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New TLDs may face more GAC delay

Kevin Murphy, January 22, 2011, Domain Registries

ICANN has finally confirmed the date for its groundbreaking meeting with its Governmental Advisory Committee, and it doesn’t look like great news for new top-level domain applicants.

The GAC and ICANN’s board of directors will meet for a two-day consultation in Brussels, starting February 28, according to an announcement late yesterday.

Attendees will be tasked with identifying the problems the GAC still has with the Applicant Guidebook, and trying to resolve as many as possible.

The devil is in the detail, however. ICANN stated:

This meeting is not intended to address the requirements/steps outlined in the Bylaws mandated Board-GAC consultation process.

This means that, post-Brussels, a second GAC consultation will be required before the ICANN board will be able to approve the Guidebook.

Under ICANN’s bylaws, when it disagrees with the GAC, it has to first state its reasons, and then they must “try, in good faith and in a timely and efficient manner, to find a mutually acceptable solution.”

ICANN appears to have now confirmed that it has not yet invoked this part of the bylaws, and that Brussels will not be the “mutually acceptable solution” meeting.

The best case scenario, if you’re an impatient new TLD applicant, would see the second consultation take place during the San Francisco meeting, which kicks off March 13.

The board would presumably have to convene a special quickie meeting, in order to officially invoke the bylaws, at some point during the two weeks between Brussels and San Francisco.

That scenario is not impossible, but it’s not as desirable as putting the GAC’s concerns to bed in Brussels, which is what some applicants had hoped and expected.

The GAC is currently writing up a number of “scorecards” that enumerate its outstanding concerns with the Guidebook.

Mark Carvell, the UK representative, has been tasked with writing the scorecard for trademark protection. Other scorecards will likely also discuss, for example, the problem of objecting to TLD applications on “morality and public order” grounds.

ICANN’s board, meanwhile, is due to meet this coming Tuesday to agree upon the “rules of engagement” for handling disagreements with the GAC under its bylaws.

When these rules are published, we should have a better idea of how likely a San Francisco approval of the Applicant Guidebook is.

Surprisingly, the ICANN announcement yesterday makes no mention of ICM Registry’s .xxx TLD application, which is the only area where the board has officially invoked the bylaws with regards the GAC’s objections.

The Brussels meeting, ICANN said, will be open to observers, transcribed live, and webcast.

Network Solutions will sell .xxx domains

Kevin Murphy, January 14, 2011, Domain Registrars

Network Solutions has become the first big-name registrar to show that it will support the proposed .xxx top-level domain.

This page has recently appeared on the NSI site, accessible from the company’s home page through the link “.xxx Coming Soon”.

NSI appears confident that ICANN will approve the TLD soon:

.XXX will be launching shortly and Network Solutions is working with ICM Registry to provide informational services for our customers that wish to take advantage of the launch and register domain names.

The TLD is currently being tied up by ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee, but many believe it’s likely to be a shoo-in at the San Francisco meeting in March or sooner.

What next for new TLDs? Part 3 – The .xxx Factor

Kevin Murphy, December 14, 2010, Domain Registries

Like or loathe the decision, ICANN’s new top-level domains program appears to have been delayed again.

But for how long? And what has to happen now before ICANN starts accepting applications?

In short, what the heck happened in Cartagena last week?

In this four-part post, I will attempt an analysis of the various things I think need to happen before the Applicant Guidebook (AGB) is approved.

In this third post, I will look at the state of play with the .xxx TLD application, and what that means for the new TLD process.

The .xxx Factor

At some time in February, the ICANN board and its Governmental Advisory Committee plan to meet (possibly in Geneva) to discuss both the AGB and the .xxx TLD proposal.

While these are two separate issues, how .xxx is being handled may have an impact on the timetable for the AGB’s approval.

Let’s first look at what’s happening with .xxx.

As you will have almost certainly already read, the ICANN board resolved on Friday that it “intends to approve” .xxx, despite GAC advice that may be to the contrary.

The ICANN-GAC power structure is governed by an 11-point charter in ICANN’s bylaws. The last two points, J and K, deal with what happens when the two parties disagree.

Under what, for the sake of brevity, I’m going to call “GAC-J” (instead of “ICANN Bylaws section Article XI, Section 2, Paragraph 1(j)”), ICANN has to call a meeting with the GAC when it plans to disregard GAC advice.

