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Calls for “fast-track” for new TLDs

Kevin Murphy, December 9, 2010, Domain Registries

Some would-be top-level domain registries have started to call for ICANN to gradually phase in the launch of its new TLD program, so they can get their feet in the door early.

ECLID, a group of six “cultural and linguistic” TLD applicants, is among a number of organizations saying that ICANN could introduce a small number of non-controversial TLDs before opening the floodgates to hundreds of new extensions.

Judging that IP concerns may continue to hold up the first round of applications and that cybersquatting risks may not be as significant in domains such as .scot or .eus, ECLID’s Davie Hutchison wrote:

We ask that ICANN move forward at speed and with determination and prevent further delay causing damage to the clTLDs and other community TLDs that will enhance the richness and diversity of the Internet. Failing the courage or resolve to do that, we ask ICANN to create a fast-track process for the “safe” community TLDs which would be an excellent testing ground for the process before opening it up to the non-community based TLDs.

Calls for a “fast track” for non-controversial TLDs have also been made by members of ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee this week.

It’s been the GAC’s position for a few months now that “uncontroversial” community TLDs, including those with cultural and linguistic ties, should be dealt with first.

The idea doesn’t make a heck of a lot of sense to me. A phased launch would require the development of a new objective process to categorize applicants into “controversial” and “non-controversial” buckets.

For the amount of time and effort that would take, ICANN may as well just sort out the problems with the Applicant Guidebook as a whole.

Kurt Pritz, ICANN’s veep in charge of the new TLD program, addressed the feasibility of a phased launch during a press conference here in Cartagena today, noting that “it’s very difficult to have a round in which just a certain type of TLD allowed to apply”.

ICANN tried to restrict TLDs to limited communities with the 2003 round of “sponsored” TLDs, causing problems and controversies that continue to be felt seven years on.

I think it’s fairly safe to say that any rulebook that limited what TLDs could be applied for or who could apply for them would be soundly gamed by the domain name industry (cf .jobs, .xxx, .travel, etc).

ICANN sees “crescendo” of new TLD comment

Kevin Murphy, December 9, 2010, Domain Registries

With less than 24 hours to go before ICANN’s board of directors decides the fate of the new top-level domains program, the comments and criticisms are rapidly accumulating, split along predictable lines.

In short: pretty much everybody in the domain name industry wants the TLD process to kick off ASAP, and pretty much everybody else who has an interest thinks it should not.

Kurt Pritz, ICANN’s senior vice president of stakeholder relations, said at a press conference this morning that “rather than comment diminishing towards the end to a whimper and the Guidebook being launched, we’re seeing it raising to a crescendo”.

Publicly filed comments can be found here.

“Crescendo” may be an over-statement, but verbal comments here at the ICANN meeting have been flying thick and fast and the rhetoric dial will certainly get turned up to 11 during the public forum this afternoon.

Many opponents of the proposed final Applicant Guidebook are objecting to the fact that the deadline for filing comments is tomorrow, just a couple of hours before the board convenes.

Microsoft associate general counsel Russell Pangborn, for instance, wrote:

Approval of the PAG on December 10 conveys the message that the Board deems public comment irrelevant. The possibility that ICANN staff will have read all public comment and provided a public comment summary to the Board with sufficient time for full consideration and discussion by the Board is slim at best.

Microsoft is one of many companies worried that new TLD registries’ business models will essentially be subsidized by defensive registrations paid for by big trademark holders.

The US Chamber of Commerce put it fairly succinctly:

the current plan still requires businesses to pay for defensive registrations in hundreds of new gTLDs, at prices that are unconstrained by ICANN or other bodies… Moreover, the legal expenses and domain acquisition costs of defensive registrations will not be offset by potential economic or informational value to either registrants or Internet users.

But the most comprehensively detailed objection filed by IP stakeholders over the last day or so seems to have come from INTA, the International Trademark Association.

Weighing in at 15 pages, the INTA filing says the AGB “raises significant new issues”, such as the lifting of the vertical integration ban and the new registry code of conduct.

One of its biggest issues, which I’ve heard from several other people here in Cartagena this week, is that the AGB’s rights protection mechanisms, such as Uniform Rapid Suspension and the Trademark Clearinghouse, seem to specifically exclude non-US trademarks.

That’s a pretty big issue for Europeans – the German representative on the Governmental Advisory Committee indicated on Tuesday that he thinks it’s a deal-breaker.

