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Forty weddings and a funeral? .wed is dead but may come up for auction

Kevin Murphy, October 12, 2020, Domain Registries

.wed has become the first commercial, open, non-branded new gTLD to have its registry contract unilaterally terminated by ICANN, and it could soon be looking for a new home.

ICANN terminated the contract with US-based Atgron last week, almost three years after imposing emergency measures to protect registrants after the company’s business model failed miserably.

The company wanted to provide a space for engaged couples to promote their weddings for about $50 a year, but its business model was based around basically forcing registrants to abandon their names by charging a $30,000 renewal fee after year two.

Unsurprisingly, it attracted few registrants — about 300 at its 2016 peak — and only one registrar.

By the time the end of 2017 rolled around, it was languishing at 39 domains (for the purposes of a whimsical headline, let’s round it up to 40) and its agreement with its back-end registry operator was on the verge of expiring.

In the hope of keeping its customers’ domains working, Atgron turned off its Whois for a week, attracting the attention of ICANN and triggering a criterion for transitioning to an Emergency Back-End Registry Operator.

It’s been on an EBERO, in this case Nominet, since December 2017, with all domains essentially frozen.

In the meanwhile, it’s been fighting against contract termination with ICANN, first in mediation and then in arbitration.

Last month, the arbitrator ruled that Atgron was in breach for failure to pay its ICANN fees, and ICANN terminated the registry agreement October 5.

.wed is certainly not the first new gTLD to get terminated by ICANN — there’s been about a dozen to date — but it is the first to be a non-dot-brand.

This means ICANN will get to test its Registry Transition Process for the first time.

When a dot-brand dies, ICANN just removes it from the root and lets it stay dead on the grounds that there’s no plausible successor and no registrants will suffer.

In this case, we’re talking about an open, non-branded gTLD with a generic string that could potentially rack up many thousands of registrations.

There’d be no obligation for a future operator to take on the silly business model.

The Registry Transition Process will go one of two ways.

If Atgron has already picked a successor registry, ICANN will conduct a series of evaluations that look like they would be a piece of cake for any existing gTLD portfolio owner to pass.

But if Atgron has no heir apparent, it goes to an RFP which basically amounts to an auction, with the company prepared to pay Atgron the most money becoming the company’s presumed preferred successor.

With Atgron still owing ICANN money — presumably hundreds of thousands of dollars — in past-due fees, I’ve little doubt what ICANN’s preferred outcome would be.

For Atgron, there’s the distinct possibility that it could make more money from crashing .wed into the ground than it ever did by actually selling domains.

.wed is not a bad string — it’s short, meaningful, and has a niche of potential registrants already forced to overpay for almost everything else — and I’m fairly confident it could easily find a new home at an existing registry.

Holy Scheisse! Did you know ICANN 69 starts TOMORROW?

Kevin Murphy, October 12, 2020, Domain Policy

ICANN is starting its ICANN 69 public annual general meeting four days earlier than originally planned, and it appears to have only publicly announced the date change 24 hours in advance.

How’s that for transparency?

Usually, ICANN AGMs kick off formally on the Monday morning and run through the Thursday afternoon, but meetings between community groups start taking place the previous Friday, leading to a seven-day continuous meeting.

For ICANN 69, originally planned for Hamburg but now of course an online-only experience, ICANN has removed the Friday and weekend sessions and split the week in two.

There’ll be three “Community Days” from October 13 (which is tomorrow when I’m posting this but possibly today by the time you read it), three days off, and then four days of “Plenary Sessions”, beginning with the opening ceremony on Monday morning.

The community days include stuff like policy working group meetings, but they also include the top-level interactions between each constituency group, including the Governmental Advisory Committee, and the ICANN board of directors.

These traditional airing of grievances, usually on “constituency day” Tuesday, are where the tensions and hot topics of interest for the whole community are raised, and always worth listening to.

The decision to shake up the schedule appears to have been made some time in September. Last time I checked ICANN’s meetings page, September 2, it still showed the old October 17 start date.