Specifically, if the ICANN board “determines to take an action” that is not consistent with GAC advice, it has to “inform” the GAC, stating why it decided to not follow the advice, then “try, in good faith and in a timely and efficient manner, to find a mutually acceptable solution”.

GAC-J has, to the best of my knowledge, never been invoked before. There isn’t even a procedure in place for handling this kind of official consultation.

But on Friday, the board stated that it intends to not follow the GAC’s advice on the .xxx application and “hereby invokes the consultation as provided for in ICANN Bylaws section Article XI, Section 2, Paragraph 1(j).”

Now that GAC-J has been invoked, the GAC and board will meet to find their “mutually acceptable solution”.

Should such a solution prove elusive, the ICANN board has to make a final decision, stating why it has disregarded the GAC’s advice. That’s handled by what I’ll call GAC-K.

What does all this have to do with new TLDs and the timetable for the publication and approval of the final Applicant Guidebook?

As ICM Registry president Stuart Lawley pointed out in a comment on CircleID, the procedures being created to resolve the .xxx dispute could very well soon be applied to the AGB.

As Lawley points out, ICANN has not yet put the GAC on notice that it plans to disagree with any of the 11 concerns outlined in the Cartagena GAC Communique.

While the Communique “assumes” ICANN has invoked GAC-J with regards new TLDs, the board has not explicitly done so.

This is uncharted territory, but I think it’s possible that this oversight (if it is an oversight) has the potential to add latency to the new AGB approval timetable.

ICANN might be well-advised to pass a resolution officially invoking GAC-J before the February bilateral meeting, in order to turn it into a bylaws-compatible consultation.

As long as it invokes the bylaws before March, the San Francisco meeting will be able to host a GAC-Board consultation under the terms of GAC-J, enabling the AGB to be approved that week.

If ICANN does not take either of these options, the GAC will be able (if it wants to be a pain) to further delay the process by demanding another inter-sessional consultation, like it just did in Cartagena.

I’ll discuss the GAC’s actual concerns in the fourth part of this post.

Want a premium .xxx domain? Now’s your chance

Kevin Murphy, December 14, 2010, Domain Registries

ICM Registry, despite suffering another setback at the Cartagena ICANN meeting last week, has set the wheels in motion for the launch of .xxx with the announcement of a Founders Program.

If you want to get your hands on a “premium” .xxx domain without having to pay a tonne at auction, this is your chance.

ICM said it will license premium domains to organizations willing to develop and market their sites for at least two years, raising awareness of the TLD.

.CO Internet did a similar thing with .co, issuing one-character names to the likes of Go Daddy and Twitter. Other registries have had founder programs for super-short domains.

The program will be open to newcomers, as well as those who own “matching” domains in other TLDs.

The .xxx application is currently on hold, pending ICANN’s consultation with its Governmental Advisory Committee in February, but ICANN has said that it “intends” to approve it.

It will be interesting to see how many members of the adult community currently opposed to .xxx, if any, will attempt to participate as a Founder.

(Hat tip: Michele Neylon)

Porn group threatens lawsuits over new TLDs

Kevin Murphy, December 2, 2010, Domain Registries

Porn trade group the Free Speech Coalition has added its name to the list of organizations saying that ICANN could be sued over its new top-level domains program.

In her latest letter to ICANN, FSC executive director Diane Duke has made a last-ditch attempt to get the proposed .xxx TLD rejected, and not-so-subtly raises the threat of court action:

ICM Registry promises millions of dollars of income for ICANN, assuming that income is not consumed by the inevitable litigation which ICANN will find itself a party to if the proposal is adopted

But she also writes about lawsuits targeting the new TLD program itself.

ICM’s .xxx application is being handled under the rules established for “sponsored” TLDs in 2003, rather than the rules for gTLDs in the Applicant Guidebook that will be enforced in future.

As such, .xxx is not subject to challenges such as the “morality and public order objections” envisioned by the AGB, unlike potential future applications such as .porn. Duke wrote:

What about those in the adult community who wish to apply for a gTLD? With ICANN’s policy development in regards to “Morality and Public Order” will gTLDs be held to a higher standard than the sTLD? Does ICANN believe that it is not liable for this inequity? Any company prepared to invest the substantial moneys necessary to manage a gTLD will surely take ICANN to court to demand equitable standards for their TLD application.

She goes on to suggest that ICM itself may sue to block such applicants.

