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Little interest in Russian gTLDs?

Kevin Murphy, January 18, 2012, Domain Registries

Despite being given the opportunity to launch top-level domains in Cyrillic script, only a handful of companies from Russia are expected to apply to ICANN for new gTLDs.

That’s according to Andrey Kolesnikov, CEO of Coordination Center for TLD RU, which runs the country’s .ru and .РФ registries.

“There won’t be many applications from Russia, only from about 10 companies,” he said at a recent press conference, while estimating at least 1,000 applications overall.

Just 10 applicants is a surprisingly low estimate, given the resurgence of interest in Russian domain names in 2011.

The year-old .РФ (.rf, for Russian Federation) domain has been a roaring success in volume terms. Launched in late 2010, it now has about a million registered domains.

CC itself is planning to apply for .ДЕТИ, which means “.children” in Russian.

RU-Center, the largest Russian registrar, intends to apply for the city-gTLDs .МОСКВА and .moscow.

Other IDN-friendly nations may be more enthusiastic about new gTLDs. ICANN CEO Rod Beckstrom said last week that he heard that Indian companies could apply for as many as 100.

GAC gets more power to block controversial gTLDs

Kevin Murphy, January 12, 2012, Domain Policy

While the new version of ICANN’s new generic top-level domains Applicant Guidebook contains mostly tweaks, there’s a pretty big change for those filing “controversial” applications.

The Guidebook now grants the Governmental Advisory Committee greater powers to block gTLD applications based on minority government views.

ICANN has adopted poorly-written, ambiguous text approved by the GAC at its meeting in Dakar last October, which lowers the threshold required to force the ICANN board to consider GAC advice.

The changes essentially mean that it’s now much easier for the GAC to force the ICANN board to the negotiating table if a small number of governments object to a gTLD application.

In the September Guidebook, a GAC consensus objection was needed to force the ICANN board to manually approve controversial applications. Now, it appears that only a single country needs to object.

This is the relevant text:

The GAC advises ICANN that there are concerns about a particular application “dot-example.” The ICANN Board is expected to enter into dialogue with the GAC to understand the scope of concerns. The ICANN Board is also expected to provide a rationale for its decision.

Applications for .gay, of which there are expected to be at least two, will almost certainly fall into this category.

If you’re applying for a potentially controversial gTLD, you can thank the GAC for the fact that your road to approval is now considerably less predictable.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that the GAC is allowed to file an objection based on any aspect of the application – not just the chosen string.

So, for example, if you’re applying for .bank or .pharma and your application falls short of one government’s expected consumer safeguards, you may also see a GAC “concerns” objection.

In cases where the GAC objects to an application, the ICANN board of directors does have the ability to overrule that objection, if it provides its rationale, much as it did with .xxx.

However, .xxx was a special case, and ICANN today is under a regime much friendlier to the GAC and much more nervous about the international political environment than it was 12 months ago.

Make no mistake: GAC Advice on New gTLDs will carry weight.

This table compares the types of GAC Advice described in the Applicant Guidebook published in September with the one published last night.

September Applicant GuidebookJanuary Applicant Guidebook
I. The GAC advises ICANN that it is the consensus of the GAC that a particular application should not proceed. This will create a strong presumption for ICANN that the application should not be approved. In the event that the ICANN Board determines to approve an application despite the consensus advice of the GAC, pursuant to the ICANN Bylaws, the GAC and the ICANN Board will then try, in good faith and in a timely and efficient manner, to find a mutually acceptable solution. In the event the Board determines not to accept the GAC Advice, the Board will provide a rationale for its decision.I. The GAC advises ICANN that it is the consensus of the GAC that a particular application should not proceed. This will create a strong presumption for the ICANN Board that the application should not be approved. The ICANN Board is also expected to provide a rationale for its decision if it does not follow the GAC
Advice.
II. The GAC provides advice that indicates that some governments are concerned about a particular application. Such advice will be passed on to the applicant but will not create the presumption that the application should be denied, and such advice would not require the Board to undertake the process for attempting to find a mutually acceptable solution with the GAC should the application be approved. Note that in any case, that the Board will take seriously any other advice that GAC might provide and will consider entering into dialogue with the GAC to understand the scope of the concerns expressed.II. The GAC advises ICANN that there are concerns about a particular application “dot-example.” The ICANN Board is expected to enter into dialogue with the GAC to understand the scope of concerns. The ICANN Board is also expected to provide a rationale for its decision.
II. The GAC advises ICANN that an application should not proceed unless remediated. This will raise a strong presumption for the Board that the application should not proceed. If there is a remediation method available in the Guidebook (such as securing government approval), that action may be taken. However, material amendments to applications are generally prohibited and if there is no remediation method available, the application will not go forward and the applicant can re-apply in the second round.III. The GAC advises ICANN that an application should not proceed unless remediated. This will raise a strong presumption for the Board that the application should not proceed unless there is a remediation method available in the Guidebook (such as securing the approval of one or more governments), that is implemented by the applicant. If the issue identified by the GAC is not remediated, the ICANN Board is also expected to provide a rationale for its decision if the Board does not follow GAC advice.

