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ICANN “intervention” needed on TLD ownership rules

Kevin Murphy, October 28, 2010, Domain Registries

ICANN’s board of directors is today likely to step in to create rules on which kinds of companies should be able to apply for new top-level domains.

Chairman Peter Dengate Thrush now says “intervention appears to be required” on the issue of registry-registrar cross-ownership, after a GNSO working group failed to create a consensus policy.

In an email to the vertical integration working group yesterday, Dengate Thrush thanked particpants for their efforts and added:

The board is faced, in the face of absence of a GNSO position, to examine what should be done. This is a matter we are actively considering.

My sense is that, while reluctant to appear to be making policy, the Board is unwilling to allow stalemate in the GNSO policy development process to act as an impediment to implementing other major policy work of the GNSO, which calls for the introduction of new gTLDS. Some kind of Board intervention appears to be required, and we are considering that.

Currently, placeholder text in the new TLD Draft Applicant Guidebook calls for a 2% cross-ownership cap and effectively bans registrars from applying to become registries.

Such a scenario would very likely make single-registrant “.brand” TLDs unworkable. Canon, for example, would be forced to pay a registrar every time it wanted to create a new domain in .canon.

It would also put a serious question mark next to the viability of geographical and cultural TLDs that may be of limited appeal to mass-market registrars.

Many in the VI working group are in favor of more liberal ownership rules, with larger ownership caps and carve-outs for .brands and “orphan” TLDs that are unable to find registrars to partner with.

But others, notably including Go Daddy and Afilias, which arguably stand to gain more economically from the status quo, favor a stricter separation of powers.

This latter bloc believes that allowing the integration of registry and registrar functions would enable abusive practices.

Dengate Thrush’s email has already raised eyebrows. ICANN is, after all, supposed to create policies using a bottom-up process.

Go Daddy’s policy point man, Tim Ruiz, wrote:

I am hopeful that you did not intend to imply that if the bottom up process does not produce the reults that some of the Board and Staff wanted then the Board will just create its own policy top down.

I hope that the Board keeps its word regarding VI as it was given to the GNSO. To not do so would make it difficult to have any confidence in the Board whatsoever.

It’s a tightrope, and no mistake.

Employ Media answers .jobs critics

Kevin Murphy, October 27, 2010, Domain Registries

The .jobs registry has responded to insinuations from its critics that it set out to break its own sponsorship rules with a plan to open up the TLD to generic and geographic domain names.

In a filing with ICANN (pdf), Employ Media denies that its liberalization program would permit people from outside the human resources sector to register domains, in violation of its Charter.

Employ Media categorically rejects such allegations as unfounded speculation, and made solely to delay the launch of the .JOBS Phased Allocation Program.

The program, which would see non-companyname .jobs registrations allowed for the first time, has already been approved, but a Reconsideration Request was filed by the .JOBS Charter Compliance Coalition in an effort to get the decision reversed.

The Coalition is an ad-hoc group of jobs boards that believe Employ Media’s plans could harm their businesses by attracting users of nursingjobs.com (for example) to nursing.jobs.

Employ Media plans to allocate thousands of premium domains such as these to the DirectEmployers Association, in order to feed traffic to a huge free jobs board at universe.jobs.

The Coalition sent ICANN a list of questions for Employ Media, and ICANN followed up last week with 13 of its own questions, all of which seem to dance around the issue of whether this was kosher.

The registry’s responses, published by ICANN a couple of days ago (and subsequently disappeared), basically deny that it has done anything that would allow non-Charter registrants into its TLD.

It also seeks to put distance between itself and DirectEmployers:

At the time of the 5 August 2010 Board action [approving the program], Employ Media did NOT have any intention of registering names under the Phased Allocation Plan to any entity other than Employ Media.

That appears to be a roundabout way of describing its original plan to register all the premium names to itself, but to allow DirectEmployers to use them, basically hacking its own registry contract.

Universe.jobs, for example, is registered in Employ Media’s own name, but appears to be primarily operated by DirectEmployers (blog posts from Employ Media executives notwithstanding).

Businesses to object to Arab UDRP provider

Kevin Murphy, October 27, 2010, Domain Policy

ICANN’s business constituency is to object to a new Jordan-based UDRP provider, saying that no new providers should be approved until rules governing their behavior are put in place.

The BC reckons that UDRP decisions need to be more consistent and predictable, and that a good way to achieve this would be with standard accountability mechanisms.

In a draft position statement, expected to be finalized and filed with ICANN tomorrow, the BC says that it:

strongly advocates that ICANN must first implement a standard mechanism with any and all UDRP arbitration providers that defines and constrains their authority and powers, and establishes regular and standardized review by ICANN with flexible and effective means of enforcement.

Its comment is expected to be filed in response to the Arab Center for Domain Name Dispute Resolution’s request for official recognition as a UDRP provider last month.

The BC does not appear to object to the ACDR on its own merits or on the basis of its location.

