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The IANA transition in a nutshell

Kevin Murphy, February 27, 2015, Domain Policy

The US plan to remove itself from its unique DNS oversight role is about creating a coalition of nations to thwart attempts by Russia and other “authoritarian” countries to increase government control of the internet.

That’s according to Larry Strickling, assistant secretary at the US National Telecommunications and Information Administration, who delivered a beautifully succinct explanation to confused senators at a hearing in Washington DC this week.

Despite unnecessary diversions into issues such as net neutrality and copyright protection — which I’m sure was not at all due to senators trying to score points with their corporate paymasters — the Commerce Committee hearing was surprising well-informed and not nearly as angry as it could have been.

Senators, mostly Republicans, reiterated their concerns that for the US to give up its role in the IANA functions contract could invite a takeover of ICANN by unfriendly nations such as China and Russia, thereby harming internet freedom.

At one point, Strickling was asked by a senator: “If there’s not a problem, what are we trying to fix here?”

His answer was one the best explanations of the political back-story of the transition that I’ve heard, so I’m going to quote it in full here.

There has been a problem, sir. At the end of 2012 when the world’s governments got together in Dubai for the ITU WCIT — World Conference on International Telecommunications — you had around 80 countries who voted to say the ITU needs to be more involved in internet governance. These were largely countries in the developing world siding with the more authoritarian regimes.

Part of the impetus for this was the continued irritation that many governments have, that has been exploited by authoritarian countries, that the United States with its special role with ICANN is in a position to control the internet in these developing counties and to turn it off in these countries and to otherwise interfere with the ability of countries to manage their own affairs with respect to the internet.

After this [IANA transition] announcement was made the next two large international meetings at which governments came together you saw a major change in position among the developing countries. We didn’t see any change in position from the authoritarian countries — and you’re not, they’re not going to change their views on this. But the key to succeeding in this on the global stage is to bring the rest of the world along with us, and that’s what we saw at the NETmundial conference in Brazil last April where the only countries who spoke out against the multi-stakeholder model of internet governance were Russia and Cuba.

We then flash forward to the ITU plenipotentiary conference in Busan last November and again you had Russia with the same proposals it’s been making for 10 years: that these functions ought to be transferred to the ITU and managed by governments. And that was beaten back by a coalition of developed and developing countries. So we’ve seen immediate results, or significant results, by the basis of our having been able to take this issue off the table for these countries, to get them to look at what’s really best for them without this overhang of a US role that was unique among governments and which was a source of irritation to governments and was being exploited to our detriment by foreign governments.

The fact of the matter is that the role we play with respect of the IANA functions is a clerical role. It’s truly stewardship. As I said before, we don’t provide any oversight of the policy judgments that ICANN and the multi-stakeholder community make. We participate as a government in the Governmental Advisory Committee, and we will continue to do that in future and will be vigorous advocates for a free and open internet.

The special role we play with respect of the IANA functions is totally administrative and clerical, yet it has been exploited by other governments — authoritarian governments — to our detriment. We’ve taken that off to the table by announcing this transition and as we complete it we will continue to see the benefits of that through the continued adoption and support for this model by the developing world.

His views were echoed by ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade more than once during the hearing, talking about how the transition process is designed to bring on board the “middle countries”, rather than already-allied nations or the fringe, minority authoritarian countries.

He cited Brazil as the key example of a government once in favor of more ITU control of the internet that is now, largely due to Chehade’s outreach and its key role in the NETmundial conference, firmly in the multi-stakeholder model camp.

The entire archived hearing can be viewed here.

ICANN ditches plan to give governments more power

Kevin Murphy, February 25, 2015, Domain Policy

ICANN has quietly abandoned a plan to make it harder for its board of directors to go against the wishes of national governments.

A proposal to make a board two-thirds super-majority vote a requirement for overruling advice provided by the Governmental Advisory Committee is now “off the table”, ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade told a US Senate committee hearing today.