It should also be noted that since Dakar the GAC has defined consensus as “the practice of adopting decisions by general agreement in the absence of any formal objection”.

In other words, if some GAC members push for a GAC consensus objection against a given gTLD, other GAC members would have to formally object to that proposed objection in order to prevent the minority view becoming consensus.

It’s a pretty low threshold. The .gay applicants, among others, are going to have a nerve-wracking time.

ICANN opens new gTLD program

Kevin Murphy, January 12, 2012, Domain Policy

It’s scarcely believable given the delays and threats, but ICANN opened its new generic top-level domains program to applications this morning at a minute after midnight UTC.

The TLD Application System, ICANN’s custom web tool for submitting applications, is now live.

If you have $5,000 burning a hole in your pocket, you can sign up for TAS to check it out at any time between now and March 29 at 2359 UTC.

A new English version of the Applicant Guidebook – the ninth – has also been published, mostly merely correcting and clarifying parts of the text.

Applications, with the remaining $180,000 part of the fee, are due by April 12 at 2359 UTC.

Whois verification rules coming this year

Kevin Murphy, January 11, 2012, Domain Policy

No more Donald Duck in the Whois?

Registrars could be obliged to verify their customers’ identities when they sell domain names under new rules proposed for later this year, according to ICANN president Rod Beckstrom.

He told National Telecommunications and Information Administration boss Larry Strickling today that the new provisions could make it into the new Registrar Accreditation Agreement by March.

Beckstrom wrote:

ICANN expects that the RAA will incorporate – for the first time – Registrar commitments to verify WHOIS data. ICANN is actively considering incentives for Registrars to adopt the anticipated amendments to the RAA prior to the rollout of the first TLD in 2013.

The RAA is currently being renegotiated by ICANN and the registrar community, following governmental outrage about the RAA at its meeting in Dakar last October.

If new Whois rules are added to the RAA, it will be up to registrars to decide whether to implement them immediately or wait until their existing ICANN contracts expire — hence the need for “incentives”.

Documents ICANN has been posting following its RAA meetings have been less than illuminating, so the letter to Strickling today is the first public insight into what the new contract may contain.

Whois verification, which is often found at the top of the wish-lists of intellectual property and law enforcement communities, is of course hugely controversial.

Civil rights advocates believe that checking registrant identities will infringe on rights to privacy and free speech, while not helping to prevent crime. Actual criminals will of course not hand over their true identities when registering domain names.

The process of verifying Whois data may also wind up making domain names more expensive, due to the costs registrars will incur implementing or subscribing to automated verification systems.

Nevertheless, the anti-new-gTLDs campaign in Washington DC led by the Association of National Advertisers recently led to Whois – a separate issue – being placed firmly on the new gTLDs agenda.

The chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, as well as Strickling, both wrote to ICANN to express concern about the lack of progress on strengthening Whois over the last few years.

Beckstrom’s letter to Strickling can be read here. His reply to FTC chairman Leibowitz – which also schools him in why new gTLDs probably won’t increase fraud – can be read here.

SportAccord picks CORE for .sport gTLD bid

Kevin Murphy, January 10, 2012, Domain Registries

SportAccord, an international association of sporting federations, has picked CORE as its registry services provider for its .sport generic top-level domain application.

The organization, which has International Olympic Committee backing, has also confirmed that it will be applying for .sport as a “community” gTLD.

Community applications can avoid a costly auction in the event that their chosen gTLD string is contested and the applicant can meet a rigorous set of community support criteria.

