebook has not accepted (with some good reasons) many of the GAC’s requests on the issues of trademark protection and the governmental right to object to new TLD applications.

In a recorded address at the EuroDIG conference in Serbia this week, before the Guidebook was published, Kroes called for ICANN’s multistakeholder internet governance model to be “amended to better take into account the voice of governments”.

She said she is supported by colleagues in the EU and overseas, presumably referring to Lawrence Strickling, head of the NTIA, with whom she met last month to discuss .xxx and new TLDs.

In her speech, Kroes called for the United States to leverage its unique position of authority over ICANN to influence change at the organization:

The expiry of the IANA contract in September will be a unique opportunity to sharply focus on a set of minimum requirements for whichever organization will be designated to carry out the future IANA functions. Specifically, I feel that the new contract should include specific provisions to improve standards of corporate governance in the organization in charge.

…whichever will be the organization resp for naming and addressing resources, it should be required to demonstrate it has support of global internet community before it makes proposals to add any further top-level domains to the internet.

This is perhaps the most explicit outside call yet for the US to use the IANA contract both to get the GAC a louder voice at the ICANN table and to have the demands of the trademark lobby taken fully into account in the new TLDs program.

The US Trump Card

It’s no secret that the US has an ace up its sleeve, in the form of the soon-to-expire IANA contract.

IANA is responsible for the paperwork when updates are to be made to the DNS root, whether they are redelegating a ccTLD, changing name servers, or adding an entirely new TLD.

When a new TLD is approved, ICANN’s IANA department forwards the request to the NTIA, which reviews it before instructing VeriSign to add the TLD to the A-root.

IANA is currently a no-fee contract between the NTIA and ICANN. Theoretically, the NTIA could award the contract to whichever organization it chooses, after it expires.

This is unlikely to happen. But if it did, ICANN’s powers would be severely curtailed – another entity would be above it in the root’s chain of command.

Alternatively, the NTIA could amend the contract to impose conditions on ICANN, such as making it more accountable to the GAC. This is what Kroes appears to be pushing for.

Strickling himself said a month ago that he has not ruled out the option of using the IANA contract as “as a vehicle for ensuring more accountability and transparency” at ICANN.

There is another theory, however, which is currently doing the rounds.

As it currently stands, if ICANN approves the Applicant Guidebook in Singapore on June 20, the expected timetable has it accepting new gTLD applications as early as November.

By that time it would, presumably, have already renewed the IANA deal, and would still have its nominal powers to add new TLDs to the root.

But buried deep within the IANA contract (pdf) is a provision that allows the NTIA to unilaterally extend its term by six months – from September 30, 2011 to March 31, 2012.

If the NTIA were to exercise this option, it could put a serious question mark over ICANN’s ability to start accepting new TLD applications this year.

With no guarantee that its authority to add new TLDs to the root would be renewed, would risk-averse ICANN be happy to go ahead and accept tens of millions of dollars in application fees?

It seems unlikely.

I’ve little doubt that this scenario will have been discussed by the NTIA and its allies. It would look better politically for the US if it had the support of the GAC before making such a play.

Since the GAC seems to want to buy time for further talks on new TLDs before ICANN kicks off the program, the IANA contract extension may appear to be a good way of going about it.

But with ICANN seemingly set to approve a Guidebook that will remain open to significant amendments post-Singapore, does the IANA threat need to be invoked at all?

If negotiations over trademark protection, developing world funding and GAC objections can remain open even after the Guidebook has been “approved”, perhaps there’s scope for a more peaceful resolution.

Still no new TLDs agreement with GAC

Kevin Murphy, May 23, 2011, Domain Policy

ICANN and its Governmental Advisory Committee have yet to resolve their differences over the new top-level domains program, putting a question mark over the current approval timetable.

In a joint statement released early this morning, following a teleconference on Friday, the ICANN board and GAC confirmed that their talks have not yet concluded.

But ICANN still thinks approval of the program’s Applicant Guidebook could come by June 20, the second day of the forthcoming Singapore meeting:

The latest discussion and ICANN Board and GAC agreement on the benefits of having a face-to-face meeting in Singapore pave the way to possible Board consideration of program approval on 20 June 2011.

This seems to serve as confirmation that the board and GAC will meet for a last-ditch attempt at compromise on June 19. ICANN has already moved around schedules to accommodate the meeting.

Outstanding areas of disagreement continue to include rights protection mechanisms for trademark holders and processes for governmental objections to controversial TLD applications.

Negotiations so far have comprised at least four days of face-to-face talks over the last few months, which had mixed results.

ICANN has given a lot of ground already, but it seems that it has not gone far enough for the GAC. Chair Heather Dryden said in the statement:

the GAC appreciates the time taken by the Board to discuss remaining issues on the call and looks forward to continued progress as a clear signal that the Board is committed to enabling the formulation of true community consensus in developing policy that is in the global public interest as well as increasing the overall accountability and transparency of the organization.

The current talks take place against the backdrop of the renewal of ICANN’s IANA contract with the US Department of Commerce and NTIA, which gives ICANN many of its powers.

Larry Strickling, head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, has publicly indicated that he may use the renewal as leverage to squeeze concessions from ICANN.

Two weeks ago, he said that he was “unclear” about whether June 20 was a realistic target for Guidebook approval.

Recently, Strickling also met with European Commissioner Neelie Kroes where they found common ground on new gTLDs and ICANN’s accountability and transparency goals.