The threshold, which would replace the existing simple majority requirement, was proposed last August as a result of talks in a board-GAC working group.

At the time, I described the proposal as a “fait accompli” — the board had even said it would use the higher threshold in votes on GAC advice in advance of the required bylaws change.

But now it’s seemingly gone.

The news emerged during a hearing of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation today in Washington DC, which was looking into the transition of US oversight of ICANN’s IANA functions to a multi-stakeholder process.

Asked by Sen. Deb Fischer whether the threshold change was consistent with ICANN’s promise to limit the power of governments in a post-US-oversight world, Chehade replied:

You are right, this would be incongruent with the stated goals [of the IANA transition]. The board has looked at that matter and has pushed it back. So it’s off the table.

That came as news to me, and to others listening to the hearing.

The original plan to change the bylaws came in a board resolution last July.

If it’s true that the board has since changed its mind, that discussion does not appear to have been documented in any of the published minutes of ICANN board meetings.

If the board has indeed changed its mind, it has done so with the near-unanimous blessing of the rest of the ICANN community (although I doubt the GAC was/will be happy).

The public comment period on the proposal attracted dozens of responses from community members, all quite vigorously opposed to the changes.

The ICANN report on the public comments was due October 2, so it’s currently well over four months late.

UPDATE 1: An ICANN spokesperson just got in touch to say that the board decided to ditch its plan in response to the negative public comments.

UPDATE 2: Another ICANN spokesperson has found a reference to the board’s U-turn in the transcript of a meeting between the ICANN board and GAC at the Los Angeles public meeting last October. A brief exchange between ICANN chair Steve Crocker and Heather Dryden, then chair of the GAC, reads:

DRYDEN: On the issue of the proposed bylaw changes to amend them to a third — two-thirds majority to reject or take a decision not consistent with the GAC’s advice, are there any updates there that the Board would like to — the Board or NGPC? I think it’s a Board matter? Yes?


Well, you’ve seen the substantial reaction to the proposal.

The reaction embodies, to some extent, misunderstanding of what the purpose and the context was, but it also is very instructive to all of us that the timing of all this comes in the middle of the broader accountability question.

So it’s — I think it’s in everyone’s interest, GAC’s interest, Board’s interest, and the entire community’s interest, to put this on hold and come back and revisit this in a larger context, and that’s our plan.

So it seems that the ICANN board did tip its hand a few months ago, but not many people, myself included, noticed.

Why you can’t register emojis in gTLDs

Kevin Murphy, February 25, 2015, Domain Tech

The popular “emoji” smiley faces are banned as gTLD domain names for technical reasons, according to ICANN.

Emojis are a form of emoticon that originated on Japanese mobile networks but are now used by 12-year-old girls worldwide due to their support on Android and iPhone operating systems.

CokeIt emerged last week that Coca-Cola has registered a bunch of smiley-face domain names under .ws, the Samoan ccTLD, for use in an billboard advertising campaign in Puerto Rico.

.ws was selected because it’s one of only a few TLDs that allow emojis to be registered. Coke is spinning its choice of TLD as an abbreviation for “We Smile”.

This got me thinking: would emojis be something new gTLD registries could start to offer in order to differentiate themselves?

Coke’s emoji domains, it turns out, are just a form of internationalized domain name, like Chinese or Arabic or Greek.

Emoji symbols are in the Unicode standard and could therefore be converted to the ASCII-based, DNS-compatible Punycode under the hood in web browsers and other software.

One of Coke’s (smiley-face).ws domain names is represented as in the DNS.

Unfortunately for gTLD registries, ICANN told DI last night that emojis are not permitted in gTLDs.

“Emoticons cannot be used as IDNs as these code points are DISALLOWED under IDNA2008 protocol,” ICANN said in a statement.

IDNA2008 is the latest version of the IETF standard used to define what Unicode characters can and cannot appear in IDNs.