As I blogged yesterday, the GAC has aligned itself with the trademark lobby in its objections to ICANN, which may well delay the launch of the new TLD program somewhat.

The key issue for the GAC is the balance between cost (to trademark owners) and benefit (to everyone else).

Elliot Noss of Tucows expressed in his comment how difficult it is to predict what economic value could be created by new TLDs.

When the new round proceeds we will see a marked change in the way people will use domain names. The ability to find resources of all kinds more easily on the Internet will provide a small, but clear incremental benefit to users. But that benefit will be felt trillions of times! Every time someone finds something on the Internet more easily there will be a benefit.

There has been a lot of discussion of competition for .com. What we need to think about is NOT will any single domain become a competitor for .com, but instead will a large number of domains in aggregate provide competition for .com. This issue cannot possibly be understood by studying the extremely limited TLD introductions of the past.

Some other likely TLD applicants kept their statements short and sweet, perhaps for fear of inadvertently causing delay through verbosity.

Statton Hammock of Network Solutions wrote:

A document of this complexity and importance can never be “perfect,” or “complete” in the eyes of everyone. Though further refinements to the language could be made, we believe that the DAG, in its current form, is robust enough to support the launch of the new gTLD application process.

Pritz said that the ICANN board is “actively monitoring” the comments and will continue to do so up until its meeting tomorrow.

Trademarks may delay new TLD approval

Kevin Murphy, December 8, 2010, Domain Registries

The intellectual property lobby won a notable victory this week, after governments told ICANN they want it to delay approval of the new top-level domains program until it has more cybersquatting protections.

Some members of the Governmental Advisory Committee appear to have been lobbied hard by the IP community, and have taken its concerns on board more or less wholesale.

The UK representative, Mark Carvell of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, was most vocal during a meeting of the GAC and ICANN board here in Cartagena, Colombia yesterday.

He said of the proposed final Applicant Guidebook for new TLDs (which the GAC still pointedly refers to as the “DAG”, for Draft Applicant Guidebook):

Most representations we received came from brand owners, rights holders, they’re the ones being most agitated by this. I think they also recognized the potential opportunities, but the big issue for them was the costs…

The rights protection mechanisms are still not effective enough, that’s what’s coming to us in the Ministry… If you’re really hoping to sign off the guidebook this week, I think that’s something you really ought to reconsider.

Carvell pointed in particular to the proposed Trademark Clearinghouse and Uniform Rapid Suspension policies as needing work – this is essentially the IP lobby’s position also.

His views were supported by Germany, Norway and the Canadian GAC chair, among others.

A repeated refrain was “we’re not there yet”, which prompted ICANN vice-chair Dennis Jennings to push for a definition of “there”. What, in other words, would make the GAC happy enough to go ahead?

The GAC isn’t great when it comes to providing straight answers to those kinds of questions, but Carvell gave it a shot.

He said that currently the GAC does not believe that the benefits of new TLDs outweigh the costs. When it does, that would be the “key turning point”:

When we get to that position, that the benefits for businesses, for the global economy, for opportunities for business, are going to be greater, scaled-up, greater than the costs to brand owners and those who are going to have shell out big-time in order to effectively subsidize, in their view, perhaps subsidize the process.

The US representative, Suzanne Sene, added that “the whole issue is of feeling confident that benefits will outweigh the costs”.

That’s still worryingly free of a measurable benchmark, if you’re an impatient new TLD applicant.

In a further open meeting today, it became clear that the GAC is still putting forth the idea that there could be a “fast-track” or “trial” style TLD application round for “non-controversial” TLDs – presumably meaning TLDs of little interest to defensive trademark holders.

GAC chair Heather Dryden said today that “introducing a conservative first round is the best way to manage risk in the unknown”, an idea that was promptly challenged by TLD applicants including Minds + Machines CEO Antony Van Couvering.

I don’t get the feeling that the GAC has thought the idea through a great deal. In order to be half-way objective, it would presumably require the created of a second, parallel AGB for pre-approving applications. I don’t think the idea has legs.

But do the GAC’s objections mean that new TLD program, currently pencilled in to open the first application round May 30, 2011, will be delayed?

The GAC has not yet submitted its formal Cartagena advice (it should be published tomorrow), but it will presumably reflect the concerns raised over the last few days.

Under ICANN’s bylaws, the organization has to justify any decision to reject GAC advice and then “try, in good faith and in a timely and efficient manner, to find a mutually acceptable solution.”

