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Chehade declines to backtrack on domain “hogging” comments

Kevin Murphy, February 10, 2015, Domain Policy

ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade responded yesterday to anger from domain investors over recent comments in which he talked about “hogging” domain names and implied a link to cybersquatting.

But he did not, at least as far as I understood his explanation, backtrack on his original remarks.

Chehade was cheekily asked his current thoughts on domain “hoggers” by blogger David Goldstein during a press conference at the ICANN 52 meeting in Singapore yesterday.

This is the entirety of his reply:

I think the statement I made to a different media outlet about that was conflated to signify I was including in this all those who are in the domain name business. And that’s not true. There are those that do this as a business and do it very well and actually enhance the market and there are those that do it and make the business and the market less attractive and less desirable. So I think any insinuation that that statement engulfs everyone that is in this business is not true. As you know very well I’ve a very big supporter of the industry groups and was one of the people who was frankly very happy when the Domain Name Association was created and I attended their first formation meeting. This is where we stand and we continue to feel good about how this market is evolving and how these players are making this a good market that serves the public interest.

Having listened to it a few times, I wonder whether Chehade deliberately didn’t backtrack on his original remarks, or whether he doesn’t quite understand why they caused offense in the first place.

A couple of weeks back, Chehade was talking to the Huffington Post about new gTLDs during an interview at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

The interviewer asked about “concerns about a land-grab going on” among domain speculators.

It was a bit of a silly question, if you ask me. A speculative land-grab is pretty low down the list of concerns held by critics of the new gTLD program. Regardless, Chehade replied:

The reality is, the more there are names, the less people will actually be hogging names in order to charge a lot for them. Because if somebody took your name on dot X, you can go get another name on dot Y now.

I’d personally agree with that characterization of the program. It’s meant to make finding a good name at a cheap price easier. “Hogging” was probably a poor choice of words, but Chehade was talking off the cuff so I could give him a pass.

But later in the same reply, he used the term “cybersquatting” in such a way as to make it easy to infer he was conflating domain investing with cybersquatting. That’s a loaded term that is usually reserved for trademark infringement, at least when used inside the industry.

Obviously this was guaranteed to get investors’ hackles up.

First up with the hackles was Mike Berkens, who called Chehade out on The Domains, saying he “throws large domain investors under the bus and then backs up the bus and rolls over them again”.

Berkens pointed out, quite reasonably I thought, that ICANN is funded to a great extent by domain investors. He estimates that he alone pays ICANN about $15,000 a year in the fees that are collected at the point of registration and renewal.

By some estimates, which may even be conservative, about a third of new gTLD registrations to date have been made to speculators.

Berkens made the even better point that many of the people who have pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into the new gTLD program — Uniregistry’s Frank Schilling, XYZ.com’s Daniel Negari and multiple Donuts executives, for example — made their fortunes investing in second-level domains.

He concluded:

All and all some pretty ignorant statements in our opinion made by the CEO of ICANN and an insult to those domain investors that are some of the biggest buyer’s of new gTLD’s domain names who have paid ICANN a small fortune over the years allowing them to travel the world, pay millions a year in salary and other benefits.

Phil Corwin Jeremiah Johnston of the Internet Commerce Association followed up a few days ago with an open letter to Chehade which explained the outrage in slightly more formal and lawyerly way, with all the apostrophes in the right places. He wrote:

The ICA objects to your statement as it expresses a disdainful view towards the legitimate activity of domain investing, a hostile view of domain investors who are significant ICANN stakeholders who are deeply affected by its policies, a lack of awareness of the market realities of domains as an asset class, and an unwarranted promotion of new gTLD domains over those at legacy gTLDs.

Domain investors are not “hogs” and they most certainly are not deliberate trademark infringers, or “cybersquatters”. It is not clear what you intended by your reference to “cybersquatting”, though it is concerning that you used this pejorative term just after making disparaging remarks about domain investors.

With all these criticisms in mind, let’s go back and parse what Chehade said in Singapore yesterday.

First, he said his remarks had been wrongly “conflated to signify I was including in this all those who are in the domain name business”.

I’m not sure that’s what happened. I’m pretty certain Berkens and his commenters, and then Corwin Johnston, got the hump purely because Chehade dismissed domain investing as “hogging” and then implied a link between investing and trademark infringement.

Who is Chehade talking about when he draws a distinction between those who “enhance the market” and those who “make the business and the market less attractive”?

Is the line drawn between the trademark infringers and the legitimate investors, or its it drawn somewhere else?

Why did Chehade go on to express his support for the DNA, a sell-side trade group funded largely by registries and registrars? Was he drawing the line between regular second-level domainers (hogging) and those that in many cases are essentially just top-level domainers (enhancing)?

Chehade was given the opportunity to backtrack and he didn’t take it.

I’m not a domainer, but if I were I don’t think I’d be particularly satisfied about that.