RFC 5892 specifies what can be included in an IDNA2008 domain name, eliminating thousands of letters and symbols that were permissible under the old IDNA2003 standard.

These characters were ostensibly banned due to the possibility of IDN homograph attacks — when bad guys set up spoof web sites on IDNs that look almost indistinguishable from a domain used by, for example, a bank or e-commerce site.

But Unicode, citing Google data, reckons symbols could only ever be responsible for 0.000016% of such attacks. Most homograph attacks are much simpler, relying on for example the visual similarity of I and l.

Regardless, because IDNA2008 only allows Unicode characters that are actually used in spoken human languages, and because gTLD registries are contractually obliged to adhere to the IDNA2008 technical standards, emojis are not permitted in gTLDs.

All new gTLDs have to provide ICANN with a list of the Unicode code points they plan to support as IDNs when they undergo pre-delegation testing. Asking to support characters incompatible with IDNA2008 would result in a failed test, ICANN tells us.

ICANN does not regulate ccTLDs, of course, so the .ws registry is free to offer whatever domains it wants.

However, ICANN said that emoji domains are only currently supported by software that has not implemented the newer IDN protocol:

Emoticon domains only work in software that has not implemented the latest IDNA standard. Only the older, deprecated version of the IDNA standard allowed emoticons, more or less by accident. Over time, these domains will increasingly not work correctly as software vendors update their implementations.

So Coke, while winning brownie points for novelty, may have registered a bunch of damp squibs.

ICANN also told us that, regardless of what the technical standards say, you’d never be able to apply for an emoticon as a gTLD due to the “letters only” principle, which already bans numbers in top-level strings.

Chehade to face Congressional grilling this week

Kevin Murphy, February 23, 2015, Domain Policy

ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade is heading to Washington DC this week to defend plans to decouple the organization from formal US oversight in front of a potentially hostile committee of Congresspeople.

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation will meet this Wednesday at 1000 local time to grill Chehade and others on the plan to remove the US government from the current triumvirate responsible for managing changes to the DNS root zone under the IANA arrangements.

He will be joined by Larry Strickling, who as head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration is the US government’s point person on the transition, and Ambassador David Gross, a top DC lawyer formerly with the Department of State.

All three men are pro-transition, while the Republican-tilted committee is likely to be much more skeptical.

The blurb for the Wednesday hearing reads:

As the U.S. government considers relinquishing control over certain aspects of Internet governance to the private sector, concerns remain that the loss of U.S. involvement over the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) could empower foreign powers — acting through intergovernmental institutions or other surrogates — to gain increased control over critical Internet functions.

Republicans and right-leaning media commentators have warned that handing over IANA oversight to a multistakeholder body risks giving too much power to governments the US doesn’t like, such as Russia and China.

Several bills introduced in the House and Senate over the last year would have given Congress much more power to delay or deny the transition.

An amendment to an appropriations bill approved in December prevents the NTIA from spending any taxpayer money on relinquishing its DNS root oversight role until after September 30 this year, the same day that the current IANA contract expires.

This effectively prevents a transition during the current IANA contract’s run. Strickling recently said that the NTIA is complying with this legislation, but noted that it does not prevent the agency participating in the development of the transition proposal.

ICANN community working groups are currently working on plans for ICANN oversight post-NTIA and for addressing ICANN accountability.

These documents are hoped to be ready to sent to the NTIA by July, so the NTIA will have enough time to consider them before September 30.

Strickling recently addressed this date in a speech at the State of the Net conference in Washington, saying:

I want to reiterate again that there is no hard and fast deadline for this transition. September 2015 has been a target date because that is when the base period of our contract with ICANN expires. But this should not be seen as a deadline. If the community needs more time, we have the ability to extend the IANA functions contract for up to four years. It is up to the community to determine a timeline that works best for stakeholders as they develop a proposal that meets NTIA’s conditions, but also works.

