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Europe and US to meet on .xxx and new TLDs

Kevin Murphy, May 11, 2011, Domain Policy

European Commissioner Neelie Kroes is to meet with the US Department of Commerce, a month after she asked it to delay the launch of the .xxx top-level domain.

Tomorrow, Kroes will meet with Larry Strickling, assistant secretary of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, according to a press release:

This follows the controversial decision of the ICANN Board in March to approve the “.XXX” Top Level Domain for adult content. Ms Kroes will make clear European views on ICANN’s capacity to reform. In particular, Ms Kroes will raise ICANN’s responsiveness to governments raising public policy concerns in the ICANN Governmental Advisory Council [Committee] (GAC) , the transparency and accountability of ICANN’s internal corporate governance and the handling of country-code Top Level Domains for its most concerned public authorities.

In April, Kroes asked Strickling’s boss, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, to put a hold on the addition of .xxx to the domain name system root until the GAC had chance to discuss it further.

Strickling declined, saying that for the US to take unilateral action over the root would provide ammunition to its critics in the international community.

The US and EC are two of the most active and vocal participants in the GAC – at least in public. Whatever conclusions Strickling and Kroes come to tomorrow are likely to form the basis of the GAC’s short-term strategy as negotiations about new TLDs continue.

ICANN’s board is scheduled to meet with the GAC on May 20, for an attempt to come to some final conclusions about the new gTLD program, particularly in relation to trademark protection.

ICANN wants to approve the program’s Applicant Guidebook on June 20, but is likely to face resistance from governments, especially the US.

Strickling has indicated that he may use the upcoming renewal of ICANN’s IANA contract as leverage to get the GAC a stronger voice in ICANN’s decision-making process.

US wants to delay new TLDs

Kevin Murphy, May 6, 2011, Domain Policy

With ICANN seemingly hell-bent on approving its new top-level domains program at its Singapore meeting, June 20, the US government wants to slam the brakes.

Congressmen from both sides of the aisle this week said the launch should be put on hold, and yesterday Lawrence Strickling, head of the NTIA, said he does not believe June 20 is realistic.

In a speech before the Global Internet Governance Academic Network, GigaNet, in Washington DC yesterday, Strickling said that ICANN needs to pay more heed to the advice of its Governmental Advisory Committee before it approves the program.

I commend ICANN for its efforts to respond to the GAC advice. Nonetheless, it is unclear to me today whether ICANN and the GAC can complete this process in a satisfactory manner for the Board to approve the guidebook on June 20, 2011, as ICANN has stated it wants to do.

While discussing the ongoing boogeyman threat of an International Telecommunications Union takeover of ICANN’s functions, he added:

Unless the GAC believes that ICANN has been sufficiently responsive to their concerns, I do not see how the Guidebook can be adopted on June 20th in Singapore in a manner that ensures continuing global governmental support of ICANN.

That’s incredibly strong stuff.

Strickling is suggesting that if ICANN rejects GAC advice about what goes into the new TLDs Applicant Guidebook, ICANN may be able to kiss international governmental support goodbye, potentially threatening the organization’s very existence.

And it wasn’t the only threat he raised.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration is in the process of renewing and possibly amending ICANN’s IANA contract, which gives it the power to introduce new TLDs.

If anyone in any government is in a position to bargain directly with ICANN, it’s Strickling. He tackled this position of power head-on in his speech:

I heard from yesterday’s House hearing that some of the witnesses proposed that we use this contract as a vehicle for ensuring more accountability and transparency on the part of the company performing the IANA functions. We are seriously considering these suggestions and will be seeking further comment from the global Internet community on this issue.

I believe the only witness to raise this issue at the hearing was Josh Bourne of the Coalition Against Domain Name Abuse. He wants a full audit of ICANN before the IANA contract is renewed.

The Congressional “oversight” hearing in question, before the House Subcommittee on Intellectual Property, Competition and the Internet, was not much more than a kangaroo court.