What I find utterly baffling is that ICANN does not seem have made a formal public announcement of the date change, despite having blogged or made announcements about various aspects of the meeting several times.

I genuinely only found out today, reading this blog post that ICANN put out today, just one day before the meeting starts.

It certainly seems that the information has filtered out to the parts of the community that actually need to participate in the various sessions.

But what about the rest of us? Unless you’ve registered and logged in to the ICANN 69 web site since the changes were made, I’m not sure how you were meant to know.

Did you know?

I had plans to get my toenails done tomorrow.

.jobs plans to raise millions from premium names after dumping its sponsor

Kevin Murphy, October 6, 2020, Domain Registries

Third time lucky for .jobs?

Having had its first two business models fail, Employ Media has appealed to ICANN to scrap the cumbersome restrictions that have dogged .jobs for 15 years and allow it to raise potentially millions by auctioning off premium domains.

.jobs is one of a handful of “sponsored” gTLDs applied for in the 2003 round, but now it wants to dump its sponsor and substantially liberalize its eligibility policies.

.jobs has been sponsored by the Society for Human Resource Management since its approval by ICANN back in 2005, but Employ Media wants a divorce.

It’s also asking ICANN to promise not to fire barrages of lawyers at it if (or, more likely, when) it attempts to auction off tens of thousands of premium .jobs domains, some of which are currently carrying six-figure asking prices.

The gTLD was one of a handful approved in the 2003 “Sponsored TLD” round, an experimental early effort to introduce top-level competition, which also produced TLDs including .xxx, .asia, .cat and .mobi.

.jobs was originally restricted in two primary ways: only card-carrying HR professionals could register names, and they could only register the name of the company they worked for.

As you might imagine, the domains didn’t exactly fly off the shelves. By January 2010 fewer than 8,000 names had been registered, while the likes of .mobi — also “sponsored”, but far less restricted — were approaching one million.

So Employ Media took a gamble, creating what it called Universe.jobs. It registered about 40,000 domains representing professions like nursing.jobs and geographic terms like newyork.jobs, and populated the sites with job listings provided in partnership with the non-profit DirectEmployers Association.

As I reported extensively in DI’s early days, ICANN saw this as a breach of its Registry Agreement and threatened to terminate the contract. But Employ Media fought back, and ICANN eventually retreated, allowing Universe.jobs to go ahead.

I’ve thought so little about .jobs in the last eight years that I didn’t notice that Universe.jobs had also crumbled until today.

It seems DirectEmployees terminated the deal in 2018 after the registry refused to give it a bigger slice of revenue, then launched a competing for-profit service called Recruit Rooster, stranding Employ Media without a key revenue stream.

The registry sued (pdf) last year, accusing DirectEmployers of stealing its clients in violation of their agreement. While DirectEmployers denied the claims (pdf), the lawsuit was nevertheless settled last November, according to court documents.

That didn’t solve the problem of Employ Media not having a strong business model any more, of course.

So the company wrote to ICANN back in April to ask for changes to its Registry Agreement, enabling it to split from SHRM after 15 years of nominal oversight and create its own “independent” HR Council to oversee .jobs policy.

The Council would be made up of HR professionals not employed by Employ Media and would make seemingly non-binding “recommendations” about registry policy.

The proposed changes also reduce registrant eligibility to what looks like a box-checking exercise, as well as permitting Employ Media to sell off “noncompanyname” domains at auction or for premium fees.

Under the current contract, you can only register a .jobs domain if you’re a salaried HR professional and are certified by the Human Resource Certification Institute.

If the proposed changes are approved by ICANN, which seems very likely given ICANN’s history of pushing through contract amendments, the new rule will be:

Persons engaged in human resource management practices that are supportive of a code of ethics that fosters an environment of trust, ethical behavior, integrity, and excellence (as exemplified in the current Society for Human Resource Management (“SHRM”) Code of Ethical and Professional Standards in Human Resource Management or other similar codes) each, a “Qualified Applicant” may request registration of second-level domains within the TLD.

