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Under global spotlight, ICANN forced to choose between GAC and the GNSO

Kevin Murphy, March 27, 2014, Domain Policy

ICANN has angered the Generic Names Supporting Organization and risks angering the Governmental Advisory Committee as it prevaricates over a controversial rights protection mechanism.

It looks like the ICANN board of directors is going to have decide whether to reject either a hard-won unanimous consensus GNSO policy recommendation or a piece of conflicting GAC advice.

ICANN is “stuck in a bind”, according to chairman Steve Crocker, and it’s a bind that comes at a time when the bottom-up multi-stakeholder process is under the global microscope.

The issue putting pressure on the board this week at the ICANN 49 public meeting here in Singapore is the protection of the names and acronyms of intergovernmental organizations.

IGOs pressured the GAC a few years ago into demanding protection in new gTLDs. They want every IGO name and acronym — hundreds of strings — blocked from registration by default.

For example, the Economic Cooperation Organization would have “economiccooperationorganization” and “eco” blocked at the second level in all new gTLDs, in much the same way as country names are reserved.

Other IGO acronyms include potentially useful dictionary-word strings like “who” and “idea”. As I’ve said before, protecting the useful acronyms of obscure IGOs that never get cybersquatted anyway is just silly.

But when ICANN approved the new gTLD program in 2011, for expediency it placed a temporary block on some of these strings and asked the GNSO to run a formal Policy Development Process to figure out a permanent fix.

In November 2012 it added hundreds more IGO names and acronyms to the list, while the GNSO continued its work.

The GNSO concluded its PDP last year with a set of strong consensus recommendations. The GNSO Council then approved them in a unanimous vote at the Buenos Aires meeting last November.

Those recommendations would remove the IGO acronyms from the temporary reserved names list, but would enable IGOs to enter those strings into the Trademark Clearinghouse instead.

Once in the TMCH, the acronyms would be eligible for the standard 90-day Trademark Claims mechanism, which alerts brand owners when somebody registers a name matching their mark.

The IGOs would not, however, be eligible for sunrise periods, so they wouldn’t have the special right to register their names before new gTLDs go into general availability.

The PDP did not make a recommendation that would allow IGOs to use the Uniform Rapid Suspension service or UDRP.

Unfortunately for ICANN, the GNSO recommendations conflict with the GAC’s current advice.

The GAC wants (pdf) the IGOs to be eligible for Trademark Claims on a “permanent” basis, as opposed to the 90-day minimum that trademark owners get. It also wants IGOs — which don’t generally enjoy trademark protection — to be made eligible for the URS, UDRP or some similar dispute resolution process.

Since Buenos Aires, the ICANN board’s New gTLD Program Committee has been talking to the GAC and IGOs about a compromise. That compromise has not yet been formally approved, but some initial thinking has been circulated by Crocker to the GAC and GNSO Council.

ICANN proposes to give IGOs the permanent Trademark Claims service that the GAC has asked for, as well as access to the URS. Both policies would have to be modified to allow this.

It would also create an entirely new arbitration process to act as a substitute for UDRP for IGOs, which are apparently legally unable to submit to the jurisdiction of national courts.

The compromise, while certainly overkill for a bunch of organizations that could hardly be seen as ripe cybersquatting targets, may seem like a pragmatic way for the board to reconcile the GNSO recommendations with the GAC advice without pissing anyone off too much.

But members of the GNSO are angry that the board appears to be on the verge of fabricating new policy out of whole cloth, ignoring its hard-won PDP consensus recommendations.

That’s top-down policy-making, something which is frowned upon within ICANN circles.

Under the ICANN bylaws, the board is allowed to reject a GNSO consensus recommendation, if it is found to be “not in the best interests of the ICANN community or ICANN”. A two-thirds majority is needed.

“That’s not what happened here,” Neustar’s vice president of registry services Jeff Neuman told the board during a meeting here in Singapore on Tuesday.

“Instead, the board on its own developed policy,” he said. “It did not accept, it did not reject, it developed policy. But there is no room in the ICANN bylaws for the board to do this with respect to a PDP.”

He said that the GNSO working group had already considered elements of ICANN’s compromise proposal and specifically rejected them during the PDP. Apparently speaking for the Registries Stakeholder Group, Neuman said the compromise should be taken out of consideration.

Bret Fausett of Uniregistry added: “The process here is as important to us as the substance. We think procedure wasn’t followed here and we detect a lack of understanding at the board level that process wasn’t followed.”

The GNSO Council seems to agree that the ICANN board can either accept or reject its recommendations, but what it can’t do is just write its own policies for the sake of a quiet life with the GAC.

To fully accept the GNSO’s recommendations would, however, necessitate rejecting the GAC’s advice. That’s also possible under the bylaws, but it’s a lengthy process.

Director Chris Disspain told the GNSO Council on Sunday that the board estimates it would take at least six months to reject the GAC’s advice, during which time the temporary reservations of IGO acronyms would remain active.

He further denied that the board is trying to develop policy from the top.

