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ICA rallies the troops to defeat .org price hikes. It won’t work

Kevin Murphy, April 25, 2019, Domain Registries

Over 100 letters have been sent to ICANN opposing the proposed lifting of price caps in .org, after the Internet Commerce Association reached out to rally its supporters.

This is an atypically large response to an ICANN public comment period, and there are four days left on the clock for more submissions to be made, but I doubt it will change ICANN’s mind.

Almost all of the 131 comments filed so far this month were submitted in the 24 hours after ICA published its comment submission form earlier this week.

About a third of the comments comprise simply the unedited ICA text. Others appeared to have been inspired by the campaign to write their own complaints about the proposal, which would scrap the 10%-a-year .org price increase cap Public Interest Registry currently has in place.

Zak Muscovitch, ICA’s general counsel, told DI that as of this morning the form generates different template text dynamically. I’ve spotted at least four completely different versions of the letter just by refreshing the page. This may make some comments appear to be the original thoughts of their senders.

This is the original text, as it relates to price caps:

I believe that legacy gTLDs are fundamentally different from for-profit new gTLDs. Legacy TLDs are essentially a public trust, unlike new gTLDs which were created, bought and paid for by private interests. Registrants of legacy TLDs are entitled to price stability and predictability, and should not be subject to price increases with no maximums. Unlike new gTLDs, registrants of legacy TLDs registered their names and made their online presence on legacy TLDs on the basis that price caps would continue to exist.

Unrestrained price increases on the millions of .org registrants who are not-for-profits or non-profits would be unfair to them. Unchecked price increases have the potential to result in hundreds of millions of dollars being transferred from these organizations to one non-profit, the Internet Society, with .org registrants receiving no benefit in return. ICANN should not allow one non-profit nearly unlimited access to the funds of other non-profits.

The gist of the other texts is the same — it’s not fair to lift price caps on domains largely used by non-profits that may have budget struggles and which have built their online presences on the old, predictable pricing rules.

The issues raised are probably fair, to a point.

Should the true “legacy” gTLDs — .com, .net and .org — which date from the 1980s and pose very little commercial risk to their registries, be treated the same as the exceptionally risky gTLD businesses that have been launched since?

Does changing the pricing rules amount to unfairly moving the goal posts for millions of registrants who have built their business on the legacy rules?

These are good, valid questions.

But I think it’s unlikely that the ICA’s campaign will get ICANN to change its mind. The opposition would have to be broader than from a single interest group.

First, the message about non-profits rings a bit hollow coming from an explicitly commercial organization whose members’ business model entails flipping domain names for large multiples.

If a non-profit can’t afford an extra 10 bucks a year for a .org renewal, can it afford the hundreds or thousands of dollars a domainer would charge for a transfer?

Even if PIR goes nuts, abandons its “public interest” mantra, and immediately significantly increases its prices, the retail price of a .org (currently around $20 at GoDaddy, which has about a third of all .orgs) would be unlikely to rise to above the price of PIR-owned .ong and .ngo domains, which sell for $32 to $50 retail.

Such an increase might adversely affect a small number of very low-budget registrants, but the biggest impact will be felt by the big for-profit portfolio owners: domainers.

Second, letter-writing campaigns don’t have a strong track record of persuading ICANN to change course.

The largest such campaign to date was organized by registrars in 2015 in response to proposals, made by members of the Privacy and Proxy Services Accreditation Issues working group, that would have would have essentially banned Whois privacy for commercial web sites.

Over 20,000 people signed petitions or sent semi-automated comments opposing that recommendation, and ICANN ended up not approving that specific proposal.

But the commercial web site privacy ban was a minority position written by IP lawyers, included as an addendum to the group’s recommendations, and it did not receive the consensus of the PPSAI working group.

In other words, ICANN almost certainly would not have implemented it anyway, due to lack of consensus, even if the public comment period had been silent.

The second-largest public comment period concerned the possible approval of .xxx in 2010, which attracted almost 14,000 semi-automated comments from members of American Christian-right groups and pornographers.

.xxx was nevertheless approved less than a year later.

ICANN also has a track record of not acceding to ICA’s demands when it comes to changes in registry agreements for pre-2012 gTLDs.

ICA, under former GC Phil Corwin, has also strongly objected to similar changes in .mobi, .jobs, .cat, .xxx and .travel over the last few years, and had no impact.

ICANN seems hell-bent on normalizing its gTLD contracts to the greatest extent possible. It’s also currently proposing to lift the price caps on .biz and .info.

