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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).