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ICANN explains how .org pricing decision was made

ICANN has responded to questions about how its decision to lift price caps on .org, along with .biz and .info, was made.

The buck stops with CEO Göran Marby, it seems, according to an ICANN statement, sent to DI last night.

ICANN confirmed that was no formal vote of the board of directors, though there were two “consultations” between staff and board and the board did not object to the staff’s plans.

The removal of price caps on .org — which had been limited to a 10% increase per year — proved controversial.

ICANN approved the changes to Public Interest Registry’s contract despite receiving over opposing messages from 3,200 people and organizations during its open public comment period.

Given that the board of directors had not voted, it was not at all clear how the decision to disregard these comments had been made and by whom.

The Internet Commerce Association, which coordinated much of the response to the comment period, has since written to ICANN to ask for clarity on this and other points.

ICANN’s response to DI may shed a little light.

ICANN staff first briefed the board about the RA changes at its retreat in Los Angeles from January 25 to 28 this year, according to the statement.

That briefing covered the reasons ICANN thinks it is desirable to migrate legacy gTLD Registry Agreements to the 2012-round’s base RA, which has no pricing controls.

The base RA “provides additional safeguards and security and stability requirements compared to legacy agreements” and “creates efficiencies for ICANN org in administration and compliance enforcement”, ICANN said.

Migrating old gTLDs to the standardized new contract complies with ICANN’s bylaws commitment “to introduce and promote competition in the registration of domain names and, where feasible and appropriate, depend upon market mechanisms to promote and sustain a competitive environment in the DNS market”, ICANN said.

They also contain provisions forcing the registry to give advance notice of price changes and to give registrants the chance to lock-in prices for 10 years by renewing during the notice period, the board was told.

After the January briefing, Marby made the call to continue negotiations. The statement says:

After consultation with the Board at the Los Angeles workshop, and with the Board’s support, the CEO decided to continue the plan to complete the renewal negotiations utilizing the Base RA. The Board has delegated the authority to sign contracts to the CEO or his designee.

A second board briefing took place after the public comment periods, at the board’s workshop in Marrakech last month.

The board was presented with ICANN’s staff summary of the public comments (pdf), along with other briefing documents, then Marby made the call to move forward with signing.

Following the discussion with the Board in Marrakech, and consistent with the Board’s support, the CEO made the decision for ICANN org to continue with renewal agreements as proposed, using the Base gTLD Registry Agreement.

Both LA and Marrakech briefings “were closed sessions and are not minuted”, ICANN said.

But it appears that the board of directors, while not voting, had at least two opportunities to object to the new contracts but chose not to stand in staff’s way.

At the root of the decision appears to be ICANN Org’s unswerving, doctrinal mission to make its life easier and stay out of price regulation to the greatest extent possible.

Reasonable people can disagree, I think, on whether this is a worthy goal. I’m on the fence.

But it does beg the question: what’s going to happen to .com?

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.

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