With over 100 international sporting organizations, covering everything from football to tug of war, comprising its membership, SportAccord’s bid should be good for a few points on the Community Priority Evaluation, but success is by no means assured.

The Lausanne, Switzerland-based organization announced its intention to apply for .sport, issuing an RFP, back in September 2011.

I’m aware of at least two other organizations that have publicly announced potential .sport applications.

CORE currently runs the back-end for the .cat and .museum gTLDs.

Melbourne IT involved in 100+ gTLD applications

Kevin Murphy, January 10, 2012, Domain Registrars

Melbourne IT says it has prepared applications for over 100 new generic top-level domains on behalf of clients including members of the Association of National Advertisers.

The registrar’s CEO, Theo Hnarakis, said in a press release:

Big brands from around the world have already engaged with Melbourne IT Digital Brand Services to help them apply for more than 100 new TLDs.

Big name companies in the financial sector, plus the retail and consumer goods industries have shown the most interest in applying so far, and roughly a quarter of the companies we are assisting are members of the Fortune Global 500. Applicants working with Melbourne IT also include members of the U.S. Association of National Advertisers.”

The company agrees with the emerging industry consensus which estimates 1,000 to 1,500 applications between Thursday and April 12, with roughly two-thirds of those “dot-brand” applications.

It’s an open industry secret that many companies ostensibly opposing the new gTLD program with the ANA are also preparing applications, but their level of enthusiasm is still open to question.

Anecdotally, many potential dot-brand applicants appear to be under the misapprehension that a new gTLD application is necessary to defend their brands from top-level cybersquatters, which is not the case.

ICANN adds confusion over second new gTLD round

Kevin Murphy, January 7, 2012, Domain Policy

ICANN’s board of directors met on Thursday to discuss the imminent launch of the new generic top-level domains program.

No decisions were made, which means the organization is still set to start accepting applications on January 12, as ICANN’s top officials have stated several times this week.

I hear that the TLD Application System is due to go live one minute after midnight (UTC) on Thursday, in fact, which means too-eager Californian applicants may be able to sign up as early as Wednesday afternoon.

Six briefing documents used at the meeting have been published, one of which deals with the all-important issue of the timing of the second (or “next” as ICANN prefers) application round.

It’s become increasingly apparent recently that lots of big brands think they’re being forced to defensively apply for their own trademarks as gTLDs in the first round.

Some registries, lawyers and new gTLD consultants are probably just as much to blame for this fearmongering as opponents of the program such as the Association of National Advertisers.

The Coalition Against Domain Name Abuse has recently championed the cause of a firm date for a second-round application window, to make a “wait and see” strategy more realistic.

I’ve previously said that a first round stuffed with useless defensive dot-brands would make a mockery of the whole new gTLD program.

ICANN evidently agrees. The board briefing materials (pdf) state:

A timely second round will relieve pressure on the first round, reducing demand and:

o Reducing delegation rates, thereby relieving stability concern perceptions,

o Addressing concerns of some trademark owners that are critical of the process, relieving the perception of need for “defensive registration” at the top-level,

o Decreasing the number of applications relieves some pressure on specific operational issues such as the number of batches, instances of string contention, and the amount of time it will take to process all the applications. Fewer applications will increase the ability to process applications in an efficient manner.

The Applicant Guidebook is currently vague and even a little confusing on the timing of the second round.

Unfortunately, the new briefing materials, which attempt to give some clarity into ICANN’s thinking, appear to contain errors and potentially just confuse matters further.

The documents state “ICANN should publicly announce its intention to launch a subsequent round as soon as practicable after the one opening on 12 January 2012”.

So far so good.

However, ICANN has promised its Governmental Advisory Committee that it will complete two reviews before opening a second round: one into the effect of the first round on root zone stability, the other into the effectiveness of the new trademark protection mechanisms.

ICANN now states that the trademark study would start “one year after 75 gTLDs are in the root” and gives a clearly impossible date of February 2013 for this happening.

I’m guessing this is one of those silly typos we all sometimes make during the first week of a new year.

Given that the first new gTLDs will not be delegated until 2013, ICANN almost certainly meant to say that it expects to start the trademark review a year later in February 2014.

ICANN also sensibly notes that it “cannot commit to when we get consensus on the conclusions of a Trademark study”, which doesn’t really add clarity to the timeline either.