The Representatives in attendance read from prepared statements and from questions they frequently seemed to barely understand, stated fringe opinions as fact, asked inane questions that demonstrated the loosest of grasps on the subject before them, then came to the (foregone) conclusion that the new gTLD program should be delayed pending further work on protecting trademark holders.

I’m not saying these politicians need to be subject matter experts, but if the words “intellectual property” and “the internet” are in your job description, you ought be embarrassed if the words “new BGLTs, or whatever they’re called” come out of your mouth in public.

The Subcommittee has no direct power over ICANN, of course, beyond the fact that it belongs to the legislature of the country where ICANN is based.

But Strickling does.

In his speech yesterday, he also made it quite obvious that the NTIA currently has no plans to push ICANN further along the road to full independence by signing a Cooperative Agreement instead of a procurement contract for the IANA function.

That proposal was made by ICANN CEO Rod Beckstrom, and supported by a small number of others in the industry, including Vint Cerf. But Strickling said:

The fact is, however, that NTIA does not have the legal authority to transition the IANA functions contract into a Cooperative Agreement with ICANN, nor do we have the statutory authority to enter into a Cooperative Agreement with ICANN, or any other organization, for the performance of the IANA functions.

The Beckstrom proposal always seemed like a long shot, but to have it dismissed so casually will surely be seen as a setback on the road to true ICANN independence from the US.

Cute infographic shows contents of the root

This ICANN infographic is a nice way to easily visualize all of the currently live and approved top-level domains on the internet.

TLDs graphic

(click to enlarge)

Accurate as of April 19, it breaks down the 307 extant TLDs into categories such as gTLDs, ccTLDs and IDNs, highlighting some metrics you may not be aware of.

Did you know for example that there are seven pre-approved ccTLDs that have not yet been delegated to a registry? Or that three ccTLDs belong to countries that officially no longer exist?

The graphic is culled from ICANN’s rather excellent fiscal 2012 Security, Stability & Resiliency Framework, which was published last night.

The report spells out in fairly accessible terms just what ICANN is responsible for in terms of security — and what it is not — and how the organization is structured.

Niue: the myth of the “Wifi Nation”

Kevin Murphy, April 22, 2011, Domain Policy

The tiny Pacific island of Niue is commonly referred to as the world’s first and only “Wifi Nation”.

There was a lot of feel-good press coverage back in 2003, when the Massachusetts-based manager of the .nu country-code top-level domain started deploying wireless internet on the island.

NU Domain said at the time that it was “building the world’s first nation-wide wifi Internet access service, all at no cost to the public or the local government” (pdf)

This led to major media outlets, such as the BBC, reporting the line: “The free wi-fi link will be accessible to all of Niue’s 2,000 residents as well as tourists and business travellers.”

This story has remained in the media consciousness to this date, encouraged by the registry.

Just this week, NU Domain’s charitable front operation, the IUSN Foundation, was fluffily claiming that it has provided Niue with “the world’s only nation-wide free Internet”.

Even ICANN’s Kiwi chairman, Peter Dengate Thrush, spread the meme during a recent interview (audio), saying Niue had “installed free wifi across the entire island”.

There is just one problem with the “Wifi Nation” story: it’s bollocks.

This is what Niue’s Premier, Toke Talagi, had to say to Australian radio (audio) this week:

The internet services are unreliable, they’re not available throughout the island, and if you do want internet services connected up to your home you have to pay for it. Some people as I understand it have been paying up to $3,000 [$2,400] just for the installation of the wifi.

We’re never quite certain about what that “free” internet services is about, because we’ve had to pay.

According to Talagi, the wifi network provided by IUSN does not cover every village on the island, and users have to pay for it. The free wifi nation is neither free nor nationwide.

Even IUSN, while continuing to make its claims about nationwide wifi, admitted a year ago, seven years after the “wifi nation” claims were first made, that “villagers have been waiting to get online for some time”.

According to Talagi, the lack of reliable internet access is such a big problem that the Niuean government has had to take matters into its own hands and build its own ISP.

It is close to completing its own wired and wireless internet infrastructure, at the cost of $4.8 million, according to reports.