This, through force of precedent codified in the contracts, could lead to the price caps one day, many years from now, being lifted on .com.

Which, let’s face it, is what most people really care about.

Info on the .org contract renewal public comment period can be found here.

ICA opposes Aussie domaining ban

Kevin Murphy, April 10, 2019, Domain Policy

The Internet Commerce Association has weighed in to the debate about whether domain investing should be effectively banned in Australia’s .au ccTLD.

Naturally enough, the domainer trade group opposes the ban, saying that investment is a natural part of any market, and very probably supplying the registry with millions of dollars of revenue.

The comments came in a letter to auDA (pdf) from ICA general counsel Zak Muscovitch in response to auDA’s latest policy review proposals, which I reported on two weeks ago, that propose to further crack down on “warehousing”.

auDA wants to ban the practice of registering domains “primarily” for resale or warehousing, clarifying the current rule that prohibits registering “solely” for resale (which is easily evaded by, for example, parking).

A set of indicators would be used to zero in on offenders, such as observing the registrant’s history of selling or offering to sell domains, the existence of an auction listing for the domain, or the fact that the registrant owns more than 100 .au names.

But ICA reckons the effort is misguided and could even be damaging to auDA’s finances, pointing out that it and its registrars likely receive millions of dollars from the registration and renewal of speculative domain names.

Muscovitch’s letter goes on to question whether the policy review panel that came up with the proposals did any research into the potential economic impact of banning domain investment, pointing out that in some cases to seize domainers’ portfolios could wipe out a family’s life savings.

ICA also questions whether the panel has sufficiently thought through how enforceable its proposed rules would be, given the additional complexity introduced into the system.

The policy review paper is still open for comments, but if you want to chip in you’d better be quick. The comment period ends at 1700 AEST Friday, which is 0700 UTC.

Corwin joins Verisign

Kevin Murphy, November 6, 2017, Domain Policy

Phil Corwin, the face of the Internet Commerce Association for over a decade, today quit to join Verisign’s legal team.

He’s now “policy counsel” at the .com giant, he said in a statement emailed to industry bloggers.

He’s also closed down the consulting company Virtualaw, resigned from ICANN’s Business Constituency and from his BC seat on the GNSO Council.

But he said he would continue as co-chair of two ICANN working groups — one looking at rights protection for intergovernmental organizations (which is kinda winding down anyway) and the other on general rights protection measures.

“I have no further statement at this time and shall not respond to questions,” Corwin concluded his email.

He’s been with ICA, which represents the interests of big domain investors, for 11 years.

As well as being an ICANN working group volunteer, he’s produced innumerable public comments and op-eds fighting for the interests of ICA members.

One of his major focuses over the years has been UDRP, which ICA believes should be more balanced towards registrant rights.

He’s also fought a losing battle against ICANN “imposing” the Uniform Rapid Suspension process on pre-2012 gTLDs, due to the fear that it one day may be forced upon Verisign’s .com and .net, where most domain investment is tied up.

Angry reactions to “UDRP for copyright”

Kevin Murphy, February 10, 2017, Domain Policy

The Electronic Frontier Foundation and Internet Commerce Association are among those expressing initial concern about the introduction of a new “UDRP for copyright” mechanism by the Domain Name Association.

The EFF said the DNA’s new proposals want registries to become “private arbiters of online speech”, while the ICA expressed concern that the proposals could circumvent the usual ICANN policy-making process.

As we reported earlier in the week, the DNA has set out a set of four “healthy practices” (the term “best practices” was deliberately avoided, I’m told) for registries and registrars, under the banner of its Healthy Domains Initiative.

The first three sets of recommendations cover malware, child abuse material and fake pharmacies and are relatively non-controversial.

However, the surprising fourth proposal seeks to give copyright holders a means to suspend or seize control of domain names where they have “clear and convincing evidence” of “pervasive and systemic copyright infringement”.

While the details have yet to be finalized, it appears to be targeted at sites such as The Pirate Bay, which are used for pretty much nothing but copyright infringement.

“This is a terrible proposal,” the EFF’s Jeremy Malcolm and Mitch Stoltz wrote yesterday:

The content that happens to be posted within [a] website or service has nothing to do with the domain name registrar, and frankly, is none of its business. If a website is hosting unlawful content, then it is the website host, not the domain registrar, who needs to take responsibility for that

They added:

it seems too likely that any voluntary, private dispute resolution system paid for by the complaining parties will be captured by copyright holders and become a privatized version of the failed Internet censorship bills SOPA and PIPA

Those are references to two proposed US laws, the Stop Online Piracy Act and Protect IP Act, that attracted lots of criticism and never saw the light of day.