The document also states:

The other critical path is completion of the round 1 applications – this is uncertain because (a) we don’t know the number of batches that are required and (b) if we could start the second round while we finish up the objections and stuff from the first round. However, if there are four batches, initial evaluations for them would finish in March 2013, and nearly all applications should clear in the second quarter of 2014.

I assume, but the document does not state, that this is a reference to the root zone stability study, which under a strict reading of the Guidebook is supposed to happen after the first round has ended.

Unfortunately, the dates appear to be wrong again.

According to the Applicant Guidebook, the Initial Evaluation phase takes five months. Four batches would therefore take 20 months, which would give a March 2014 date for the end of initial evaluations and a second-quarter 2015 date for the final delegations.

Again, this is probably just one of those first-week-of-the-year brainfarts. I assume (hope) the ICANN board noticed the discrepancy too and based its discussions on the actual timeline.

There’s also the matter of ICANN’s review of the program’s effects on competition and consumer choice, which is mandated by its Affirmation of Commitments with the US Department of Commerce.

Unfortunately, it’s not yet clear even to ICANN whether this is a prerequisite for a second round, according to the briefing documents.

Commerce has a bit of a predicament here. On the one hand, it wants to ensure new gTLDs are good for internet users. On the other, it’s under a massive amount of pressure from the trademark lobby, which would benefit from clarity into the timeline for future application rounds.

Either way, the US government’s interpretation of the Affirmation is going to be a key factor in determining the second-round launch date.

In short, given what is known and expected, 2015 seems to be the earliest possible date for the second round, but a hell of a lot rides on how many applications are received.

In a blog post today, ICANN CEO Rod Beckstrom said: “The issues should be settled before the application window closes on 12 April but their resolution is not essential before the window opens on 12 January.”

I disagree. If ICANN is serious about reducing defensive applications, it needs to provide an unambiguous public statement about the second round before it starts accepting checks from brand owners.

Naming a date may not be possible, but it needs to say something.

High-security .bank spec published

Kevin Murphy, January 5, 2012, Domain Policy

BITS, the technology arm of the Financial Services Roundtable, has published a set of specifications for new “high-security” generic top-level domains such as .bank and .pay.

The wide-ranging spec covers 31 items such as registration and acceptable use policies, abusive conduct, law enforcement compliance, registrar relations and data security.

It would also ban Whois proxy/privacy services from financial gTLDs and oblige those registries to verify that all Whois records were fully accurate at least once every six months.

The measures could be voluntarily adopted by any new gTLD applicant, but BITS wants them made mandatory for gTLDs related to financial services, which it calls “fTLDs”.

A letter sent by BITS and the American Bankers Association to ICANN management in late December (pdf) is even a bit threatening on this point:

We strongly urge that ICANN accept the [Security Standards Working Group’s] proposed standards and require their use in the evaluation process. We request notification by 31 January 2012 that ICANN commits to use these fTLD standards in the evaluation of the appropriate gTLD applications. BITS, the American Bankers Association (ABA), and the organizations involved in this effort are firmly committed to ensuring fTLDs are operated in a responsible and secure manner and will take all necessary steps to ensure that occurs.

BITS, it should be pointed out, is preparing its own .bank bid (possibly also .invest and .insure) so the new specs give a pretty good indication of what its own gTLD applications will look like.

ICANN’s Applicant Guidebook does not currently mandate any security standard, but it does say that security practices should be commensurate with the level of trust expected from the gTLD string.

Efforts within ICANN to create a formal High Security Zone Top Level Domain (HSTLD) standard basically fizzled out in late 2010 after ICANN’s board said it would not endorse its results.

That said, any applicant that chooses to adopt the new spec and can demonstrate it has the wherewithal to live up to its very strict requirements stands a pretty good chance of scoring maximum points in the security section of the gTLD application.

Declining to implement these new standards, or something very similar, is likely to be a deal-breaker for any company currently thinking about applying for a financial services gTLD.

Even if ICANN does not formally endorse the BITS-led effort, it is virtually guaranteed that the Governmental Advisory Committee will be going through every financial gTLD with a fine-toothed comb when the applications are published May 1.

The US government, via NTIA chief Larry Strickling, said this week that the GAC plans to reopen the new gTLD trademark protection debate after the applications are published.

