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ICANN fights government gTLD power grab

Kevin Murphy, July 22, 2011, Domain Policy

ICANN has opposed a US move to grant governments veto power over controversial new top-level domain applications.

Cutting to the very heart of Obama administration internet governance policy, ICANN has told the National Telecommunications and Information Administration that its recent proposals would “undermine the very principle of the multi-stakeholder model”.

The stern words came in ICANN’s response to the NTIA’s publication of revisions to the IANA contract, the contract that allows ICANN to retain its powers over the domain name system root.

The NTIA’s Further Notice Of Inquiry contained proposed amendments to the contract, including this:

For delegation requests for new generic TLDS (gTLDs), the Contractor [ICANN] shall include documentation to demonstrate how the proposed string has received consensus support from relevant stakeholders and is supported by the global public interest.

This was widely interpreted as a US attempt to avoid a repeat of the .xxx scandal, when ICANN approved the porn gTLD despite the unease voiced by its Governmental Advisory Committee.

As I noted in June, it sounds a lot like code for “if the GAC objects, you must reject”, which runs the risk of granting veto powers to the GAC’s already opaque consensus-making process.

In his response to the FNOI (pdf), ICANN chief Rod Beckstrom says that the NTIA’s proposal would “replace” the “intensive multi-stakeholder deliberation” that created the newly approved Applicant Guidebook.

He also pointed out the logical inconsistency of asking IANA to remain policy-neutral in one part of the proposed contract, and asking it to make serious policy decisions in another:

The IANA functions contract should not be used to rewrite the policy and implementation process adopted through the bottom-up decision-making process. Not only would this undermine the very principle of the multi-stakeholder model, it would be inconsistent with the objective of more clearly distinguishing policy development from operational implementation by the IANA functions operator.

NTIA head Larry Strickling has been pounding the “multistakeholderism” drum loudly of late, most recently in a speech in Washington and in an interview with Kieren McCarthy of .nxt.

In the .nxt interview, Strickling was quite clear that he believes ICANN should give extra authority to governments when it comes to approving controversial strings.

The NTIA concern – shared by other government entities including the European Commission – is that controversial strings could lead to national blocking and potentially internet fragmentation.

While Strickling declined to comment on the specific provisions of the IANA contract, he did tell .nxt:

If the GAC as a consensus view can’t support a string then my view is that the ICANN Board should not approve the string as to do so in effect legitimizes or sanctions that governments should be blocking at the root zone level. And I think that is bad for the Internet.

Where you’re dealing with sensitive strings, where you’ve engaged the sovereignty of nations, I think it is appropriate to tip the hat a little bit more to governments and listen to what they say. On technical issues it wouldn’t be appropriate but on this particular one, you’ve got to listen a little bit more to governments.

He also indicated that the US would not necessarily stand up for its principles if confronted by substantial objections to a string from other governments:

So we would be influenced – I can’t say it would be dispositive – if a large number of countries have a problem with a particular string, even if it was one that might not be objectionable to the United States government.

And that is out of interest of protecting the Internet’s root from widespread blocking at the top-level by lots of governments.

Does this mean that the US could agree to a consensus GAC objection to a .gay gTLD? A .porn? A .freespeech? It certainly sounds like it.

Controversial TLD blocking still controversial

Kevin Murphy, May 30, 2011, Domain Policy

ICANN and its Governmental Advisory Committee have yet to reach agreement on when and how governments should be able to block top-level domains deemed too controversial to go live.

In its latest advice to ICANN’s board (pdf), the GAC gets a bit sniffy in response to calls for it to be more transparent about how such objections are raised.

The Applicant Guidebook currently requires ICANN to take GAC objections to TLD applications seriously, but only if the GAC reveals which nation(s) objected and why.

The GAC, predictably, seems to think ICANN is trying to undermine its authority. At the very least, it doesn’t like being told what to do:

The GAC advises the Board that the current text in Module 3 that seemingly dictates to the GAC how to develop consensus advice is problematic and should be deleted, as it is inconsistent with the ICANN Bylaws and the GAC’s Operating Principles.

The GAC has offered to refine its procedures to make “consensus advice” a more meaningful term, such as by adopting the UN’s definition of consensus, however.

Some believe that giving the GAC a carte blanche to file objections from its opaque decision-making black box will lead to back-room horse-trading.

You might find a bloc of theocratic nations, for example, refusing to agree to an objection to .nazi (an improbable application, admittedly) unless other governments agree to object to .gay.

And some observers in the west don’t trust their own governments to stand up for their principles and resist this kind of deal-making, particularly when there’s no transparency into the process.

The GAC, meanwhile, does not think the objections process has been sufficiently squared away for it to agree to it. It wrote:

The GAC strongly believes that further discussions are needed between the GAC and the ICANN Board to find a mutually agreed and understandable formulation for the communication of actionable GAC consensus advice regarding proposed new gTLD strings.

ICANN is due to publish the seventh (and “final”) draft of its Guidebook tonight. Its board is due to meet with the GAC next June 19, one day before it plans to vote on the program.

US wants veto power over new TLDs

Kevin Murphy, January 29, 2011, Domain Registries

The United States is backing a governmental power grab over ICANN’s new top-level domains program.

In a startling submission to the ICANN Governmental Advisory Committee, a copy of which I have obtained, the US says that governments should get veto power over TLDs they are uncomfortable with:

Any GAC member may raise an objection to a proposed string for any reason. If it is the consensus position of the GAC not to oppose objection raised by a GAC member or members, ICANN shall reject the application.

In other words, if Uganda objected to .gay, Iran objected to .jewish, or Egypt objected to .twitter, and no other governments opposed those objections, the TLD applications would be killed off.

