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Businesses may call for more new gTLD trademark protections

Kevin Murphy, December 31, 2011, Domain Policy

It’s open season on ICANN at the moment, and as the number of letters opposing the new gTLD program flittering between Washington DC and Marina del Rey becomes confusingly voluminous many groups think they’ve found another opportunity to demand last-minute changes.

ICANN’s Business Constituency is now considering making several recommendations for “critical improvements” to protect trademark holders in the new gTLD universe.

While the recommendations are still under discussion, they could include adding the option to transfer a domain name to a brand owner after a successful Uniform Rapid Suspension complaint.

This would prove unpopular among domain investors and others as it would increase the likelihood of the untested URS being used as a replacement for the already controversial UDRP, potentially increasing the risk of reverse domain name hijacking.

The BC is also discussing whether to ask for a “permanent registry block” feature to be added the forthcoming Trademark Clearinghouse, enabling brand owners to block their trademarks from all new gTLDs for a one-time fee in much the same way as ICM Registry enabled in the .xxx sunrise.

The Coalition Against Domain Name Abuse made a similar request to ICANN last week.

The idea is unlikely to find favor because it would essentially grant trademark owners exclusivity over strings, a right not usually given to them by trademark law.

Other BC discussion topics include making the Trademark Clearinghouse permanent (instead of just running for the first 60 days of each new gTLD) and putting a firm date on the opening of the second-round application window, a popular request from brand owners.

Much like 13th-hour requests originating in the At-Large Advisory Committee, the BC’s position is likely to be substantially revised before it is submitted to ICANN officially.

While ICANN chairman Steve Crocker told .nxt this week that there are no plans to delay or rate-limit the new gTLD program, it’s less clear whether the Applicant Guidebook is still open for the kinds of substantial amendments now being discussed by the business community.

But my hunch is that, regardless of the political pressure being brought to bear on ICANN in the US, the new gTLD program is going to launch on January 12 in more or less its current form.

CADNA calls for mandatory .xxx-style sunrises

Kevin Murphy, December 27, 2011, Domain Policy

The Coalition Against Domain Name Abuse has asked ICANN to make one-time trademark blocks, much like those offered by .xxx operator ICM Registry, mandatory in most new top-level domains.

In a letter to ICANN bosses (pdf) sent last week, CADNA president Josh Bourne wrote:

ICANN should consider including a requirement in the Applicant Guidebook that all new gTLD registries that choose to sell second-level domains to registrants adopt a low-cost, one-time block for trademark owners to protect their marks in perpetuity.

ICANN should require registries to give brand owners the option to buy low-cost blocks on their trademarks before any registration period (Sunrise or Landrush) opens. This can be offered at a lower cost than sunrise registrations have been priced at in the past – this precedent has been set with the blocks offered in .XXX, where the blocks are made in perpetuity for a single, nonrecurring fee.

The recommendation is one of several. CADNA also reckons ICANN needs to name the date for its second round of new gTLD applications, and that “.brand” applicants should get discounts for multiple gTLD applications.

The letter comes as opposition to the new gTLD program in the US becomes deafening and ICANN’s board of directors have reportedly scheduled an impromptu meeting next week to determine whether the January 12 launch is still a good idea.

CADNA is no longer opposed to the program itself. Fairwinds Partners, the company that runs the lobbyist, recently restyled itself as a new gTLD consultancy.

But there’s a virtually zero chance the letter will come to anything, unless ICANN were to decide to open up the Applicant Guidebook for public comments again.

I also doubt the call for a mandatory ICM-style “block” service would be well-received by anyone other than ICANN’s intellectual property constituency.

The problem with such systems is that trademarks do not grant exclusive rights to strings, despite what some organizations would like to think.

It’s quite possible for ABC the taxi company to live alongside ABC television in the trademark world. Is it a good idea to allow the TV station to perpetually block abc.taxi from registration?

Some would say yes. The Better Business Bureau and Meetup.com, to name two examples, both recently went before Congress to bemoan the fact that they could not block bbb.xxx and meetup.xxx – both of which have meaning in the adult entertainment context and were reserved as premium names – using ICM’s Sunrise B.

With that all said, there’s nothing stopping new gTLD applicants from voluntarily offering .xxx-style blocking services, or indeed any form of novel IP rights protection mechanisms.

Some applicants may have even looked at the recent .xxx sunrise with envious eyes – with something like 80,000 defensive registrations at about $160 a pop, ICM made over $12 million in revenue and profit well into seven figures.