European Commission representative Bill Dee invoked that part of the bylaws during yesterday’s meeting, and ICANN chair Peter Dengate Thrush agreed that talks were needed.

Dengate Thrush said he was in favor of a GAC-board meeting over one or two days at some point between now and the San Francisco ICANN meeting next March, to thrash out their differences and Dryden seemed to agree.

If that meeting was held fairly soon, it would not necessarily mean ICANN misses the May 30 deadline.

The current proposed timeline contains a 30-day window between Friday and January 11 in which ICANN staff update the “approved” AGB according to the board’s directions.

There follows an obligatory four-month ICANN outreach and marketing campaign.

Conceivably, although scheduling may be a challenge, if the GAC and board meet and resolve their differences over the next 30 days or so, the May 30 deadline could be workable.

I think it might be quite unlikely that’s going to happen, however.

The ICANN board convenes to discuss and vote on the AGB this Friday. It will be very interesting to see how its resolution is worded, and whether it can both save face and serve the GAC.

New TLDs “not at risk”, but delay not ruled out

Kevin Murphy, December 6, 2010, Domain Registries

ICANN’s program to introduce new top-level domains has not been put at risk by the US government’s recent request for delay, according to both its chairman and chief executive.

Chairman Peter Dengate Thrush and CEO Rod Beckstrom sought to play down the significance of the Department of Commerce letter during a press conference here in Cartagena this afternoon.

Dengate Thrush said the sudden involvement of the US in the new TLD policy was not a surprise, but was “one more factor to take into account” that did not put the program as a whole at risk.

Beckstrom noted that the Commerce letter was submitted to the ongoing public comment period, and would be treated as such, saying “obviously along with other inputs received we will duly consider it”.

Dengate Thrush elaborated, saying ICANN was still considering how to formally respond to the letter.

Because it deals with both Affirmation of Commitments and AGB concerns, it appears that the two threads may be unpicked and dealt with separately.

Both men were obviously more coy about whether the US intervention could delay final approval of the Applicant Guidebook, which the ICANN board will vote on this Friday.

Currently, the plan is to open the first round of applications May 30. But it seems that’s a target, not a promise.

Observing that the AGB continues to stir up passions on both sides of the debate, Dengate Thrush said that it is unlikely that the board will be swayed either way by passion alone.

But if “getting it right” means adding a month or two of delay to the launch date of the program, then that’s what the board will have to do, he said.

A similar sentiment on the constructiveness of comments was put forward by outgoing director Harald Alvestrand during a session yesterday.

He indicated that comments that merely reiterate long-held and previously considered disagreements are unlikely to cause delays, but changed minds based on new information could carry weight.

With the comments of all three directors in mind, it’s probably a bit early to second-guess the board’s Friday decision.

Apparently they are being fed updates on new AGB comments as they are received, so they can be as informed as possible before convening.

My feeling is that a full picture of the decision the board faces is unlikely to emerge for a few days.

Beckstrom: ICANN accountable to world, not just US

Kevin Murphy, December 6, 2010, Domain Policy

ICANN chief Rod Beckstrom opened the organization’s 39th public meeting in Cartagena, Colombia, with a speech that touched on many of the organization’s recent controversies and appeared to take a strong stance against US government interference.

Everything from its political tangles with the International Telecommunications Union, to the recent calls for high-security top-level domains for financial services, to Beckstrom’s own controversial pet project, the proposed DNS-CERT, got a mention.

But probably Beckstrom’s strongest statement was the one which indirectly addressed recent moves by the US government to slam the brakes on ICANN’s new top-level domains program:

We are accountable to the world, not to any one country, and everything we do must reflect that.

Beckstrom acknowledged the controversies in the new TLDs policy, given last week’s strongly worded letter from the US Department of Commerce, which was highly critical of the program.

Commerce assistant secretary Lawrence Strickling has called on ICANN to delay the program until it has justified its decision under the Affirmation of Commitments.

But this morning, Beckstrom echoed sentiments expressed on the ICANN blog last week (my emphasis):

As is often the case with policy decisions in that multi-stakeholder model, not everyone is pleased, and this diversity of opinion contributes to the policy process. For example, last week we received a critical letter from the US Department of Commerce. As with all contributions, ICANN will give these comments careful consideration as part of the implementation of the GNSO policy. We welcome the transparent way that Commerce provided their comments through the public comment process.

