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Still no new TLDs agreement with GAC

Kevin Murphy, May 23, 2011, Domain Policy

ICANN and its Governmental Advisory Committee have yet to resolve their differences over the new top-level domains program, putting a question mark over the current approval timetable.

In a joint statement released early this morning, following a teleconference on Friday, the ICANN board and GAC confirmed that their talks have not yet concluded.

But ICANN still thinks approval of the program’s Applicant Guidebook could come by June 20, the second day of the forthcoming Singapore meeting:

The latest discussion and ICANN Board and GAC agreement on the benefits of having a face-to-face meeting in Singapore pave the way to possible Board consideration of program approval on 20 June 2011.

This seems to serve as confirmation that the board and GAC will meet for a last-ditch attempt at compromise on June 19. ICANN has already moved around schedules to accommodate the meeting.

Outstanding areas of disagreement continue to include rights protection mechanisms for trademark holders and processes for governmental objections to controversial TLD applications.

Negotiations so far have comprised at least four days of face-to-face talks over the last few months, which had mixed results.

ICANN has given a lot of ground already, but it seems that it has not gone far enough for the GAC. Chair Heather Dryden said in the statement:

the GAC appreciates the time taken by the Board to discuss remaining issues on the call and looks forward to continued progress as a clear signal that the Board is committed to enabling the formulation of true community consensus in developing policy that is in the global public interest as well as increasing the overall accountability and transparency of the organization.

The current talks take place against the backdrop of the renewal of ICANN’s IANA contract with the US Department of Commerce and NTIA, which gives ICANN many of its powers.

Larry Strickling, head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, has publicly indicated that he may use the renewal as leverage to squeeze concessions from ICANN.

Two weeks ago, he said that he was “unclear” about whether June 20 was a realistic target for Guidebook approval.

Recently, Strickling also met with European Commissioner Neelie Kroes where they found common ground on new gTLDs and ICANN’s accountability and transparency goals.

NTIA calls for ICANN to “walk the walk”

Kevin Murphy, May 17, 2011, Domain Policy

A US National Telecommunications and Information Administration official today said ICANN needs to prove it can “walk the walk” when it comes to accountability and transparency.

Speaking on a panel at the inaugural Nominet .uk Policy Forum here in London today, NTIA associate administrator Fiona Alexander said it was time for ICANN to “up its game”

On a panel about regulatory systems for the internet, Alexander reiterated US support for the ICANN model, but said that ICANN board too often acts without the consensus of its stakeholders.

Quoting from speeches made by her boss, assistant secretary Larry Strickling, she said the US supports the December recommendations of ICANN’s Accountability and Transparency Review Team.

“The ICANN board has until June to implement these recommendations,” she said.

It wasn’t clear whether that was a slip of the tongue, or an indication that the NTIA plans to hold ICANN’s feet to the fire over its implementation timetable.

The Affirmation of Commitments calls for ICANN to “take action” on the ATRT report by June 30, but ICANN is planning a longer-term roll-out

It has some good reasons for tardiness. Adopting the ATRT-recommended changes to its relationship with the Governmental Advisory Committee, for example, will require more bandwidth than ICANN and the GAC have to offer before the June deadline.

“Governments are only going to want to get more involved, not less,” Alexander said.

The Obama administration has a lot of political capital tied up in the idea of “multistakeholderism” – it’s a model it proposes for other fora – but its would-be poster child, ICANN, has a habit of frequently looking more like a red-headed poster step-child.

“It’s time to up your game,” Alexander said of ICANN, “because this really is the model that we need to work.”

Europe and US to meet on .xxx and new TLDs

Kevin Murphy, May 11, 2011, Domain Policy

European Commissioner Neelie Kroes is to meet with the US Department of Commerce, a month after she asked it to delay the launch of the .xxx top-level domain.

Tomorrow, Kroes will meet with Larry Strickling, assistant secretary of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, according to a press release:

This follows the controversial decision of the ICANN Board in March to approve the “.XXX” Top Level Domain for adult content. Ms Kroes will make clear European views on ICANN’s capacity to reform. In particular, Ms Kroes will raise ICANN’s responsiveness to governments raising public policy concerns in the ICANN Governmental Advisory Council [Committee] (GAC) , the transparency and accountability of ICANN’s internal corporate governance and the handling of country-code Top Level Domains for its most concerned public authorities.

In April, Kroes asked Strickling’s boss, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, to put a hold on the addition of .xxx to the domain name system root until the GAC had chance to discuss it further.

Strickling declined, saying that for the US to take unilateral action over the root would provide ammunition to its critics in the international community.

The US and EC are two of the most active and vocal participants in the GAC – at least in public. Whatever conclusions Strickling and Kroes come to tomorrow are likely to form the basis of the GAC’s short-term strategy as negotiations about new TLDs continue.

ICANN’s board is scheduled to meet with the GAC on May 20, for an attempt to come to some final conclusions about the new gTLD program, particularly in relation to trademark protection.

ICANN wants to approve the program’s Applicant Guidebook on June 20, but is likely to face resistance from governments, especially the US.

