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New TLD firms to ICANN: “Get on with it”

Kevin Murphy, November 8, 2010, Domain Registries

A number of prospective domain name registries have called on ICANN to shorten the window for its first round of new top-level domain applications.

While we now know that ICANN is working towards a May 30, 2011 opening date for applications, its recently published timeline does not specify how long the application period will last.

However, last month’s draft document “Delegation Rate Scenarios For New gTLDs” (pdf) states that the window of opportunity for TLD applicants will last 90 days.

Now, many of the companies and organizations that have been waiting the longest to apply have asked ICANN to narrow that period to 30 days.

Jon Nevett, president of Domain Dimensions, in a comment on the delegation rate report, wrote:

In prior presentations and discussions with ICANN staff, a 30-day application window had been discussed. I’m not sure how the 30 days turned into a 90-day window in this report. Tacking a 90-day window on after a four-month communications period does not make sense and is extremely unfair to applicants.

After the publication of the final Applicant Guidebook (AGB), ICANN plans to conduct a four-month outreach and marketing effort before accepting applications. The current draft AGB predicts an eight-month processing period for the very simplest applications.

Nevett, and others that subsequently echoed his views, believe that the longer window punishes companies that have invested resources in new TLD applications over the last few years.

There have already been a number of delays to the program’s launch, which was originally scheduled to kick off in 2009, and then mid-2010.

Nevett wrote:

Let’s stop punishing applicants by sucking them dry of all of their working capital by creating a seven-month communications/application period followed by a minimum eight-month review period piled on the years that they already have been waiting. We could do better.

His views were supported in separate comments by commercial operators including of Minds + Machines and .MUSIC, along with geo-TLD efforts including dotBERLIN and dotAfrica.

While the comment period has seen no opposing views, one criticism previously offered by opponents of the new TLD program is that it will unfairly benefit “insiders” – those people who participate regularly in ICANN for their own business purposes.

Round-up of the ICANN new TLDs comment period

Today is the deadline to file comments on version four of ICANN’s Draft Applicant Guidebook for prospective new top-level domain registries.

Of the few dozen comments filed, the majority involve special pleading in one way or another – everybody has something to lose or gain from the contents of the DAG.

That said, I’ve read all the comments filed so far (so you don’t have to) and lots of good points are raised. It’s clear that whatever the final Applicant Guidebook contains, not everybody will get what they want.

Here’s a non-comprehensive round-up, organized by topic.

Trademark Protection

Trademark holders were among the first to file comments on DAG v4. As I’ve previously reported, Lego was first off the mark with an attempt to convince ICANN that the concerns of the IP lobby have not yet been resolved.

Since then, a few more of the usual suspects from the IP constituency, such as Verizon and InterContinental Hotels, have filed comments.

The concerns are very similar: the Universal Rapid Suspension process for trademark infringements is too slow and expensive, the Trademark Clearinghouse does not remove cost or prevent typosquatting, not enough is done to prevent deadbeat registries.

Verizon, a long-time opponent of the new TLD program and a rigorous enforcer of its trademarks, used its letter to raise the issue of cybercrime and hit on pressure points relating to compliance.

It brings up the KnujOn report (pdf) released in Brussels, which accused ICANN registrars of being willfully blind to customer abuses, and the fact that ICANN compliance head David Giza recently quit.

Two IP-focused registrars also weighed in on trademark protection.

Com Laude’s Nick Wood filed a very good point-by-point breakdown of why the URS process has become too bloated to be considered “rapid” in the eyes of trademark holders.

Fred Felman of MarkMonitor covers the same ground on rights protection mechanisms, but also questions more fundamentally whether ICANN has shown that the new TLD round is even economically desirable.

Felman has doubts that new gTLDs will do anything to create competition in the domain name market, writing:

the vast majority of gTLDs currently being proposed in this round are gTLDs that hide traditional domain registration models behind a veil of purported innovation and creativity

Well, I guess somebody had to say it.