Sounds rather like something that could easily be buried in the Ts&Cs or dealt with with a simple check-box at the checkout.

The proposed new contract further guts the restricted nature of the TLD and removes the ability of the new sponsor (essentially the registry itself) to increase eligibility requirements in future.

Another amendment not flagged up prominently by ICANN on its public comment page specifically permits the registry to launch a “Phased Allocation Program” for generic second-level names, what it calls “noncompanyname” domains:

Registry Operator may elect to allocate the domain names via the following processes: 1) Request for Proposals (RFP) to invite interested parties to propose specific plans for registration, use and promotion of domains that are not their company name; 2) By auction that offers domains not allocated through the RFP process; and 3) A first-come, first-served real-time release of any domains not registered through the RFP or auction processes. Registry Operator reserves the right to not allocate any of such names. The domain names included within the scope of the Phased Allocation Program shall be limited to noncompanyname.TLD domain names, not including all reserved names as identified in Specification 5 of this Agreement.

Basically, Employ Media plans to sell off the tens of thousands of Universe.jobs domains it still has registered to itself, potentially raising millions in the process. One and two-character domains will also be released, subject to ICANN rules.

Many of these domains, even universe.jobs itself, seem to have make-an-offer landing pages already, with suggested prices such as $500,000 for hotel.jobs and $750,000 for us.jobs.

Bizarrely, these landers have a logo branding .jobs as “a legacy TLD”, a slogan I imagine is meaningless to almost anyone outside the domain industry and not particularly evocative or sexy.

The sum of all this is that .jobs is arguably on the verge of becoming a sponsored TLD in name only, with the potential for a big windfall for the registry.

Oh, and it’s all up for public comment before ICANN gives final approval to the contract changes. Comments close November 16.

Will anyone begrudge the company a chance at success, after 15 years of being handcuffed by its own policies?

I can imagine Donuts may have a view, operating as it does the competing .careers, which currently has fewer than 8,000 regs and is almost certainly the weaker string.

Peaceful transfer of power? GNSO’s next chair is a shoo-in

Kevin Murphy, October 5, 2020, Domain Policy

Unlike other upcoming democratic processes we could mention, it looks like the transition to a new chair of ICANN’s GNSO Council will be peaceful, non-controversial, and probably won’t result in widespread looting and arson.

Philippe Fouquart is the sole candidate, and he’ll be voted in with an open ballot at the ICANN AGM later this month.

As a senior techie for telecoms company Orange, he’s sat on the Council as a representative of the Internet Service Providers Constituency for the last three years. He hails from France.

Fouquart was nominated by the Non-Contracted Parties House. The Contracted Parties House, representing registries and registrars, did not field a candidate.

Unlike normal procedure, which calls for a secret paper ballot, the Council will vote via a simple, public roll-call at the AGM.

He’ll replace Verisign VP Keith Drazek, who’s chaired the Council for the last two years.

In terms of vice-chairs, the CPH has reappointed Pam Little of Chinese registrar Alibaba for another year and the NCPH has selected cybersecurity policy expert Tatiana Tropina to replace Rafik Dammak.

Two American women appointed to ICANN board

Kevin Murphy, October 5, 2020, Domain Policy

In a move that will surprise nobody, ICANN’s Nominating Committee has maintained the status quo on the ICANN board of directors by reappointing two of its previous selections.

NomCom’s two picks are Sarah Deutsch and Avri Doria, both of whom were selected in 2017 and have their first three-year term expiring later this month.

Deutsch is an intellectual property lawyer in private practice. She spent most of her career lawyering for Verizon. She’s also a director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Doria is a consultant who has spent most of her time at ICANN on the non-commercial side of the house.

Both appointees are classified as North American under ICANN’s geographical diversity quotas.

As I’ve previously reported, the reappointments were very likely. Not only are both directors hugely experienced community members, but ICANN had given NomCom strong hints that it wants to increase gender diversity on the board.