New gTLD failure risk bond capped at $300k

Kevin Murphy, December 26, 2011, Domain Policy

New generic top-level domain applicants will have to find between $18,000 and $300,000 per gTLD to cover the risk of their business failing, according to ICANN.

ICANN revealed the figures, which have been calculated from prices quoted by 14 potential emergency back-end registry operators, in a pre-Christmas info-dump on Friday.

The so-called Continued Operations Instrument is designed to cover the cost of paying an EBERO to manage and/or wind down a failed gTLD business over up to three years.

All new gTLD applicants must either secure credit or put cash in escrow to cover the COI, the amount of which depends on how many domains under management they anticipate.

This table shows the size of the COI for various sizes of zone.

Projected Number of DomainsEstimated 3 Year COI (USD)
10,000$18,000
25,000$40,000
50,000$80,000
100,000$140,000
250,000$250,000
>250,000$300,000

This essentially means that any registry that plans to grow its gTLD into a commercially successful volume business needs to find $300,000 to cover the cost of its potential failure.

Only five previously introduced new gTLDs have topped 250,000 domains under management in their first five years: .info (with 8 million today), .biz, .name, .mobi and .tel (which peaked at 305,000).

Smaller gTLDs, comparable to a .cat, .jobs or .travel, will only have to find $40,000 to $80,000. It’s likely that the majority of .brand applicants will only need to secure the minimum $18,000.

While potentially expensive, it’s welcome clarity into new gTLD funding requirements, albeit coming just two weeks before ICANN begins to accept applications.

ICANN also threw a bone to potential applicants from countries with poor access to credit.

The organization previously only contemplated allowing credit from banks with an ‘A’ rating or higher, but it now says it will accept, in its discretion, financial instruments from the highest-rated institution available to the applicant.

ICANN said it may also consider becoming a party to these credit agreements, again in its sole discretion, but that such applicants could lose points when their application is scored as a result.

Congressmen ask ICANN to delay new gTLDs

Kevin Murphy, December 22, 2011, Domain Policy

Seventeen US Congressmen have put their names to a letter asking ICANN to delay its new generic top-level domains program.

The bipartisan group was led by Rep. Fred Upton, chairman of the House technology subcommittee that held a hearing into new gTLDs last week. They wrote:

Although we believe expanding gTLDs is a worthy goal that may lead to increased competition on the Internet, we are very concerned that there is a significant uncertainty in this process for businesses, non-profit organizations, and consumers. To that end, we urge you to delay the planned January 12, 2012 date for the acceptance of applications for new gTLDs.

The letter (pdf), sent yesterday to ICANN president Rod Beckstrom and chairman Steve Crocker, goes on to note the objections of several groups, including the Coalition for Responsible Internet Domain Oversight, that have opposed the program in recent weeks.

Given these widespread concerns, a short delay will allow interested parties to work with ICANN and offer changes to alleviate many of them, specifically concerns over law enforcement, cost and transparency that were discussed in recent Congressional hearings.

It is notable that the letter was sent directly to ICANN’s top brass.

Previous requests of this kind have been sent to ICANN’s overseers in the US Department of Commerce, which has already indicated that it does not intend to strong-arm ICANN into changing its new gTLD plans.

ICANN’s senior vice president Kurt Pritz said last week that the chance of delay was “above zero”.

Whether this latest letter changes the math remains to be seen.

Opposition to the January 12 launch date in the US currently appears to be reaching a critical mass.

At-Large mulls new gTLDs U-turn

Kevin Murphy, December 22, 2011, Domain Policy

In what is likely to turn out to be a storm in a teacup, ICANN’s At-Large Advisory Committee is set to vote on a resolution calling for a delay to the new generic top-level domains program.

The ALAC, ICANN’s policy-making body tasked with representing individual end users, has been discussing a possible update to its position on new gTLDs for the last few days.

A first-draft motion, proposed by vice-chair Evan Leibovitch, said the program “would be harmful to the public interest” and requested that its January 12 launch be “suspended”.

It’s since been watered down twice, and may well be watered down further before (and if) the ALAC considers it at its January 24 monthly meeting.

The resolution currently talks about a “a deep concern about the possible harmful effect on Internet end-users of a single massive expansion of gTLDs”.

It adds that ICANN should “phase-in” the introduction of new gTLDs, “releasing no more than 25 every three months” with about a third coming from poor or community-based applicants.