Fees

There are concerns from the developing world that $185,000, along with all the associated costs of applying for a TLD, is too steep a price to pay.

The “African ICANN Community” filed a comment a month ago asking ICANN to consider reducing or waiving certain fees in order to make the program more accessible for African applicants.

Several potential TLD registries also think it’s unfair that applicants have to pay $185,000 for each TLD they want to run, even if it’s basically the same word in multiple scripts.

Constantine Roussos, who intends to apply for .music, reiterated the points he brought up during the ICANN board public forum in Brussels last month.

Roussos believes that applicants should not have to pay the full $185,000 for each non-ASCII internationalized domain name variant of their primary TLD.

He wrote that he intends to apply for about six IDN versions of .music, along with some non-English Latin-script variants such as .musique.

Antony Van Couvering of registry consultant Minds + Machines and .bayern bidder Bayern Connect both echo this point, noting that many geographical names have multiple IDN variants – Cologne//Koeln/Köln, for example.

Roussos also notes, wisely I think, that it appears to be a waste of money paying consultants to evaluate back-end registry providers for applicants who choose to go with an recognized incumbent such as VeriSign, NeuStar or Afilias.

Another request for lower fees comes from the Japan Internet Domain Name Council, which thinks geographical TLD applications from small cities should receive a discount, as well as a waiver of any fees usually required to object to a third-party application.

Contended Strings and Front-Running

Of the known proposed TLDs, there are several strings that will very likely be contended by multiple bidders. This has led to maneuvering by some applicants designed to increase their chances of winning.

Roussos suggested that applicants such as his own .music bid, which have made their plans public for years, should be awarded bonus points during evaluation.

This would help prevent last-minute con artists stepping in with “copy-paste” bids for widely publicized TLDs, in the hope of being paid off by the original applicant, he indicated.

Roussos thinks the amount of work his .music has done in raising community awareness around new TLDs has earned the company extra credit.

It’s a thought echoed by Markus Bahmann, dotBayern’s chairman, and his counterpart at dotHamburg.

The opposing view is put forward by rival .bayern bidder Bayern Connect’s Caspar von Veltheim. He reckons such a system would put “insiders” at an unfair advantage.

M+M’s Van Couvering also said he opposes any applicant getting special treatment and added that M+M wants an explicit ban on trademark front-running included in the DAG.

Front-running is the practice of registering a TLD as a trademark in order to gain some special advantage in the new TLD evaluation process or in court afterward.

(M+M’s owner, Top Level Domain Holdings, has reportedly been front-running itself – attempting to defensively register trademarks in the likes of .kids, .books and .poker, while simultaneously trying to fight off similar attempts from potential rivals.)

Roussos of .music responded directly to M+M this afternoon, presenting the opposite view and promising to use its trademarks to defend itself (I’m assuming he means in court) if another .music applicant prevails.

Rest assured that if we, as .MUSIC are faced with the possibility of being gamed and abused in a manner that we find illegal, we will use our trademarks and other means necessary to do what we have to do to protect ourselves and our respective community.

He said .music is trademarked in 20 countries.

Morality and Public Order

This was a hot topic in Brussels, after the ICANN Governmental Advisory Committee agreed that it did not like the “MOPO” objection provisions of DAG v4, but could not think of a better replacement.

MOPO would give a way for governments to scupper bids if they do not like the morality implications. Anybody applying for .gay, for example, would have to deal with this kind of nonsense.

Jacob Malthouse of BigRoom, one of the would-be .eco bidders, reckons ICANN should treat the GAC the same as it treated the GNSO on the issue of vertical integration – remove MOPO from the DAG entirely in order to force the GAC to come up with something better.

The GAC had previously said it would address the MOPO issue in its comments on DAGv4, but its filing has not yet appeared on the ICANN site.

There’s a GNSO working group over here, but M+M’s Van Couvering notes that no GAC members have got involved post-Brussels.

Terrorism

Two commentators objected to the idea that an applicant could be rejected for involvement in “terrorism”, a term that DAGv4 does not define.