How ICANN chooses to deal with the demands of its former master, the US government, is one of the Cartagena meeting’s Big Questions.

Another such question is how ICANN plans to deal with ongoing threats to its legitimacy from international bodies such as the International Telecommunications Union.

Addressing ITU secretary general Hamadoun Toure directly, Beckstrom said:

We have always sought to build our relationships based on mutual respect and integrity, taking into account the unique and distinct mandates entrusted to our organizations. The strengthening of communication between us is a personal priority for me.

Security

Security is one of ICANN’s watchwords, and Beckstrom is a security guy by trade. His speeches typically address the topic to a greater or lesser extent and Cartagena was no exception.

Security policies inherently create tensions. Take, for example, controversies about the strength and enforceability of of Whois policies, or Beckstrom’s own call for a DNS-CERT to oversee DNS risk.

This morning, he said:

The staff under my leadership is willing to go as far on security as the community is willing. And whatever security effort this community decides, we will do our utmost to implement and support, given sufficient resources. Because when it comes to security, how can we ever say we’ve done enough?

And now you need to tell us: where do you want us to go?

Of course, I am sure we can agree that when it comes to security, the question is not what do we want to do? Or what is popular or easy? It’s what do we owe the world? Because all of us care about the global public interest.

He took, in my view, a subtle swing at the Governmental Advisory Committee for putting security at the heart of its ongoing policy demands, while largely failing to cooperate with ICANN’s requests for information on security issues in their own jurisdictions. Beckstrom said:

We have asked GAC members to provide information about security activities in their countries. We appreciate the information some have shared but there have been few responses. As governments urge us to remain committed to security efforts, we in turn request that they help us by responding and working with the ICANN community on this vital mission.

I know there are some European ccTLD registries a bit miffed that ICANN has in recent months gone over their heads, direct to their governments, for this information, highlighting what a tricky political situation it is.

The speech also touched on internationalized domain names, with a shout-out to the recent launch of Russia’s Cyrillic ccTLD, and general global inclusion activities. I expect the text and audio to be published on the ICANN web site to be published shortly.

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.

File-sharers try to create .p2p domain

Kevin Murphy, November 30, 2010, Domain Registries

A move to create a .p2p top-level domain outside of the regular DNS root is under way.

Following the outcry over the US government’s seizure of 82 .com domain names this weekend, a group of coders have decided to create a namespace not overseen by ICANN (which had nothing to do with it).

It’s not entirely clear to me how many projects have launched.

There’s a blog over here that talks about a “distributed DNS” that would be “decentralized”, but this new wiki seems to be limited to the idea of launching .p2p as a TLD.

(Interestingly, dot-p2p.org appears to have been registered several days prior to the weekend’s domain name seizures)

The .p2p project plans to create an application that would intercept all DNS requests for .p2p domains and route them via a peer-to-peer network rather than the user’s regular DNS servers.

This presumably means that the entire .p2p zone file could wind up being stored on endpoints, which sounds like a scalability challenge to me.

More problematic is the the issue of “decentralization”, which is of course critical when you’re talking about trustworthy DNS. It can be summed up in this sentence:

“Hello, I’m bankofamerica.com.”

If anybody can claim to own any domain name, you need to be able to figure out who’s telling the truth.

The .p2p initiative seems to be dealing with this by, um, centralizing control over .p2p domain assignments to a free “registrar” at nic.p2p.

To prevent warehousing, registrants would need to prove they already own the string in another TLD in order to register the equivalent .p2p domain.

The project is obviously in its very early stages, as demonstrated by this wiki page, which tries to figure out the problem of decentralization using some kind of trust/voting system.

Here’s an example of the lack of thought that seems to have gone into it so far:

A small conflict, not malicious

1. Alice assigns fbi.p2p -> 1.1.1.1.
2. Bob propagates the assignment to his node, because he trusts Alice.
3. Dave assigns fbi.p2p -> 2.2.2.2. Conflict created.
4. Carol sees the conflict and:
– Decides to just follow the decision of her trustees and assigns fbi.p2p -> 2.2.2.2, or
– Does not create any assignment. There will be a warning and she will try to work out the problem with others.
5. Everyone will try to agree on a solution.

The page also currently includes this beauty:

Botnet-driven attack

1. Chuck owns a botnet and uses 10^6+ zombies to game the system.
2. Shitload of fake request need to be disproved
3. …
4. Problem? :U

The project seems like a heck of a lot of wheel-reinventing in order to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.