It appears to be a reaction to ICANN’s newly developed applicant support program, which was weaker than many proponents of the cheaper gTLDs for worthy applicants had hoped.

Even in its current form, the resolution is attracting much more opposition than support from members of the At-Large, so it seems unlikely that it will go anywhere.

To advocate for a phased approach to new gTLDs, or to recommend a delay, would represent a huge U-turn from the ALAC’s existing position.

In 2009, the group said supported “the expedient introduction of new gTLDs” and that it did not believe a “trial run” with a limited number of applications was appropriate.

Still, there’s nothing wrong with changing one’s mind as new evidence comes to light, of course.

New gTLD industry pleads with senators

Kevin Murphy, December 22, 2011, Domain Policy

Twenty-eight domain name industry players have written to two influential US senators in support of ICANN’s new generic top-level domains program.

Calling it “innovative and economically beneficial”, the letter takes issue with third-party claims that the program was “rushed”, pointing out that it took a long time and lots of people to develop.

Since the formation of the multi-stakeholder Internet governance, no process has been as inclusive, and no level of outreach has been as far-reaching as the one facilitating discussion of namespace expansion.

While new gTLDs will experience different levels of end-user adoption, we optimistically anticipate the useful possibilities for new services and applications from the namespace, the positive economic impact in the United States and globally, the inclusion of developing nations in Internet growth and development, and the realization of the hard work and preparation of the thousands of interested stakeholders dedicated not only to their own interests, but that of the global Internet.

The letter (pdf) was signed almost exclusively by registrars, registries, applicants and consultants; with one or two possible exceptions, all companies that stand to make money from new gTLDs.

It was sent to Sen. Jay Rockefeller and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, chair and ranking member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

That committee held a hearing into new gTLDs two weeks ago during which Rockefeller expressed cautious support for the concept, saying he was in favor of competition.

The letter is dated December 8, the day of the Senate hearing.

A similar hearing in the House of Representatives last week resulted in two Congressmen sending a letter (pdf) to the Department of Commerce requesting a delay to the program.

Chance of new gTLD delay “above zero”

Kevin Murphy, December 20, 2011, Domain Policy

ICANN has not completely ruled out the possibility that its new generic top-level domains program will be delayed, according to senior vice president Kurt Pritz.

Pritz was asked during a meeting of the GNSO Council last week whether the recent Congressional hearings into new gTLDs could lead to a delay of the January 12 launch.

“I think the risk is above zero,” Pritz said.

An “above zero” risk of delay could still mean a very small risk, of course.

He went on to point out that “the reputation of the multi-stakeholder model is wrapped up in this too”, and that to delay would be a disservice to all the people who have worked on the program.

He noted that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration assistant secretary Larry Strickling has come out in strong support of the multi-stakeholder model.

While the NTIA does not plan to enforce a delay, ICANN itself could make the decision under political pressure from elsewhere in the US, such as from Congress or the Federal Trade Commission.

Pritz faced a rough ride during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing last week, during which a number of Congressmen said they believed delay was appropriate.

The committee was largely concerned about the possible costs to trademark holders and implications for law enforcement agencies.

The hearing was called following lobbying by the Association of National Advertisers and the Coalition for Responsible Internet Domain Oversight.

ICANN bleeps brand names from new gTLDs podcast

Kevin Murphy, December 20, 2011, Gossip

Nike is a dirty word at ICANN.

At least, that’s my conclusion after listening to ICANN’s latest Start podcast on the new gTLDs program, which bleeps out the names of brands given as examples.

During a discussion between communications staffers Scott Pinzon and Michele Jourdan about the possibility of .brand top-level domains, Jourdan remarks:

If you’re looking for [BLEEP!] shoes and you go to shoes.[BLEEP!] you can be pretty sure that those are going to be actual [BLEEP!]-branded shoes.

Later, Pinzon poses a hypothetical:

I have an idea on how I think I can make a lot of money. I’m going to apply for the TLD dot-[BLEEP!] and then just hold out until a certain firm bought it from me. What are my chances?

It just sounds filthy (at least it does with my mind filling in the blanks).

Since I assume Pinzon and Jourdan would not have used words they intended to subsequently censor, I’m thinking an excessively paranoid legal department is probably to blame here.

You can download the 20-minute podcast, which is aimed at new gTLD newbies, here.

Will new gTLDs really increase phishing?

Kevin Murphy, December 17, 2011, Domain Policy

The US Federal Trade Commission has come out swinging against ICANN’s new generic top-level domains program, saying it will increase online fraud and should be scaled back.