I reported on this a few days ago, but since then Khaled Fattal of the Multilingual Internet Group has filed a surprising rant that seems to indicate he has way more beef than really necessary.

Here’s a few quotes mined from the full comment:

it will alienate many in the international community who will choose not to take part in future ICANN processes including its New gTLDs, distrusting ICANN’s motives, or actively choosing to boycotting it, and causing many to seriously start re-considering alternatives.

as a Syrian born Arab American would I pass the IvCANN terrorism verification check as they are? After all Syria, my country of birth, is on the U.S. Government list of states sponsor of terrorism? And I admit, I do know an “Osama”, does that disqualify me? I Forgot to add, “Osama Fattal” a cousin. So would I pass or fail this check?

The arbitrary inclusion of terrorism as a measuring stick without any internationally recognized laws or standards is wrong and offensive to many around the world. If acted upon, it will be seen by millions of Muslims and Arabs as racist, prejudicial and profiling and would clearly indicate that ICANN has gone far beyond its mandate.

Vertical Integration and .brand TLDs

The issue of whether registries and registrars should be allowed to own each other is a thorny one, but there’s barely any mention at all of it in the DAGv4 comments filed so far.

The DAGv4 language on VI, which effectively bans it, is a place-holder for whatever consensus policy the GNSO comes up with (in the unlikely event that its working group ever gets its act together).

Most efforts on VI are therefore currently focused in the GNSO. Nevertheless, some commentators do mention VI in their filings.

Roussos of .music wants .music to be able to vertically integrate.

Abdulaziz Al-Zoman of SaudiNIC said VI limits should be removed to help applicants who need to turn to third-party infrastructure providers.

From the IP lobby, Celia Ullman of cigarette maker Philip Morris notes that there’s nothing in DAGv4 about single-registrant .brand TLDs. She writes:

would this mean that trademark owners owning a gTLD would need to open the registration procedure to second-level domain names applied for to third unrelated parties? In this case, what would be the incentive of actually registering and operating such a gTLD?

Clearly, the idea that a .brand would have to be open to all ICANN registrars on a non-discriminatory basis is enough to make any trademark attorney choke on their caviare.

JPNIC, the .jp ccTLD operator, also points out that DAGv4 says next to nothing about .brand TLDs and strongly suggests that the final Applicant Guidebook spells out just what a registry is allowed to do with its namespace (lawsuits are mentioned)

Disclaimer

I’ve paraphrased almost everybody in this article, and I’ve done it rather quickly. Despite my best efforts, some important nuance may have been lost in the act.

If you want to know what the commentators I’ve cited think, in their own words, I’ve linked to their comments individually throughout.

I may update this post as further comments are filed.

Loss-making M+M predicts December new TLD announcement

Top Level Domain Holdings, the parent company of Minds + Machines, has reported another six months of steep losses as it patiently waits for ICANN to launch its new TLD round.

The company, which is listed in London, reported revenue for the period to the end of April of £32,000 ($49,000), with a loss of £462,000 ($708,000).

TLDH still has almost £4m in cash and equivalents, so it’s not likely to go out of business before the new TLD round commences. Unless the round is delayed by litigation, of course.

M+M has apparently been tightening its belt a little since April. I’m aware of at least one key employee who is no longer working there.

TLDH says in its interim report that it expects ICANN to finalize its Applicant Guidebook in November and announce the application window for the first round in Cartegena in December.

While that’s definitely compatible with noises ICANN’s chairman was making in Brussels, I know I’m not the only person who believes this is a somewhat optimistic estimate.

The report also makes reference to the issue of registry-registrar integration, noting that the ICANN Nairobi resolution to prohibit cross ownership benefits M+M, which is not a registrar.

TLDH’s share price closed up 2% today.

ICANN’s Draft Applicant Guidebook v4 – first reactions

Kevin Murphy, June 1, 2010, Domain Policy

As you probably already know, ICANN late yesterday released version 4 of its Draft Applicant Guidebook, the bible for new top-level domain registry wannabes.