Niue discussed its needs with IUSN in 2009 and 2010, Talagi said, but “they felt they didn’t need to discuss these particular matters, that the services they were providing for us were adequate”.

It appears that IUSN doesn’t even pay to maintain its own equipment. This quote comes from a locally produced newsletter dated April 2009:

While IUSN is committed to provide free internet for its residents it is up to the users of this service to look after and maintain the internet enabling facilities.

That came from a report about residents of one of the island’s villages holding a fund-raiser in order to collect the $2,400 required to fix a wifi mast that had been damaged in a lightning storm (a common problem).

The per capita GDP of Niue, incidentally, is $5,800. Its citizens are not starving, but by the measure of its estimated GDP, about $10 million, it’s one of the poorest nations on the planet, reliant heavily on aid from nearby New Zealand.

According to Talagi and other sources, good internet access is not only required for economic reasons such as boosting the tourism industry.

Fast, reliable connectivity would also enable important human services, such as remote video diagnoses to be performed by overseas medical specialists, which the island lacks.

Niue’s ongoing economic problems come about largely because, other than fishing, it has very few natural resources to exploit.

A notable industry in the past has been the export of postage stamps to overseas collectors.

That business made headlines recently when a stamp was issued, celebrating the marriage of Prince William to Kate Middleton, which featured a perforation separating bride and groom.

There’s also talk of setting up a casino on the island, to boost revenues.

One asset it does have, at least on paper, is its top-level domain, .nu, which has proven popular in Sweden, where the word “nu” means “now”.

However, other than the lackluster internet connectivity provided by IUSN, Niue apparently does not see any significant revenue from the sale of .nu domain names.

According to IANA records, the .nu domain is officially delegated to the IUSN Foundation, previously known as the Internet Users Society – Niue.

The technical back-end provider is WorldNames Inc, which also operates as a registry/registrar under the brand NU Domain.

IUSN’s contact address is a PO Box in Niue, probably due to the fact that all ccTLD registry operators have to be based in the country they purport to represent.

The IUSN’s domain name, iusn.org, is registered to the same address as WorldNames and NU Domain, in the leafy Boston suburb of Medford, MA.

Most of the company’s business is done in Sweden, where most of its staff are based.

WorldNames has been in control of .nu since 1997, when its founder, Bill Semich, in partnership with a American ex-pat living on the island, managed to acquire the IANA delegation, pre-ICANN.

By several accounts, Niue has been trying to reclaim .nu from Semich for almost as many years.

In 2003, the government hired an American lawyer, Gerald McClurg, to be its representative on ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee and attempt to secure a redelegation.

That same year, McClurg made a submission to the International Telecommunications Union (.doc), in which he alleged that the nation was tricked out of its domain:

In 1997 IANA, without the approval of the Niuean Government, delegated the ccTLD for Niue to a businessman, William Semich, who lives in the United States. The advisor to the Government at that time was an ex-peace corp volunteer named Richard Saint Clair. Mr Saint Clair told the Government that the name meant nothing, that it was of no value or significance, and there was nothing that could be done. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Saint Clair then left his post as advisor and joined with Mr Semich in his organization – IUSN. The Government of Niue has been working every since to regain its ccTLD.

The Niuean government has actually passed a law, the Communications Amendment Act 2000, which states: “.nu is a National resource for which the prime authority is the Government of Niue”.

It also established the Niue Information Technology Committee, which “shall be the only designated Registry Manager of the Niue ccTLD .nu.”

Yet, eleven years on, IUSN is still the registry manager for .nu.

Talagi said in his radio interview this week that Niue was preparing to submit a redelegation request to ICANN/IANA in February last year, which is in line with what I was hearing at the time.

I have in my possession documentation from a European domain name registrar, dated March 2010, offering to take over the management of .nu on a not-for-profit basis.

It’s not clear to me whether Niue’s redelegation request is still active. Under current IANA practices, ICANN does not discuss pending ccTLD redelegation requests.

But I suspect IUSN has little interest in handing .nu back to Niue.

While registration data is not easy to come by, the number that has been reported frequently over the years, and as recently as 2008, is 200,000.