That won’t actually happen this year. The other directors whose terms are up this month are all male, and they’ve all either been reappointed or replaced with other men by their respective constituency groups.

Currently, just five of the 16 voting directors are female. Including the four non-voting members, that number rises to seven. With the new NomCom appointees, those numbers will remain the same for at least a year.

UPDATE October 5, 2020: Deutsch tells me she has not been with the Winterfeldt IP Group for two years. Her official bio on ICANN’s web site says she is with that company, but apparently those bios are no longer reliable. She’s now working for herself. My apologies for the error.

Europe’s top dogs could decide the future of Whois

Kevin Murphy, October 5, 2020, Domain Policy

ICANN is pleading with the European Commission for legal clarity to help solve the two-year-old fight over the future of Whois in the age of GDPR.

CEO Göran Marby has written to three commissioners to ask for a definitive opinion on whether a centralized, mostly automated Whois system would free up registries and registrars from legal liability if their customers’ data is inappropriately disclosed.

It’s a question ICANN has been asking for years, but this time it comes after the ICANN community has come up with a set of policy recommendations that would create something called SSAD, for System for Standardized Access/Disclosure.

SSAD is supported by registries, registrars and non-commercial interests, but has been broadly criticized by governments, intellectual property interests, security experts and others as being not fit for purpose.

While it would create a centralized gateway for funneling Whois queries to contracted parties, and an accreditation system for those making the queries, the decision to accept or refuse the query would still lie with registries and registrars and be largely human-powered.

It’s been described as a glorified, $9 million-a-year ticketing system that will fail to provide better access to Whois to those who say they need it (largely the IP interests).

But registries and registrars say they cannot accept a solution that offloads decision-making to a centralized third party such as ICANN, unless that third party shoulders all the legal liability for mistakes, and whether that’s possible is far from clear this early in the life of GDPR.

As Marby told the commissioners:

Legal clarity could mean the difference between ICANN having a fragmented system that routes most requests for access to non-public registration data from requestors to thousands of individual registries and registrars for a decision, on the one hand, versus ultimately being able to implement a centralized, predictable solution in which decisions about whether or not to disclose non-public registration data in most or all cases could be made consistently, predictably, in a manner that is transparent and accountable to requestors and data subjects alike.

In GDPR lingo, the question is who becomes the “controller” of the data in a centralized system. The controller is the one that could get slapped with huge fines in the event of a privacy breach.

There’s a concept of “successive controllers”, where data is passed through a chain of handlers. ICANN wants clarity on whether, should a registrar send data to an ICANN central gateway, its liability ends there, before the final disclosure decision is made.

It’s asking the European Commission to exercise its authority under the GDPR to force the European Data Protection Board to issue a blanket opinion clarifying these issues, with the expectation that SSAD as currently envisaged could evolve over time to be something more like what the IP folk want.

For ICANN, such a ruling could help quell criticism from its influential advisory bodies, notably the Governmental Advisory Committee, which have come out strongly against the SSAD proposals.

If ICANN chooses to wait for the European Commission and EDPB responses to its new request, it’s highly unlikely we’re going to see the ICANN board fully approve SSAD at its annual general meeting later this month.

ICANN playing ping-pong on closed generics controversy

Kevin Murphy, October 1, 2020, Domain Policy

ICANN’s board of directors has refused to comment on the issue of “closed generic” gTLDs, bouncing the thorny issue back to the community.

In its response to the SubPro working group’s draft final report this week, the board declined to be drawn on whether it thinks closed generics should be allowed in future application rounds, and urged the GNSO to figure it out, writing:

the Board is not in a position to request policy outcomes… we will base our decision on whether we reasonably believe that the policy proposal is or is not in the best interests of the ICANN community or ICANN

A closed generic is a gTLD representing a non-trademark dictionary word, where the registry is the only eligible registrant. Dozens of companies tried to snap up such TLDs in 2012

ICANN changed the rules to disallow them, based largely on government advice, before punting the issue to the community, in the form of the GNSO, back in 2015.