“It is not top-down, it’s not intended to be top-down, I can’t really emphasis that enough,” he told the Council.

He described the bylaws ability to reject the GNSO recommendations as a “sledgehammer”.

“It would be nice to be able to not have to use the sledgehammer,” he said. “But if we did have to use the sledgehammer we should only be using it because we’ve all agreed that’s what we have to do.”

Chair Steve Crocker summed up the board’s predicament during the Sunday meeting.

“We always do not want to be in the position of trying to craft our own policy decision,” he said. “So we’re stuck in this bind where we’re getting contrary advice from sources that feel very strongly that they’ve gone through their processes and have spoken and so that’s the end of it from that perspective.”

The bind is especially tricky because it’s coming at a time when ICANN is suddenly becoming the focus of a renewed global interest in internet governance issues.

The US government has said that it’s willing to walk away from its direct oversight of ICANN, but only if what replaces it is a “multi-stakeholder” rather than “intergovernmental” mechanism

If ICANN were to reject the proceeds of a two-year, multi-stakeholder, bottom-up, consensus policy, what message would that send to the world about multistakeholderism?

On the other hand, if ICANN rejects the advice of the GAC, what message would it send about governments’ ability to effectively participate as a stakeholder in the process?

Clearly, something is broken when the procedures outlined in ICANN’s bylaws make compromise impossible.

Until that is fixed — perhaps by getting the GAC involved in GNSO policy-making, something that has been talked about to no end for years — ICANN will have to continue to make these kinds of hard choices.

Fielding a softball question during a meeting with the GNSO Council on Saturday, ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade said that “to value the process as much as I value the result” is the best piece of advice he’s received.

“Policies get made here,” Chehade told the Council, “they should not be made at the board level, especially when a consensus policy was made by the GNSO. Akram [Atallah, Generic Domains Division president] today was arguing very hard at the board meeting that even if we don’t think it’s the right thing, but it is the consensus policy of the GNSO, we should stick with it.”

Will the board stick with it? Director Bruce Tonkin told the registries on Monday that the board would try to address their concerns by today, so we may not have to wait long for an answer.

.wine is a go

Kevin Murphy, March 26, 2014, Domain Policy

ICANN has approved the new gTLDs .wine and .vin, despite objections from the European Union.

In a resolution this weekend, published today, its board’s New gTLD Program Committee said “that the applications for .WINE and .VIN should proceed through the normal evaluation process.”

The resolution acknowledges the Governmental Advisory Committee’s lack of consensus against the two wine-related gTLDs, but not the EU’s view that geographic indicators such as “Champagne” should be protected.

European nations thought both gTLDs should be put on hold until the applicants agreed to these special protections, but the US, Australia and other nations disagreed.

ICANN sought the legal opinion (pdf) of a French law professor in its decision-making.

The EU is going to be pretty angry about this, but in the absence of a consensus objection from the GAC against the strings, it appears that the NGPC has made the right call in this case.

Donuts plays the genericide card in showdown with Belgian government over .spa

Kevin Murphy, March 19, 2014, Domain Policy

Donuts has asked ICANN to approved its .spa new gTLD application over the objections of the Belgian government, saying the town of Spa no longer has exclusive rights to the string.

As we reported at the weekend, Spa is asking Donuts and rival applicant Asia Spa and Wellness Promotion Council for an up to 25% cut of profits from .spa, as well as the right to help manage the TLD at the registry’s expense.

ASWPC has agreed to these terms, but Donuts has not. It says it offered Spa extra protections for sensitive names, but does not want to hand over any managerial control or profit.

Yesterday, Donuts wrote to ICANN (pdf) to say that “spa” is now so generic that no interest would be served by ICANN enforcing the city’s demands. Here’s the meat of it:

While the City of Spa maintains a historical link to the word “spa”, that word long ago evolved as a globally recognized generic term by people who have never even heard of the city of its origin. The public interest served by making that term available to a global community of spa users far outweighs any risk of confusion with the city of the same name. And for those names that may cause confusion, Donuts has provided a rigorous series of additional protections and controls.

The City of Spa gave the word “spa” to the world many centuries ago, and the world has done a great deal with it. Just as attorneys for the City of Spa don’t fly around the world handing cease-­and-desist notices to resort operators and hot-­tub manufacturers, we do not believe it is appropriate for them to overrun ICANN procedure to try to exert control over how that term is used in the Internet’s global addressing system.

I’m going to raise my hand to say that I’d never heard of Spa before this particular controversy arose, and I expect that goes for most of the people reading this article. Donuts surely has a point.

But that’s not to say Spa doesn’t have a point too. There are plenty of governments that managed to squeeze concessions out of applicants for gTLDs matching place names in their territories, with little complaint from applicants; it’s just that the line was drawn at capital cities, something which Spa is not.

Donuts urges ICANN to give no weight to the Spa-ASWPC deal and to move both applications forward to the next stage of the process — contention resolution.

We may see some progress at the ICANN meeting in Singapore next week, when ICANN will surely press the Governmental Advisory Committee for further advice on this string.

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