The statement notes that registrars are bound by contracts setting the rules for domain registrations, but that UDRP providers can force transfers unconstrained by any ICANN guidelines or oversight.

It’s well-known that UDRP decisions from the various existing providers are currently about as predictable as flipping a coin, with panelists frequently interpreting the rules along quite different lines.

The BC seems concerned that this could be exacerbated as more UDRP providers are approved and as new TLD registries start popping up in different countries.

The draft statement notes that currently about 99% of UDRP cases are heard by WIPO and NAF, and that most gTLDs are “based in a limited number of national jurisdictions”.

Survey reveals demand for .brand TLDs

Kevin Murphy, October 26, 2010, Domain Registries

Almost half of trademark-conscious companies are considering a “.brand” top-level domain, according to a survey carried out by World Trademark Review magazine.

The survey also found that there is much more interest in new TLDs among marketing folk than lawyers, which is perhaps not surprising.

So far, only a few potential .brand applicants have been revealed. Canon has been the most brazen about its plans, but others including IBM and Nokia have also dropped hints.

The WTR reported:

WTR’s survey of in-house trademark counsel, attorneys in law firms and marketing professionals found that an average of 54% responded “Yes”, “It’s likely” or “Maybe” when asked whether their company/client would apply for a new gTLD. Of these, 81% confirmed, like Canon, that the string would be their master brand.

A break-down of these numbers kindly provided by WTR show that “Yes” was easily the least common response, but that marketing professionals expressed more interest than lawyers.

Asked whether their company would apply to run a new TLD, only 6.8% and 9.5% of in-house counsel responded “Yes” or “It’s likely”, compared to 19.6% and 15.2% for marketers.

About 54% and 33% responded “No” to the same question, respectively. The remainder were on the fence with a “Maybe” response.

Lawyers in private practice, when asked the same question, were more confident than their in-house counterparts, with 18.9% saying it was “likely” at least one client would want a gTLD

Whichever way you cut it, this adds up to a pretty decent chunk of .brand applicants. ICANN has previously said it expects between 100 and 200 such applications in the first round.

About 350 people responded to the survey in total. The full results and analysis are published in the latest edition of WTR.

Former ICANN chief speaks out against new TLD morality veto

Kevin Murphy, October 26, 2010, Domain Policy

Former ICANN president and CEO Paul Twomey has expressed his support for rules curbing the ability of international governments to object to new top-level domains.

Twomey’s suggestions could be seen as going even further to limit government powers in the new TLD process than previous recommendations from the community.

The advice came during the ICANN comment period on the so-called “Rec6” recommendations, which previously sought to create an objection process based on “morality and public order” or “MOPO” concerns.

There had been a worry from some elements of the ICANN community that backwards governments could use Rec6 to arbitrarily block controversial new TLDs on national interest grounds.

But a cross-constituency working group, which included a few members of ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee, instead developed recommendations that would create a much narrower objections process with a greater emphasis on free speech.

Twomey, who quit ICANN in June 2009, has now expressed broad support for the working group’s recommendations, and suggests a few tweaks to make the process less open to abuse.

He said ICANN “should be careful not to view one government alone as having veto power over any particular gTLD string which is designed to serve a global or at least international user group”.

Notably, Twomey has urged ICANN to steer clear of the phrase “national interest”, which appears in the current Rec6 recommendations, and instead use “national law”.

He reasons that giving weight to “national interests” could enable fairly junior civil servants to object to new TLDs without the full backing of their governments or legislation.

phrases such as “perceived national interest” reflect a degree of political consideration which can be more fleeting, be expressed by very junior officials without Ministerial or Parliamentary approval, and often is a matter of debate between different groups within the country and government. In some respects it is similar to the phrase “public policy”. I remember a GAC member many years ago stating that “public policy is anything I decide it is”.

Twomey then recommends that even when a government has an objection based on an actual national law, that law “should only derive from a national law which is in accordance with the principle of international law.”

A law which violated human rights treaties, for example, or which was hurriedly passed specifically in order to scupper a TLD bid, would therefore not be valid grounds for objection.

Twomey’s reasoning here is fascinating and a little bit shocking:

without such a linkage, a unique, one-off power to a government would be open to gaming by well-funded commercial interests with political influence.

I am aware of some commercial entities involved in the ICANN space in years past that quietly boasted of their ability to get laws passed in certain small jurisdictions which would suit their commercial interests in competing with other players. This is not behaviour the ICANN Board should inadvertently incent.

I’ll leave it for you to speculate about which companies Twomey is referring to here. I don’t think there are many firms in the domain name space that well-funded.

Prior to becoming ICANN’s president, Twomey chaired the GAC as the Australian representative. He’s currently president of Leagle and managing director of Argo Pacific, his own consulting firm.

His full commentary, which delves into more areas than I can get into here, can be found here. The Rec6 working group’s recommendations can be found here (pdf). My previous coverage of the Rec6/MOPO issue can be found here.