It’s very likely that any dodgy-looking gTLDs purporting to represent regulated industries will find themselves under the microscope at that time.

The new spec was published by BITS December 20. It is endorsed by 17 companies, mostly banks. Read it in PDF format here.

ICANN confirms possible new Applicant Guidebook

Kevin Murphy, January 4, 2012, Domain Policy

With just a week left before ICANN begins to accept new generic top-level domain applications, the organization has confirmed that it might release a new draft of the Applicant Guidebook.

As you probably know by now, the Guidebook is the Bible for new gTLD applicants. The most-recent version, published back in September last year, was the eighth.

But ICANN has not ruled out a ninth version, presumably the final draft before applications start rolling into Marina del Rey on January 12.

Senior vice president Kurt Pritz said in an emailed statement:

Since its opening, our customer service center has received a number of questions requesting clarifications on some Guidebook points. These clarifications have been made through the responses by the customer service.

We will summarize those clarifications in one document – that might be an Advisory or in the form of an updated Guidebook. In either case, the positions of applicants will not be affected as the information will repeat that in previously answered questions.

Pritz also added that a new draft of the separate guidebook for the recently developed Applicant Support program may be released after public comments close later this month.

It’s unlikely that a revised Guidebook will contain any big surprises, if it only contains clarifications of text already found in the current version.

I’ve been trawling ICANN’s new gTLD customer service center knowledge base for interesting facts for weeks and come up pretty much empty — most answers to applicants’ questions merely refer back to the Guidebook.

(Hat tip to new gTLD consultancy Fairwinds, which first noticed the possibility of a new Guidebook.)

Strickling drops last-minute bombshell on new gTLDs

Kevin Murphy, January 4, 2012, Domain Policy

Larry Strickling, the man most responsible for overseeing ICANN in the US administration, has given an unexpected last-minute boost to opponents of the new generic top-level domains program.

In a letter to ICANN chair Steve Crocker tonight, Strickling says governments may intervene this May to impose new trademark protection mechanisms on the new gTLD program

Echoing the words of several Congressmen, Strickling, head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, said that after the first-round applications have been filed, ICANN might want to consider a “phased-in” approach.

Once the list of strings is made public, NTIA, soliciting input from stakeholders and working with colleagues in the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC), will evaluate whether additional protections are warranted at the second level. Having the ability to evaluate the actual situations or conflicts presented by the applied for strings, rather than merely theoretical ones, will certainly assist and focus everyone’s efforts to respond to problems should they arise.

The letter could be seen as a win for the trademark lobby, which has been pressing the NTIA, Department of Commerce and Congress for months to delay or block the program.

However, reading between the lines it appears that Strickling believes the trademark protections already in the program are probably adequate, just woefully misunderstood.

The letter spends more time politely tearing into ICANN’s atrocious outreach campaign, observing that many trademark owners still “are not clear about the new gTLD program”.

Strickling pleads with ICANN’s leadership to raise awareness of the protections that already exist, to calm the nerves of companies apparently convinced by industry scaremongering that they’re being forced to apply for “dot-brand” gTLDs defensively.

…in our recent discussions with stakeholders, it has become clear that many organizations, particularly trademark owners, believe they need to file defensive applications at the top level.

We think, and I am sure ICANN and its stakeholders would agree, that it would not be healthy for the expansion program if a large number of companies file defensive top-level applications when they have no interest in operating a registry. I suggest that ICANN consider taking some measures well before the application window closes to mitigate against this possibility.

The themes are repeated throughout the letter: ICANN has not done enough to educate potential applicants about the new gTLD program, and brand owners think they’ve got a gun to their head.

…it has become apparent that some stakeholders in the United States are not clear about the new gTLD program. I urge you to engage immediately and directly with these and other stakeholders to better educate them on the purpose and scope of the program as well as the mechanisms to address their concerns.

I’m sure this is a letter Strickling didn’t want to send.

Recently, he talked openly about how trademark owners pressuring the US government to overrule ICANN’s decision-making risked raising the hackles of repressive regimes around the world and leading to an internet governed by the UN

Letters like this certainly don’t help his cause, but the political pressure in Washington DC has evidently forced his hand.

Will this derail next week’s launch of the program? Probably not.

Does it raise a whole bunch of questions the ICANN community had thought it had put to bed? You bet it does.

Read the letter here (pdf).