The ICA, in a separate post on its own site, expressed concerns that private initiatives such as the HDI could give trademark holders another way to route around ICANN policies they do not like.

Noting that trademark protection mechanisms are already under review in a ICANN working group, ICA counsel Phil Corwin wrote:

What if the final consensus decision of that WG is that the URS remedy should remain domain suspension and not transfer, or that the UDRP standard of “bad faith registration and use” should remain as is? Are TM owners then free to develop their own “best practices” that include domain transfer via URS, or a bad faith registration or use standard? What’s the point of going through a multi-year exercise if those dissatisfied with the result can seek stiffer private policies? Just how many bites at the apple should trademark holders get

Both ICA and EFF expressed concern that the new DNA proposals seemed to have been developed without the broad input of members.

Stoltz and Malcolm wrote:

In any purported effort to develop a set of community-based principles, a failure to proactively reach out to affected stakeholders, especially if they have already expressed interest, exposes the effort as a sham.

Corwin wrote:

ICA had no advance knowledge of the details of HDI and no opportunity to provide substantive input. So our fingerprints are nowhere on it.

The Copyright ADRP proposal appears to be the brainchild of Public Interest Registry, the .org registry.

PIR general counsel Liz Finberg told DI earlier this week that PIR is working with arbitration provider Forum to finalize the rules of the process and hopes to implement it in .org before the end of the first quarter.

No other registry has publicly stated similar plans to my knowledge.

The HDI recommendations are completely voluntary and registries/ars are free to adopt them wholly, partially or not at all. They are not ICANN policies.

As Trump sworn in, CADNA returns to lobby for stronger cybersquatting laws

Kevin Murphy, January 23, 2017, Domain Policy

Remember the Coalition Against Domain Name Abuse? The lobby group that campaigned for stronger cybersquatting laws and against new gTLDs?

It’s back.

CADNA on Thursday used the imminent inauguration of new US president Donald Trump to announce that it’s back in the game, hoping a Republican-dominated government will be friendlier to its agenda.

It told its supporters on “the 2016 general elections outcomes for both the U.S. Congress and the White House present a unique and timely opportunity to push through legislation”.

It wants new federal laws modeled on 2010 Utah state legislation, the E-Commerce Integrity Act, which creates liability for non-registrant third-parties including domain name registrars.

The Utah law is closely modeled on the federal Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act of 1999, but has some crucial differences.

CADNA noted at the time the law was up for a vote that it:

expands the liability for cybersquatting activity to include the registrant’s authorized licensee, agent, affiliate, representative, domain name registrar, domain name registry, or other domain name registration authority that knowingly and actively assists a violation

That’s something ACPA does not allow for, and CADNA wants the federal law amended to include provisions such as this. It said:

The Coalition Against Domain Name Abuse (CADNA) is now mobilizing the global business community to promote and pass legislation that will greatly enhance the available protection mechanisms for online trademark protection and limit the appeal of cybersquatting.

The last time US cybersquatting laws came close to being amended was with the Anti-Phishing Consumer Protection Act of 2008, aka the Snowe Bill, which ultimately did not pass.

The Internet Commerce Association, which lobbies on behalf of domain investors, expressed concern with CADNA’s new efforts to revive its noughties lobbying tactics, telling members:

for now this is more of a CADNA recruiting effort than an active legislative natter. As you can see, CADNA announced a similar Federal effort in 2010, which went nowhere. Nonetheless, we should proceed on the assumption that CADNA will secure a sponsor and have such legislation introduced in the new Congress and that such legislation may well gain traction in the current political environment.

The ICA also expressed concern about the amount of statutory damages the Utah law permits compared to the ACPA.

While both Utah and ACPA allow damages of $1,000 to $100,000 per domain, the Utah law assumes the highest amount if a “pattern or practice” of cybersquatting can be demonstrated.

CADNA has been pretty quiet for the last few years.

Before the US elections last November, its most recent press release dated from October 2013.

The group is managed by the same people who run Fairwinds Partners, a new gTLD consultancy specializing in managing dot-brand gTLDs for some of the world’s biggest names.

Its gTLD clients include L’Oreal, Marriott and Walmart.

Fairwinds used its links to CADNA and its staunch opposition to the new gTLD program to pitch for these clients back in 2012.

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