But despite five years of thinking, the GNSO’s SubPro working group was unable to reach a consensus on whether closed generics should be allowed or not, or whether they should be allowed, but only when there’s a “public interest” purpose.

As I noted last month, it presented three possible ways closed generics could be permitted, none of which have consensus support.

So it asked the board for guidance, and the board’s response is basically “not our problem, figure it out yourselves”.

It would be churlish to criticize the board for refusing to make policy from the top-down, of course.

Much better to wait for the next time it does make policy from the top-down, and criticize it then.

Has ICANN cut off its regulatory hands?

Kevin Murphy, October 1, 2020, Domain Policy

ICANN may have voluntarily cut off its power to enforce bans on things like cyberbullying, pornography and copyright infringement in future new gTLDs.

Its board of directors yesterday informed the chairs of SubPro, the community group working on new gTLD policy for the next round, that its ability to enforce so-called Public Interest Commitments may be curtailed in future.

A PIC is a contractual promise to act in the public interest, enforceable by ICANN through a PIC Dispute Resolution Process. All 2012 new gTLDs have them, but some have additional PICs due to the gTLD’s sensitive nature.

They were created because ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee didn’t like the look of some applications for gTLD strings it considered potentially problematic.

.sucks is a good example — registry Vox Populi has specific commitments to ban cyberbullying, porn, and parking in its registry agreement.

Should ICANN receive complaints about bullying in .sucks, it would be able to invoke the PICDRP and, at least in theory, terminate Vox Pop’s registry contract.

But these are all restrictions on content, and ICANN is singularly focused on not being a content regulator.

It’s so focused on staying away from content that four years ago, during the IANA transition, it amended its bylaws to specifically handcuff itself. The bylaws now state, front and center:

ICANN shall not regulate (i.e., impose rules and restrictions on) services that use the Internet’s unique identifiers or the content that such services carry or provide… For the avoidance of doubt, ICANN does not hold any governmentally authorized regulatory authority.

There’s a specific carve-out grandfathering contracts inked before October 1, 2016, so PICs agreed to by 2012-round applicants are still enforceable.

But it’s doubtful that any PICs not related to the security and stability of the DNS will be enforceable in future, the board told SubPro.

The issue is being raised now because SubPro is proposing a continuation of the PICs program, baking it into policy in what it calls Registry Voluntary Commitments.

Its draft final report acknowledges that ICANN’s not in the content regulation business, but most of the group were in favor of maintaining the status quo.

But the board evidently is more concerned. It told SubPro’s chairs:

The language of the Bylaws, however, could preclude ICANN from entering into future registry agreements (that materially differ in form from the 2012 round version currently in force) that include PICs that reach outside of ICANN’s technical mission as stated in the Bylaws. The language of the Bylaws specifically limits ICANN’s negotiating and contracting power to PICs that are “in service of its Mission.” The Board is concerned, therefore, that the current Bylaws language would create issues for ICANN to enter and enforce any content-related issue regarding PICs or Registry Voluntary Commitments (RVCs)

There’s a possibility that it could now be more difficult for future applicants to get their applications past GAC concerns or other complaints, particularly if their chosen string addresses a “highly sensitive or regulated industry”.

There was a “chuck it in the PICs” attitude to many controversies in the 2012 round, but with that option perhaps not available in future, it may lead to an increase in withdrawn applications.

Could .sucks get approved in future, without a cast-iron, enforceable commitment to ban bullying?

This ICANN comment period is a Kafkaesque nightmare

Kevin Murphy, September 29, 2020, Domain Policy

With the deadline for commenting on draft new gTLD program rules rapidly approaching, you may be tempted to visit the ICANN web site to peruse the comments that have already been submitted by others. Good bloody luck.

The way ICANN has chosen to present the comments is so bafflingly opaque, confusing and confounding that I can’t help but conclude it must have been deliberately designed to be as soul-crushing as possible.