At 30 euros ($44) per year for the standard service from NU Domain, that’s close to a $9 million business just from domain registration fees.

That may not be much on the grand scheme of things, but it would certainly be material to a nation so reliant on hand-outs as Niue.

But IUSN is very protective of its asset.

Take a look at the Accountability Framework – one of the methods by which ICANN establishes formal relationships with ccTLD managers – that IUSN and ICANN signed in 2008 (pdf).

ICANN has signed 26 Accountability Frameworks over the last five years. They’re all very similarly worded, but the one it signed with IUSN has a notable addition not found in any of the others.

All ccTLDs’ Accountability Frameworks call for the TLD to be managed “in a manner that is consistent with the relevant laws of [insert country name]”.

But the .nu agreement is the only one to also make a specific reference to RFC 1591 and ICP-1, two rules dating from the 1990s that govern how ccTLDs are redelegated from one organization to another.

While ICP-1 gives governments a significant voice in redelegation requests, both documents state that IANA should only redelegate a TLD when both the winning and losing parties agree to the transfer.

The only notable exception to the rule is when the incumbent registry manager has been found to have “substantially misbehaved”, which I understand to be quite a high bar.

With that in mind, it’s far from obvious whether Niue stands any chance of getting its ccTLD redelegated to an approved registry any time soon.

According to a recent report (pdf) from ICANN’s ccNSO, IANA has redelegated ccTLDs in cases where the losing registry fought the decision, but its procedures for doing so are utterly opaque.

North Korean domain to change hands

Kevin Murphy, April 15, 2011, Domain Registries

ICANN is set to redelegate .kp, the country-code top-level domain for North Korea, when its board of directors meets next week.

It’s less than four years since .kp was first created. In September 2007, IANA delegated the ccTLD for the first time to the Korea Computer Center, a Pyongyang-backed governmental organization.

The technical side of the registry is currently handled by KCC Europe, a German company, but while some .kp domains still resolve, the official registry web site has been offline for months.

The redelegation is part of the ICANN board’s consent agenda. This means that, barring surprises, it will simply be rubber-stamped with no substantive discussion.

Because ccTLD redelegations are handled in private, we won’t know who the new registry manager is until after the handover happens and the IANA report is published.

In other ccTLD news, ICANN may also create three new internationalized domain name ccTLDs, for Serbia (.срб ), Algeria (الجزائر) and Morroco (المغرب).

Those delegations are part of the board’s regular agenda for its April 21 meeting, and will be discussed.

Laos to reclaim .la from Los Angeles?

An effort has kicked off in the south-east Asian nation of Laos to “reclaim and relaunch” the .la top-level domain, which is currently being marketed to businesses in Los Angeles.

According to a press release from Dot VN, the “exclusive registrar” for Vietnam’s .vn ccTLD, the two governments came to an agreement to move .la late last month. Dot VN said:

On March 23, Mr. Nguyen Thanh Hung – Deputy Minister of Information and Communications of Vietnam and Mr. Padaphet Sayakhot – Deputy of Laos National Posts and Telecommunications Management Agency signed a memorandum for Vietnam to support Laos to retrieve and manage the Laotian country code Top Level Domain (“ccTLD”) “.LA”.

The announcement talks about a transition plan under which VNNIC, the .vn registry, will temporarily take over the management of .la domain names on behalf of LANIC, the nominal .la registry.

Under the current plan Vietnam will support LANIC in the management and operation of the ccTLD “.LA” by hosting the registry platform in Hanoi while concurrently training LANIC staff, with the eventual goal of turning over complete management of “.LA” to LANIC by 2012.

Today, .la domains are sold from www.la as “the internet address for Los Angeles” and “the first city top-level domain”, equivalent to possible future TLDs such as .paris and .rome.

That site, as well as the the name servers for .la, are currently operated by CentralNIC, the London-based registry services provider, under an agreement with a company called LA Registry Pte Ltd.

But according to IANA records, LANIC has been the designated .la sponsoring organization, as well as its technical and administrative contact, since 2002.

That being the case, there will presumably be no requirement for a lengthy IANA redelegation request if any transition is to take place.