The fate of TLDs representing marginal communities or controversial brands could well end up subject to back-room governmental horse-trading, rather than the objective, transparent, predictable process the ICANN community has been trying to create for the last few years.

The amendments the US is calling for would also limit the right to object to a TLD on “morality” grounds to members of the GAC, while the current Applicant Guidebook is much broader.

The rationale for these rather Draconian proposals is stability and “universal resolvability”.

The worry seems to be that if some nations start blocking TLDs, they may well also decide to start up their own rival DNS root, fragmenting the internet (and damaging the special role the US has in internet governance today).

The US also wants TLDs such as “.bank” or “.pharmacy” more closely regulated (or blocked altogether) and wants “community” applications more strictly defined.

In the current ICANN Applicant Guidebook, any applicant can designate their application “community-based”, in order to potentially strengthen its chances against rival bids.

But the US wants the Guidebook amended to contain the following provisions:

“Community-based strings” include those that purport to represent or that embody a particular group of people or interests based on historical components of identity (such as nationality, race or ethnicity, religion or religious affiliation, culture or particular social group, and/or a language or linguistic group). In addition, those strings that refer to particular sectors, in particular those subject to national regulation (such as .bank, .pharmacy) are also “community-based” strings.

In the event the proposed string is either too broad to effectively identify a single entity as the relevant authority or appropriate manager, or is sufficiently contentious that an appropriate manager cannot be identified and/or agreed, the application should be rejected.

In practice, this could potentially kill off pretty much every vertical TLD you can think of, such as .bank, .music and .hotel. How many industries have a “single entity” overseeing them globally?

While the goal appears to be noble – nobody wants a .bank or .pharma managed by hucksters – the Community Objection procedure in the Guidebook arguably already provides protection here.

The US also wants the policy allowing the vertical integration of registries and registrars reining in, for TLD applicants to justify the costs their domains will incur on others, and a dramatic overhaul of the trademark protection mechanisms in the Guidebook.

In short, the US wants the new TLDs program substantially overhauled, in ways that are certain to draw howls of protest from many in the ICANN community.

The document does not appear to be official GAC policy yet. It could well be watered down before the GAC meets the ICANN board in Brussels at the end of February.

ICANN said earlier this week that it plans to approve a Guidebook “as close as practically possible” to the current draft, and heavily hinted that it wants to do so at its San Francisco meeting in March.

But if many of the US recommendations were to make it through Brussels, that’s a deadline that could be safely kissed goodbye.

What next for new TLDs? Part 4 – GAC Concerns

Kevin Murphy, December 15, 2010, Domain Policy

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 fourth post, I will look at areas of the AGB that the Governmental Advisory Committee is still concerned about.

GAC Concerns

The GAC’s laundry list of objections and concerns has grown with every official Communique it has released during an ICANN public meeting over the last few years.

While it has not yet published its official “scorecard” of demands for the home-stretch negotiations, it has released a list of 11 points (pdf) it wants to discuss with the board.

These 11 points can be grouped into a smaller number of buckets: objections and disputes procedures, trademark protection, registry-registrar separation, and the treatment of geographical names.

I wrote about the trademark issue in part one of this post.

The GAC appears to have adopted many of the arguments of the IP lobby – it thinks the AGB does not currently do enough to ensure the costs to business of new TLDs will be minimized – so we might expect that to be a major topic of discussion at the GAC-Board retreat in February.

I’ll be interested to hear what it has to say about registry-registrar separation.

The GAC has been pushing for some looser cross-ownership restrictions, in order to foster competition, since 2007, and most recently in September.

It has previously been in favor of restrictions on “insider” companies with market power, but for a more relaxed environment for new entrants (such as “community” TLDs that may largely operate under agreements with their local governments).

This position looks quite compatible with ICANN’s new vertical integration policy, to me, so I’m not sure where the GAC’s concerns currently lie.

The issue of disputes and objections may be the trickiest one.

The GAC basically wants a way for its members to block “controversial” TLD applications on public policy grounds, without having to pay fees.

The “Rec6” policy, previously known as “morality and public order objections” is one of the issues the ICANN board has specifically acknowledged is Not Closed.

This is from its Cartagena resolution:

Discussions will continue on (1) the roles of the Board, GAC, and ALAC in the objection process, (2) the incitement to discrimination criterion, and (3) fees for GAC and ALAC-instigated objections. ICANN will take into account public comment including the advice of the GAC, and looks forward to receiving further input from the working group in an attempt to close this issue.

GAC members on the Rec6 working group repeatedly highlighted objection fees as a deal-breaker – governments don’t want to have to pay to object to TLD applications.

This appears to been cast as some kind of sovereignty-based matter of principle, although I suppose it could just as easily be an “in this economic climate” budgeting concern.

ICANN’s position is that the GAC as a whole can object for free, but that individual governments have to pay. Fees for some objection procedures will run into tens of thousands of dollars.

The GAC also has beef with the AGB’s treatment of geographic strings.

This is an area where ICANN says the AGB already “substantially reflects the views of the ICANN community” but intends to take GAC comments into account.

ICANN has already made substantial concessions on the geographic names issue, but there may still be a few loopholes through which territory names could slip through the net and be approved without the endorsement of their local governments.

Finally, the GAC wants to include amendments to the Registrar Accreditation Agreement, previously recommended by law enforcement agencies, in the AGB discussion.

The appears to have come completely out of the blue, without any direct relevance to the new TLD program.

It’s a long list covering a lot of issues, and it could get longer when the GAC publishes its official “scorecard”. We’ll have to wait and see.

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.