Regular comment periods are pretty straightforward: you email your comments as prose to ICANN, ICANN publishes the email and any attachments for others to read. Everyone knows where everyone stands. Job done.

But recently there’s been a worrying trend towards a questionnaire and spreadsheet model based around Google Docs, and that’s the model being used for comments on the final draft report of the new gTLD program working group, known as SubPro.

You can check out the spreadsheet here.

The first thing you’ll notice is that the spreadsheet is 215 columns wide, with each respondent given one row for their responses.

You’ll also notice that the spreadsheet doesn’t seem to understand line breaks. Where the respondent has provided some textual commentary, it’s spread across multiple columns in some cases and not in others.

And then there’s the column headings.

While stumbling randomly through the spreadsheet, I discovered an interesting nugget of information — it seems the new gTLD registry MMX wants the next application round delayed until all of the 2012 round have been launched, which I found a bit surprising.

This nugget can be found under the column heading “Enter your response here”, a heading that is helpfully shared by 90 (ninety) other columns on the same damn page.

The heading “Do you want to save your progress and quit for now? You will be able to return to the form to complete it at a later time” appears 10 times in the document.

No information in adjacent columns sheds any light on what triggered MMX to make its comment.

In order to figure out the question for pretty much any response, the only option appears to be to cross-reference the spreadsheet with the original form questionnaire, which can be found as a PDF here.

But the questionnaire has 234 questions and there’s no straightforward correlation between the question number and the columns on the spreadsheet, which are addressed as AA through IG.

So when you see that European industry group CENTR went to the trouble to “Support Output(s) as written” in column DI, under the heading “If you choose one of the following responses, there is no need to submit comments”, it’s virtually impossible to figure out what it actually supports.

If you are able to figure out which question it was answering, that probably won’t help you much either.

The form merely contains brief summaries of changes the working group has made. To see the “Output(s) as written” you’d have to cross-reference with the 363-page draft final report (pdf).

A lot of you are probably thinking that I should just export the spreadsheet into Excel or OpenOffice and clean it up a bit. But, no, you can’t. ICANN has disabled exporting, downloading, and even copy-pasting.

It’s enough to make one feel like going out and licking the floor on public transport.

Way to go on the transparency, ICANN!

I have to believe that the ICANN staffer responsible for compiling all these comments into the official ICANN summary has some tools at his or her disposal to render this mess decipherable, because otherwise they’ve got a huge, hair-ripping job on their hands.

Of course, since there doesn’t appear to be a way for the rest of us to verify the summary report’s accuracy, they can probably just write whatever they want.

Could .cpa be the most successful new gTLD sunrise yet?

Kevin Murphy, September 25, 2020, Domain Registries

The registry for the new .cpa gTLD reckons it has received “thousands” of applications for domains during its current launch period, potentially making it the most successful gTLD sunrise since 2012.

The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, which manages the TLD, said today:

Well over half of the 100 biggest U.S. firms — as well as an equally large percentage of the next 400 — have begun advancing their applications as part of the early phase of the .cpa registration process, which launched on Sept. 1.

Assuming “thousands” means at least 2,000, this would make .cpa a top three or four sunrise, judging by figures collected by ICANN showing Google’s .app the current volume leader at 2,908.

But we can’t assume that all the .cpa domains boasted of are trademark-verified sunrise period applications under ICANN’s rules.

AICPA is running a simultaneous Limited Registration Period during which any CPA firm can apply for domains that are “most consistent with their current digital branding” — ie, no trademark required.

Both of these periods end October 31, after which the registry will dole out domains in a batch, presumably giving preference to the sunrise applicants.

We have to assume the amount of purely defensive registrations will be relatively low, due to AICPA’s policies.

Not only are registrants limited to licensed CPA companies and individuals, but registrants have to commit to redirect their .cpa domain to their existing web site within a month and deploy a full web site within a year.

.cpa domains sell for $225 a year, according to the registry. General availability is scheduled for January 15.