Domain universe breaks through 200 million

Kevin Murphy, November 29, 2010, Domain Registries

VeriSign is reporting that the number of registered domain names worldwide broke through the 200 million mark in the third quarter.

There were 202 million domains at the end of September, according to the company’s Domain Name Industry Brief, which was published today.

Over half of those domains, 103 million names in total, can be found in the .com and .net namespaces that VeriSign manages.

In a not-so-subtle plug for VeriSign’s 2011 growth strategy, the company also declared that the next ten years will be “The Decade of the International Internet”.

In the coming decade, the Internet will continue to become a ubiquitous, multi-cultural tool, fueled in part by the adoption of IDNs. By enabling online content and businesses to be represented in local scripts and languages, IDNs help the Internet to expand the power of technology to regions and cultures, and connect the world in new ways. Over the past year, several new IDNs for ccTLDs have been approved. The next step will be approval of IDNs for generic Top Level Domains (gTLDs).

The company, of course, plans to apply to ICANN to operate IDN versions of .com and .net, although it has not to date discussed openly which languages or strings it wants.

The VeriSign report also says that ccTLD registrations grew 2.4%, compared to the same quarter last year, to 79.2 million domains.

I expect this growth would have been tempered had it not been for the relaunch of .co, which occurred during the quarter, but it does not merit a mention in the report.

The report also reveals that .info has overtaken .cn in the biggest-TLD charts, although this is due primarily to the plummeting number of registrations in the Chinese ccTLD.

Olympics tells ICANN to abandon new TLD launch or get sued

Kevin Murphy, November 29, 2010, Domain Registries

The International Olympic Committee has threatened to sue ICANN unless it gives IOC trademarks special protection in its new top-level domains program.

The IOC’s critique of ICANN’s new Applicant Guidebook is the first to be filed by a major organization in the current public comment period.

The organization has accused ICANN of ignoring it, preferring instead to take its policy cues from the domain name industry, and said it should “abandon its current timeline” for the launch.

ICANN currently plans to start accepting TLD applications May 30, 2011.

Calling the guidebook “inherently flawed”, the IOC’s director general Urs Lacotte wrote:

If these critical issues are not fully resolved and ICANN chooses not to place the Olympic trademarks on the reserved names list, then the IOC and its National Olympic Committees are prepared to employ all available legislative, regulatory, administrative and judicial mechanisms to hold ICANN accountable for damage caused to the Olympic movement.

(That language looks like it could have been cut-n-paste from a separate letter from the financial services industry, which I reported on last week).

The IOC said that it has opposed the new TLD program 11 times – asking for its trademarks to be placed on the AGB’s reserved strings lists, but received no response.

Special pleading? Perhaps, but the IOC’s trademarks are already specifically protected by legislation in numerous countries, including the US, UK, Canada and China.

The IOC also wants stronger trademark protection mechanisms, such as mandatory typosquatting protections in sunrise periods and extending dispute proceedings to registrars.

Expect many more such missives to start showing up on the ICANN web site over the next 11 days before the ICANN board of directors meets to approve the AGB in Cartagena.

This may be the last chance many organizations get to ask for the changes they want in the AGB before the first round of new TLD applications opens, and I expect them to seize it with both hands.

Minds + Machines to raise $4.7m for new TLDs

Kevin Murphy, November 25, 2010, Domain Registries

Top Level Domain Holdings plans to raise £3 million ($4.7 million) in a stock sale to help finance the TLD aspirations of its main business, Minds + Machines.

The funds would almost double the cash reserves TLDH has on tap, which currently amount to $5.5 million, according to StockMarketWire.com.

Recently appointed CEO Antony Van Couvering said in a statement that ICANN’s recent decision to allow registries and registrars to vertically integrate had a bearing on the decision to raise funds:

Having reviewed ICANN’s Final Proposed Applicant Guidebook, and in view of the ICANN Board’s historic decision to do away with cross-ownership restrictions between registries and registrars, we believe that the timing is right for additional investment by TLDH. ICANN’s registry-registrar decision means that additional gTLD business models are now viable, and we have already seen a marked increase in interest from prospective new clients. We intend to make sure we have the resources to take advantage of this opportunity.

M+M is already associated with new TLD applications including .gay and .eco, both of which are expected to be contested by other applicants.

TLDH is listed on London’s small-cap Alternative Investment Market. The announcement of the placement can be found here.