Does ICANN really believe that the litigious ICM will sit idly by while a .SEX or .PORN gTLD is introduced? Is ICANN so naive to believe that the purveyor of the “sponsored” TLD, who spent in excess of $10 million to bully its way through ICANN’s processes, will stop its threats of litigation with a mere approval of the sTLD?

Is the FSC privy to the TLD aspirations of others in the adult business? Or is this just a lot of hot air born out of desperation? I guess time will tell.

The FSC becomes the third organization to publicly threaten litigation in order to get what it wants out of ICANN.

As I’ve previously reported, the International Olympic Committee and the BITS financial trade group have already made similar noises.

ICANN expects to set aside $60,000 from every $185,000 TLD application fee to deal with “risks” including the expense of defending itself from lawsuits.

The ICANN board is expected to vote on the .xxx application and the new TLD program next Friday. I expect the number of organizations threatening lawsuits will be in double figures by then.

Porn industry “ready for war” with .xxx

Kevin Murphy, December 1, 2010, Domain Registries

The Free Speech Coalition and ICM Registry are poised to do battle over the .xxx top-level domain at next week’s ICANN meeting in Cartagena, Colombia.

The FSC, which has opposed the porn-only domain for years, is trying to rally its troops with a flyer declaring it’s “Ready For War”, illustrated with a photograph apparently of Cartagena’s battlements.

(Apropos, really, given the city’s history fighting off the British and ICM’s habit of recruiting Brits for key positions.)

The FSC said on its blog:

the majority of adult Internet business owners and webmasters do not support being categorized in an Internet ghetto that will cost them millions in extra fees annually and also make it easier for anti-adult entities to censor and block their sites.

The trade group will be represented at the meeting by executive director Diane Duke and chair Jeffrey Douglas.

But ICM will have them out-gunned almost 10-to-1. President Stuart Lawley tells me the company is sending 19 people to the meeting.

Discussion of the .xxx TLD is on the ICANN board’s agenda for its meeting Friday December 10. I think it’s quite likely to be approved at that time.

The main stumbling block for ICM is ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee, which has expressed reservations about the domain over the years and is firmly opposed to “controversial” TLDs.

Which way the vote swings will depend greatly on what the GAC has to say, and how the power struggle it’s currently engaged in with ICANN pans out.

Here’s part of the FSC’s flyer.

Free Speech Coaltion declares war

ICM buys dotxxx.com for $25,000 and unveils new slogan

Kevin Murphy, November 4, 2010, Domain Sales

ICM Registry, the would-be .xxx registry operator, has acquired the domain name dotxxx.com from a Korean domainer for $25,000, to support an upcoming marketing campaign.

The company is also expected to unveil a punny new slogan, “Let’s be adult about it”, following its recent hiring of international ad agency M&C Saatchi.

The dotxxx.com domain currently redirects to icmregistry.com, the company’s main site. The private sale used Sedo for escrow.

Given the amount of cash ICM has spent attempting to get .xxx approved over the last ten years, $25,000 is a drop in the ocean.

ICANN recently decided to refer its application to the Governmental Advisory Committee for a consultation, before it makes a final call on whether to approve it or not.

DotFree starts taking .free domain preregistrations

Kevin Murphy, November 1, 2010, Domain Registries

The DotFree Group, which plans to apply to ICANN to run .free as a top-level domain, has become one of the first would-be registries to open its doors for preregistrations.

From noon UTC today, the Czech company has made a tool available on its web site enabling users to reserve their desired strings by handing over their contact information.

Of course, there’s no guarantee any preregistration will actually turn into a .free domain – ICANN may turn down DotFree’s application or award the string to another bidder.

While the plan is to offer some .free domains free of charge, DotFree intends to hold tens (or hundreds) of thousands of “premium” strings for auction or paid-for registrations.

In other words, if you try to register any really juicy strings today, you’re out of luck.

DotFree is one of only a few unapproved TLD registries to accept preregistrations.

ICM Registry started taking .xxx preregs a few years ago, but only after it had already received ICANN’s approval (which was, of course, later revoked).

Another wannabe TLD operator, the MLS Domains Association, is charging “multiple listing service” real estate brokers many hundreds of dollars for the opportunity to own their own .mls domain name.

UPDATE: Messing around with the preregistration tool, I’ve noticed that it appears to ban any string that ends with the number 4. Presumably these will be “premium”, due to the “for” pun.

.XXX debate could test GAC powers

Kevin Murphy, November 1, 2010, Domain Policy

The long-running .xxx top-level domain saga has tested ICANN processes to their limits over the last decade, and it looks like it may do so at least one more time.