Opponents of the transition say that because the NTIA is prevented from terminating the IANA contract before October 1, the NTIA will have no choice but to extend it until September 30, 2017.

Given that 2016 is a presidential election year in the US, Barack Obama would be a private citizen again by the time the next opportunity to transition comes around, they say.

Which presidential hopeful — from either party — would not buckle if asked whether he supports a plan to let Iran run the internet? That’s the political logic at work here.

Chehade himself told the AFP news agency earlier this month that the transition would have to happen before the 2016 elections, to avoid political distractions.

I’m not so sure I agree with the premise that, due to the restraints imposed by the appropriation bill, the transition now has to happen under the next president’s administration.

In my layman’s reading of the current IANA contract, the NTIA is able to terminate it for the “convenience of the government” pretty much whenever it wants.

There’s also an option to extend the contract by up to six months. The NTIA exercised this option in March 2012 when it did not approve of ICANN’s first renewal proposals.

Community proposes way to replace US oversight of ICANN

Kevin Murphy, December 2, 2014, Domain Policy

The process of removing the US government from management of the DNS root system took a significant step forward today, with the publication of a community proposal for a transition.

The Cross Community Working Group, which convened itself earlier this year, has published a proposal to replace the US with a new contracting company and a bunch of committees.

The DNS community has been tasked with coming up with a way to transition stewardship of the IANA functions from the US National Telecommunications and Information administration, which said in March this year that it intends to relinquish its historic, but largely symbolic, Damoclean role.

After discussions which by any measure of ICANN policy-making have been forcibly swift, the 119-member CWG has now presented two broad options.

The first, a description of which forms the bulk of its report, would see ICANN overseen by a new, lightweight non-profit company managed by multi-stakeholder committees.

The other, which doesn’t get much airplay in the document, would see ICANN simply take over the NTIA’s responsibilities entirely. Accountability would be provided by enhanced accountability processes within the existing ICANN structure.

Under the primary proposal, the CWG was keen to avoid creating something ICANN-like to oversee ICANN, due to the complexity and cost, but it also decided that ICANN remains the best place to house the IANA function for the foreseeable future.

It’s proposed a new company, known currently as “Contract Co”, that would be replace the NTIA as the party that contracts with ICANN to run IANA. It would have “little or no staff”.

The contract itself would be developed and overseen by a Multistakeholder Review Team, comprising people drawn from each area of the ICANN community.

The precise make-up of this MRT is still open to discussion and will be, I suspect, the subject of some pretty fierce debate as the various competing interest groups wrestle to have themselves with the strongest possible representation.

Like the NTIA, the MRT would have the power to pick another entity to run IANA in future, should ICANN screw up.

A new Customer Standing Panel would comprise executives from gTLD and ccTLD registries — the “customers” of IANA’s naming functions — and would have the job of relaying the concerns of registries to the MRT, keeping ICANN accountable to its primary users.

Finally, there’d be an Independent Appeals Panel. Any IANA decision — presumably including the delegation or redelegation of a TLD — could be appealed to this IAP. This function would very probably be outsourced on a case-by-case basis to an existing arbitration body.

Is this worrying? Arbitration panels handling new gTLD disputes haven’t exactly inspired confidence in their ability to provide consistent — or even rational — decisions over the last year or so. Should the last word on what goes into or stays out of the DNS root really go to the same folk who think .通販 and .shop are too confusingly similar to coexist on the internet?

There doesn’t appear to be anything massively surprising in the proposal. When ICANN or its community try to solve a problem the answer is usually a new committee, and the ideas of MRTs, CSPs and IAPs do seem to mirror existing structures to an extent.

The whole thing can be downloaded and read over here.

There’s a December 22 deadline for comment. It will be submitted to the IANA Stewardship Transition Coordination Group by the end of January, with a view to getting a final proposal to the US government next summer in time for the hoped-for September 30 handover date.