Dot VN’s statement does not mention CentralNIC or existing registrants at all. I’ve been unable to obtain clarification from either company so far, but will provide a follow-up when I do.

LANIC’s web site, incidentally, is currently a parked page.

Local news coverage from the region, in Vietnamese, can be found here and here.

Greek IDN blocked due to non-existent domain

Greece’s request for .ελ, a version of .gr in its local script, was rejected by ICANN because it looked too much like .EA, a non-existent top-level domain, it has emerged.

Regular readers will be familiar with the story of how Bulgaria’s request for .бг was rejected due to its similar to Brazil’s .br, but to my knowledge the Greeks had not revealed their story until this week.

In a letter to the US government, George Papapavlou, a member of ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee, called the process of applying for an IDN ccTLD “long and traumatic”.

He said that Greece had to jump through “completely unnecessary” hoops to prove its chosen string was representative of the nation and supported by its internet community, before its application was finally rejected because it was “confusingly similar” to a Latin string.

“IANA has no right to question languages or local Internet community support. Governments are in the position of expressing their national Internet communities,” Papapavlou wrote.

The capital letters version of .ελ (ΕΛ) was considered to be confusingly similar to the Latin alphabet letters EA. The possibility of such confusion for a Greek language speaker, who uses exclusively Greek alphabet to type the whole domain name or address, to then switch into capital letters and type EA in Latin alphabet is close to zero. After all, there is currently no .ea or .EA ccTLD.

That’s true. There is no .ea. But that’s not to say one will not be created in future and, due to the way ccTLD strings are assigned, ICANN would not be able to prevent it on stability grounds.

Papapavlou called for “common sense” to be the guiding principle when deciding whether to approve an IDN ccTLD or not.

That is of course only one side of the story. Currently, ICANN/IANA does not comment on the details of ccTLD delegations, so it’s the only side we’re likely to see in the near future.

ICANN asks the US to cut it loose

Kevin Murphy, March 25, 2011, Domain Policy

ICANN has officially requested the loosening of its contractual ties to the US government.

In a letter to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (pdf), ICANN president Rod Beckstrom said the US should finally make good on its promise to privatize the management of the internet’s naming and addressing resources.

Currently, ICANN manages the so-called IANA functions, which give it powers over the domain name system’s root zone, under a no-fee procurement deal with the NTIA.

That contract is up for renewal in September, and the NTIA recently issued a Notice Of Inquiry, soliciting public comments on how the IANA functions should be handled in future.

In Beckstrom’s response to the NOI, he says that a US government procurement contract is not the most suitable way to oversee matters of global importance.

Its close links to the NTIA are often cited by other governments as proof that ICANN is an organization that operates primarily in the interest of the US.

Beckstrom said there is “no compelling reason for these functions to be performed exclusively pursuant to a U.S. Government procurement contract.”

He noted that the original plan, when ICANN was formed by the Clinton administration in 1998, was to transition these functions to the private sector no later than September 2000.

The privatization of the DNS is, in effect, 11 years late.

Beckstrom wrote:

The IANA functions are provided for the benefit of the global Internet: country code and generic top-level domain operators; Regional Internet Registries; the IETF; and ultimately, Internet users around the world. Applying U.S. federal procurement law and regulations, the IANA functions should be performed pursuant to a cooperative agreement.

His position was not unanticipated.

At the start of ICANN’s San Francisco meeting last week, Beckstrom and former chairman Vint Cerf both said that a “cooperative agreement” would be a better way for the US to manage IANA.

VeriSign’s role in root zone management is currently overseen by this kind of arrangement.

The NTIA has specifically asked whether IANA’s three core areas of responsibility – domain names, IP addresses and protocol parameters – should be split between three different entities.

Beckstrom also argued against that, saying that there are “many examples of cross-functional work”, and that ICANN already has the necessary expertise and relationships in place to handle all three.

The NOI (pdf) is open until end of play next Thursday, March 31. Half a dozen responses have already been filed here.

At least one respondent believes the IANA powers could be broken up.