Digging a little deeper into the board’s decision to consult with its Governmental Advisory Committee before approving the TLD, it looks like the discussion will be quite broad-based.

The .xxx consultation could in fact have consequences for the board/GAC power balance, helping define the parameters of their future interactions.

This PDF, published at the same time as last week’s board resolution on .xxx, outlines three GAC positions that could have a bearing on the matter.

The first is its communiqué from the Wellington meeting in 2007, which noted that several GAC members were “emphatically opposed” to the introduction of .xxx.

The GAC operates on a consensus basis. When it can’t find consensus, its communiqués also reflect minority positions. So ICANN now wants to know whether the Wellington letter constitutes GAC “advice”.

The question remains whether a position taken by “several members of the GAC” can be equated with GAC advice on public policy matters. If it is not GAC advice, then the concern of inconsistency [of the .xxx contract with GAC advice] diminishes.

Some may be surprised to discover that, after over a decade, there’s no broad agreement about when something the GAC says constitutes official “advice” that ICANN, under its bylaws, must consider.

Attendees to the Brussels meeting this June will recall that the joint board-GAC meeting, transcribed here, spent most of its time labouring on this apparent oversight.

In consulting with the GAC on .xxx, there’s an outside chance that some answers with regards the definition of “advice” may be found.

It wouldn’t be the first time ICM Registry’s controversial application has forced ICANN to address shortcomings in its own accountability procedures.

Notably, the Independent Review Process, promised in the bylaws for years, was eventually implemented to allow ICM’s appeal after it had pushed the Reconsideration Request process to its limit.

ICANN’s latest resolution on .xxx also refers to a letter (pdf) GAC chair Heather Dryden sent to the board in August, which expressed a desire that no “controversial” TLDs should be added to the root.

While ostensibly addressing future TLD applications, rather than TLDs applied for under previous rounds, the letter did say that “objection procedures should apply to all pending and future TLDs”, which was widely interpreted as referring directly to .xxx.

Last week’s ICANN board documents say:

If the “pending” TLD refers to .XXX, the approval of the .XXX sTLD Registry Agreement without allowing for these types of objections would be inconsistent with GAC advice.

I’ve reason to believe that the “pending” language may have been inserted quite late into the drafting of the Dryden letter, and may not enjoy the unanimous support of GAC members.

Regardless, the letter implies that whatever “morality and public order” or “Rec6” objections process winds up in the new TLD Applicant Guidebook should also apply, retroactively, to ICM.

If ICANN were to agree on this point, a precedent would presumably be set that would allow the GAC to issue thirteenth-hour “advice” that moves the goal-posts for future new TLD applicants, removing a significant amount of predictability from the process.

For that reason, I think it’s unlikely that ICM will be told it is subject to the Rec6 process (whatever that may ultimately look like).

The consultation, however, may result in some clarity around where the GAC’s powers of “advice” begin and end, which is probably a good thing.

Will .xxx be approved today?

Kevin Murphy, October 28, 2010, Domain Registries

Will the adults-only .xxx top-level domain be approved today, or will the hot potato be tossed to governments for a decision?

That’s the question facing ICANN’s board of directors, which is set to discuss the controversial TLD for the umpteenth time today.

The last resolution it passed on .xxx called for a public comment period, followed by a decision on whether the registry contract is compatible with old Governmental Advisory Committee advice.

With the comment period closed, it appears that all that remains is to decide whether a new GAC consultation is required before the contract can be approved or rejected.

Some opponents of .xxx are demanding a GAC consultation.

Diane Duke, director of porn trade group the Free Speech Coalition, wrote to ICANN this week, urging it to refer the application back to the GAC.

As Duke knows, many international governments are opposed to .xxx.

A week ago, Australia’s socially conservative, pro-censorship broadband minister, Stephen Conroy, also asked ICANN for another GAC consultation, expressing his “strong opposition” to the TLD due to its “lack of identified public benefit”.

And Conroy is surely not alone. There can be few governments that would be happy to be seen to endorse pornography, regardless of its legal status in their jurisdictions.

The GAC is firmly of the view that “controversial” TLDs present a risk to the global interoperability of the internet. The fear is that strings such as .xxx could lead to blocking at national borders and ultimately fragmentation of the DNS root.

Whichever decision ICANN makes today, it is sure to cause controversy one way or another.