In an open letter to ICANN’s top brass yesterday, the FTC’s four commissioners claimed that “the dramatic introduction of new gTLDs poses significant risks to consumers”.

Saying that more gTLDs will make it easier for scammers to acquire domain names confusingly similar to existing brands, the commissioners said the program should be rolled out as a limited pilot.

The FTC commissioners wrote (pdf):

A rapid, exponential expansion of gTLDs has the potential to magnify both the abuse of the domain name system and the corresponding challenges we encounter in tracking down Internet fraudsters. In particular, the proliferation of existing scams, such as phishing, is likely to become a serious challenge given the infinite opportunities that scam artists will now have at their fingertips. Fraudsters will be able to register misspellings of businesses, including financial institutions, in each of the new gTLDs, create copycat websites, and obtain sensitive consumer data with relative ease before shutting down the site and launching a new one.

The letter demands better Whois accuracy enforcement, better ICANN compliance programs, and a cap on approved new gTLDs in the first round perhaps as low as a couple dozen.

The FTC’s claims that new gTLDs will increase phishing may not be supported by reality, however.

The latest data (pdf) from the Anti-Phishing Working Group shows that in the first half of the year only 18% of domain names used in phishing attacks were registered by the attacker.

That was down from 28% in the second half of 2010. Phishers are much more likely to compromise a domain belonging to somebody else – by hacking a web server, for example.

Of the 14,650 maliciously registered domains 10,444 (70%) were used to phish Chinese targets, “overwhelmingly” the e-commerce site Taobao.com, the APWG found.

Furthermore, only 2% of these domains – just 1,816 over six months – were judged to have been registered due to their confusing similarity with the brands they target.

The APWG said (emphasis in the original):

These are the lowest numbers we have observed in the last past four years, and show that using domain names containing brand strings has fallen further out of favor among phishers.

the domain name itself usually does not matter to phishers, and a domain name of any meaning, or no meaning at all, in any TLD, will usually do. Instead, phishers almost always place brand names in subdomains or subdirectories

The APWG found only one gTLD that ICANN has introduced – .info, with 4.5% – in its top ten phishing TLDs. The .com space accounts for 48.9% of all phishing domains.

Will the increase in the number of gTLDs reverse these trends? The FTC seems to think so, but the claims in its letter appear to be based largely on guesswork and fear rather than data.

I suspect that the FTC’s letter is more concerned with ICANN’s ongoing bilateral talks with registrars over law enforcement-demanded amendments to the Registrar Accreditation Agreement.

These talks are completely separate and distinct from the new gTLDs program policies, but in the last few weeks we’ve seen them being repeatedly conflated by US lawmakers, and now the FTC.

This may be ignorance, but it could just as well be an attempt to apply political pressure on ICANN to make sure the RAA talks produce the results law enforcement agencies want to see.

ICANN does not want to be forced into an embarrassing retreat on its hard-fought gTLD expansion. By producing a strong RAA, it could deflect some of the concerns about the program.

Half the industry fighting over EBERO contracts

Kevin Murphy, December 15, 2011, Domain Registries

ICANN received a whopping 14 responses to its recent request for emergency back-end registry operators, contracts that could turn lucrative if and when new gTLDs start going out of business.

Following a request for information last month, responses received before the December 5 deadline came from Europe, Asia and North and South America, ICANN’s Karla Valente blogged.

While 14 may not seem like a lot, I’m only aware of 19 companies that are actively marketing new gTLD back-end registry services, so it’s a pretty high response rate.

The EBERO’s job is to make sure domain names continue to work after a new gTLD registry goes out of business. In the worst case scenario, it keeps the names resolving for up to three years, giving registrants the opportunity to migrate to another TLD.

The EBERO may, and I’m speculating here, also have an advantage in talks to take over the failed TLD full-time.

The successful providers will be paid from the Continuing Operations Instrument, a big chunk of cash that all new gTLD applicants are obliged to put aside to pay for their own funeral costs.

The price the successful EBEROs intend to charge is an important consideration when applicants calculate the size of their own COI, but those numbers have not yet been revealed.

The EBERO idea has come in for a bit of criticism due to ICANN’s high technical demands – 25,000 concurrent connections for an essentially stagnant TLD, for example – which some say favors incumbent registry operators such as VeriSign, Afilias and Neustar.

ICANN may wind up selecting more than one EBERO when it makes its decision early next year.