Microsoft spends $7.5 million on IP addresses

Kevin Murphy, March 24, 2011, Domain Tech

It’s official, IP addresses are now more expensive than domain names.

Nortel Networks, the bankrupt networking hardware vendor, has sold 666,624 IPv4 addresses to Microsoft for $7.5 million, according to Delaware bankruptcy court documents (pdf).

That’s $11.25 per address, more than you’d expect to pay for a .com domain name. Remember, there’s no intellectual property or traffic associated with these addresses – they’re just routing numbers.

This, I believe, is the first publicly disclosed sale of an IP address block since ICANN officially announced the depletion of IANA’s free pool of IPv4 blocks last month.

The deal came as part of Nortel’s liquidation under US bankruptcy law, which has been going on since 2009. According to a court filing:

Because of the limited supply of IPv4 addresses, there is currently an opportunity to realize value from marketing the Internet Numbers, which opportunity will diminish over time as IPv6 addresses are more widely adopted.

Nortel contacted 80 companies about the sale a year ago, talked to 14 potential purchasers, and eventually received four bids for the full block and three bids for part of the portfolio.

Microsoft’s bid was the highest.

The Regional Internet Registries, which allocate IP addresses, do not typically view IP as an asset that can be bought and sold. There are processes being developed for assignees to return unused IPv4 to the free pool, for the good of the internet community.

But this kind of “black market” – or “gray market” – for IP addresses has been anticipated for some time. IPv4 is now scarce, there are costs and risks associated with upgrading to IPv6, and the two protocols are expected to co-exist for years or decades to come.

In fact, during ICANN’s press conference announcing the emptying of the IPv4 pool last month, the only question I asked was: “What is the likelihood of an IPv4 black market emerging?”.

In reply, Raul Echeberria, chair of ICANN’s Number Resource Organization, acknowledged the possibility, but played down its importance:

There is of course the possibility of IPv4 addresses being traded outside of the system, but I am very confident it will be a very small amount of IPv4 addresses compared to those transferred within the system. But it is of course a possibility this black market will exist, I’m not sure that it will be an important one. If the internet community moves to IPv6 adoption, the value of the IPv4 addresses will decrease in the future.

I doubt we’ll hear about many of these sales in future, unless they come about due to proceedings such as Nortel’s bankruptcy sale, but I’m also confident they will happen.

The total value of the entire IPv4 address space, if the price Microsoft is willing to pay is a good guide, is approximately $48.3 billion.

US upset with ICANN over .xxx

Kevin Murphy, March 20, 2011, Domain Policy

The US government has expressed disappointment with ICANN for approving the .xxx top-level domain, surprising nobody.

Fox News is reporting Lawrence Strickling, assistant secretary at the Department of Commerce and one of ICANN’s keynote speakers at the just-concluded San Francisco meeting:

We are disappointed that ICANN ignored the clear advice of governments worldwide, including the US. This decision goes against the global public interest, and it will open the door to more Internet blocking by governments and undermine the stability and security of the Internet.

As I reported Friday, ICANN used a literal interpretation of its Governmental Advisory Committee’s advice in order to make it appear that it was not disagreeing with it at all.

Essentially, because the GAC didn’t explicitly say “don’t delegate .xxx”, the ICANN board of directors was free to do so without technically being insubordinate.

Whether the GAC knew in advance that this was the board’s game plan is another question entirely.

Strickling is of course duty-bound to complain about .xxx – no government wanted to be seen to associate themselves with pornography – but he’s in a unique position to do something about it.

Strickling heads the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the named “Administrator” of the DNS root and ergo ICANN’s overseer.

It’s within his power to refuse to instruct VeriSign to inject .xxx into the DNS root system, but it’s a power few observers expect him to exercise.

As Milton Mueller of the Internet Governance Project noted yesterday:

If the US goes crazy and interferes with XXX’s entry into the root it will completely kill ICANN and open a Pandora’s box for governmental control of the DNS, a box that will never be closed.

Dire consequences indeed. It’s unlikely that the NTIA would risk killing off the ICANN project after so many years over a bit of T&A.