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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.

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.

Governments still want new TLD morality veto

Kevin Murphy, November 23, 2010, Domain Registries

ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee still wants to block “controversial” new top-level domains on morality grounds.

In a letter to ICANN chairman Peter Dengate Thrush, a copy of which I have obtained, the GAC makes it clearer than ever that it wants national laws to play a part in approving new TLDs.

It also suggests that national governments should be able to pre-screen strings before applications are filed, to give applicants “early warning” that they are stepping into controversial waters.

The letter draws the battle lines for what could be some heated debate at ICANN’s meeting in Cartagena next month.

Given that the letter does not appear to have been published by ICANN yet, I will quote liberally.

Under the heading “Universal Resolvability of the DNS”, GAC interim chair Heather Dryden, the Canadian representative on the committee, wrote:

Due to uncertainties regarding the effectiveness of ICANN’s review and objections procedures, a country may feel compelled to block a new gTLD at the national level that it considers either objectionable or that raises national sensitivities.

To date, there do not appear to be controversial top level domains that have resulted in significant or sustained blocking by countries.

The GAC believes it is imperative that the impact on the continued security, stability and universal resolvability of the domain name systems of the potential blocking at the national level of the new gTLD strings that are considered to be objectionable or that raise national sensitivities be assessed prior to introducing new gTLDs.

The letter carries on to say that the GAC will “seek advice from the technical community” on the issue.

Dryden wrote that there should be a “prior review” process that would be able to identify strings that are “contrary to national law, policy or regulation” or “refer to religions, ethnicity, languages or other cultural identifiers that might raise national sensitivities”.

It sounds like the GAC envisions a pre-screening process, before new TLD applications are officially filed, similar to the “expressions of interest” concept that ICANN abandoned in March.

What TLDs this process would capture is unclear. The GAC letter notes by way of example that “several governments restrict the registration of certain terms in their ccTLDs”.

In practical terms, this would raise question marks over TLDs such as “.gay”, which would quite clearly run contrary to the policies of many national governments.

(As I reported earlier this month, the recently relaunched .so registry currently bans “gay”, “lesbian” and related terms at the second level.)

There’s more to be reported on the the implications of this letter, particularly with regards the work of ICANN’s “morality and public order” policy working group and the GAC’s relationship with ICANN in general.

Watch this space.

Crunch day for new TLDs

Kevin Murphy, September 24, 2010, Domain Registries

The ICANN board has kicked off a two-day retreat during which it will attempt to finalize the rules for applying for new top-level domains.

The big question for many is this: are more delays or the cards, or will ICANN finally put a firm timeline on the first new TLD application round?

One constituency that seems bent on more delays is the intellectual property community.

Dozens of organizations, including Microsoft, AT&T, Time Warner, Adobe and Coca-Cola, told ICANN in late July that the current IP protections in version 4 of the Draft Applicant Guidebook are not good enough.

The proposed Uniform Rapid Suspension process has become bloated and burdensome and the Trademark Clearinghouse does not go far enough to proactively protect trademarks, they say.

Just this week, it emerged that the International Trademark Association has called for further studies into the potential economic harms of new TLDs, which could easily add a couple of quarters of delay.

But there are good reasons to believe ICANN is done with being pushed around by IP interests.

As I reported earlier this week, chairman Peter Dengate Thrush has recently publicly stated that the current state of intellectual property protection in the DAG is a compromise position reflecting the views of all stakeholders and that IP lawyers “have had their chance”.

It’s not just IP interests that will be affected by the ICANN board’s discussions this weekend. The board’s decisions on “vertical integration” will make or break business models.

The VI issue, which governs whether registrars can apply for new TLDs and whether registrars can act as registrars, is perhaps the most difficult problem in the DAG. The working group tasked with sorting it out failed to reach consensus after six months of debate.

The DAGv4 currently says, as an explicit placeholder, that there can be no more than 2% cross-ownership of a registry by a registrar and vice versa.

This would mean that registrars that want to get into the TLD game, such as Demand Media’s eNom, would not be allowed to apply.

It may also cause problems for publicly listed registries such as VeriSign and Neustar, or registries that already have registrar shareholders, such as Afilias.

The proposals on the table include raising the ownership cap to 15% to eliminating it altogether.

A move by ICANN to restrict ownership will certainly attract allegations of anti-competitive behavior by those companies excluded, while a move too far in the opposite direction could lead to accusations that the rules do not go far enough to protect registrants.

There are no correct answers to this problem. ICANN needs to find a balance that does the least harm.

Also up for debate will be the rules on how governments and others can object to new TLD applications on “morality and public order” grounds.

Following the report of a working group, which I blogged about here, it seems likely that the term “morality and public order” will be replaced entirely, probably by “Objections Based on General Principles of International Law”.

If the board adopts the recommendations of this “Rec6” working group, there will be no special provision in the Guidebook for governments to make objections based on their own national laws.

There’s also the suggestion that ICANN’s board should have to vote with a two-thirds super-majority in order to deny a TLD application based on Rec6 objections.

It’s another almost impossible problem. Some say the Rec6 recommendations as they currently stand are unlikely to appease members of the Governmental Advisory Committee.

In summary, ICANN’s board has just two days to define the competitive parameters of a market that could be worth billions, figure out how to politely tell some of the world’s largest IP rights holders to back off, and write the rule-book on international governmental influence in the new TLD process.

I predict a small boom in sales of coffee and pizza in the Trondheim region.

Governments want morality veto on new TLDs

Kevin Murphy, August 6, 2010, Domain Registries

ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee wants to be able to kill off new top-level domain applications on cultural and religious grounds.

The GAC has finally broken its radio silence on the “morality and public order” or “MOPO” issue that was such a hot topic at the Brussels meeting in June.

A letter to ICANN (pdf), sent by Canadian GAC chair Heather Dryden, leaves little room for doubt where the GAC stands.

The GAC firmly believes that the absence of any controversial strings in the current universe of top-level domains (TLDs) to date contributes directly to the security and stability of the domain name and addressing system (DNS) and the universal resolvability of the system.

As a matter of principle… the GAC believes that the object of stability, security, and universal resolvability must be preserved in the course of expanding the DNS with the addition of new top-level domains.

This is actually quite powerful stuff.

The GAC is basically saying that no new TLDs should be introduced that would be unacceptable to the lowest common denominator world government.

Think Uganda, asked to make a call on .gay.

Think about any oppressed ethnic group without a territory that wants to apply for its own TLD.

The GAC wants ICANN to create a process for governments and others to object to TLD applications on religious, cultural, linguistic, national and geographical grounds.

It could even result in .xxx being objected to, even though it’s technically part of the 2005 round of new TLDs – the GAC wants the objection process to apply to “all pending and future TLDs”.