Having spent some time today skimming through the novel-length tome, I can’t say I’ve spotted anything especially surprising in there.

IP interests and governments get more of the protections they asked for, a placeholder banning registries and registrars from owning each other makes its first appearance, and ICANN beefs up the text detailing the influence of public comment periods.

There are also clarifications on the kinds of background checks ICANN will run on applicants, and a modified fee structure that gets prospective registries into the system for $5,000.

DNSSEC, security extensions for the DNS protocol, also gets a firmer mandate, with ICANN now making it clearer that new TLDs will be expected to implement DNSSEC from launch.

It’s still early days, but a number of commentators have already given their early reactions.

Perennial first-off-the-block ICANN watcher George Kirikos quickly took issue with the fact that DAG v4 still does not include “hard price caps” for registrations

[The DAG] demonstrates once again that ICANN has no interests in protecting consumers, but is merely in cahoots with registrars and registries, acting against the interests of the public… registry operators would be open to charge $1000/yr per domain or $1 million/yr per domain, for example, to maximize their profits.

Andrew Allemann of Domain Name Wire reckons ICANN should impose a filter on its newly emphasised comment periods in order to reduce the number of form letters, such as those seen during the recent .xxx consultation.

I can’t say I agree. ICANN could save itself a few headaches but it would immediately open itself up to accusations of avoiding its openness and transparency commitments.

The Internet Governance Project’s Milton Mueller noted that the “Draconian” text banning the cross-ownership of registries and registrars is basically a way to force the GNSO to hammer out a consensus policy on the matter.

Everyone knows this is a silly policy. The reason this is being put forward is that the VI Working Group has not succeeded in coming up with a policy toward cross-ownership and vertical integration that most of the parties can agree on.

I basically agree. It’s been clear since Nairobi that this was the case, but I doubt anybody expected the working group to come to any consensus before the new DAG was drafted, so I wouldn’t really count its work as a failure just yet.

That said, the way it’s looking at the moment, with participants still squabbling about basic definitions and terms of reference, I doubt that a fully comprehensive consensus on vertical integration will emerge before Brussels.

Mueller lays the blame squarely with Afilias and Go Daddy for stalling these talks, so I’m guessing he’s basing his views on more information than is available on the public record.

Antony Van Couvering of prospective registry Minds + Machines has the most comprehensive commentary so far, touching on several issues raised by the new DAG.

He’s not happy about the VI issue either, but his review concludes with a generally ambivalent comment:

Overall, this version of the Draft Applicant Guidebook differs from the previous version by adding some incremental changes and extra back doors for fidgety governments and the IP interests who lobby them. None of the changes are unexpected or especially egregious.

DAG v4 is 312 pages long, 367 pages if you’re reading the redlined version. I expect it will take a few days before we see any more substantial critiques.

One thing is certain: Brussels is going to be fun.

Could litigation delay ICANN’s new TLDs?

Intellectual property lawyers are wondering aloud about the possibility of ICANN being sued in order to delay the launch of new top-level domains.

The idea was raised during a panel at the annual meeting of INTA, the International Trademark Association, in Boston yesterday, according to its daily newsletter (pdf).

Kristina Rosette of the law firm Covington & Burling reportedly “suggested litigation is a possibility to slow down the application launch. One source of litigation could be trademark owners, worried about mass cybersquatting”.

That’s reported speech, by the way, not a quote. The article does not make clear the context.

Rosette is Intellectual Property Constituency representative for North America on ICANN’s GNSO Council.

The IP community is worried that the launch of new TLDs will lead to companies splurging more money unnecessarily on defensive registrations.

The current best, arguably most optimistic guess on the new TLD timeline comes from registry hopeful Minds + Machines. M+M has applications opening next April.

A delay in the launch of new TLDs would hurt most the startup companies that intend to apply for them, and the service providers and consultants hoping to facilitate the launches.

Some of these companies make minimal revenue, are dependent on funding, and would prefer applications open sooner rather than later.