Strickling has indicated that he may use the upcoming renewal of ICANN’s IANA contract as leverage to get the GAC a stronger voice in ICANN’s decision-making process.

US wants to delay new TLDs

Kevin Murphy, May 6, 2011, Domain Policy

With ICANN seemingly hell-bent on approving its new top-level domains program at its Singapore meeting, June 20, the US government wants to slam the brakes.

Congressmen from both sides of the aisle this week said the launch should be put on hold, and yesterday Lawrence Strickling, head of the NTIA, said he does not believe June 20 is realistic.

In a speech before the Global Internet Governance Academic Network, GigaNet, in Washington DC yesterday, Strickling said that ICANN needs to pay more heed to the advice of its Governmental Advisory Committee before it approves the program.

I commend ICANN for its efforts to respond to the GAC advice. Nonetheless, it is unclear to me today whether ICANN and the GAC can complete this process in a satisfactory manner for the Board to approve the guidebook on June 20, 2011, as ICANN has stated it wants to do.

While discussing the ongoing boogeyman threat of an International Telecommunications Union takeover of ICANN’s functions, he added:

Unless the GAC believes that ICANN has been sufficiently responsive to their concerns, I do not see how the Guidebook can be adopted on June 20th in Singapore in a manner that ensures continuing global governmental support of ICANN.

That’s incredibly strong stuff.

Strickling is suggesting that if ICANN rejects GAC advice about what goes into the new TLDs Applicant Guidebook, ICANN may be able to kiss international governmental support goodbye, potentially threatening the organization’s very existence.

And it wasn’t the only threat he raised.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration is in the process of renewing and possibly amending ICANN’s IANA contract, which gives it the power to introduce new TLDs.

If anyone in any government is in a position to bargain directly with ICANN, it’s Strickling. He tackled this position of power head-on in his speech:

I heard from yesterday’s House hearing that some of the witnesses proposed that we use this contract as a vehicle for ensuring more accountability and transparency on the part of the company performing the IANA functions. We are seriously considering these suggestions and will be seeking further comment from the global Internet community on this issue.

I believe the only witness to raise this issue at the hearing was Josh Bourne of the Coalition Against Domain Name Abuse. He wants a full audit of ICANN before the IANA contract is renewed.

The Congressional “oversight” hearing in question, before the House Subcommittee on Intellectual Property, Competition and the Internet, was not much more than a kangaroo court.

The Representatives in attendance read from prepared statements and from questions they frequently seemed to barely understand, stated fringe opinions as fact, asked inane questions that demonstrated the loosest of grasps on the subject before them, then came to the (foregone) conclusion that the new gTLD program should be delayed pending further work on protecting trademark holders.

I’m not saying these politicians need to be subject matter experts, but if the words “intellectual property” and “the internet” are in your job description, you ought be embarrassed if the words “new BGLTs, or whatever they’re called” come out of your mouth in public.

The Subcommittee has no direct power over ICANN, of course, beyond the fact that it belongs to the legislature of the country where ICANN is based.

But Strickling does.

In his speech yesterday, he also made it quite obvious that the NTIA currently has no plans to push ICANN further along the road to full independence by signing a Cooperative Agreement instead of a procurement contract for the IANA function.

That proposal was made by ICANN CEO Rod Beckstrom, and supported by a small number of others in the industry, including Vint Cerf. But Strickling said:

The fact is, however, that NTIA does not have the legal authority to transition the IANA functions contract into a Cooperative Agreement with ICANN, nor do we have the statutory authority to enter into a Cooperative Agreement with ICANN, or any other organization, for the performance of the IANA functions.

The Beckstrom proposal always seemed like a long shot, but to have it dismissed so casually will surely be seen as a setback on the road to true ICANN independence from the US.

Europe asked the US to delay .xxx

Kevin Murphy, May 5, 2011, Domain Policy

European Commissioner for the Digital Agenda Neelie Kroes asked the US Department of Commerce to delay the introduction of the .xxx top-level domain after ICANN approved it, I can reveal.

In an April 6 letter to Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke, a copy of which I have obtained, Kroes expressed dismay with ICANN’s decision, and wrote (my emphasis):

I would therefore consider it necessary for the [ICANN Governmental Advisory Committee] to reflect, at a senior level, on the broader implications of the Board’s decision on .XXX, and to do so before the TLD is introduced into the global Internet. I assume that the United States government would appreciate the opportunity to hear the views of other countries on this important issue, and I very much hope therefore that I can count on your support for such an initiative.

The letter was sent after ICANN had approved .xxx, but nine days before the National Telecommunications and Information Administration instructed VeriSign to add it to the DNS root.

It seems to be an implicit request for the NTIA to delay .xxx’s go-live date to give the Governmental Advisory Committee of ICANN time to regroup and consider how best to continue to oppose the domain.

As I reported this morning, assistant secretary Lawrence Strickling replied to Kroes later in April, agreeing with her in principle but saying that to intervene could do more harm than good.

Kroes objected on the grounds that GAC had “no active support” for .xxx, that national-level blocking of the TLD could threaten internet stability, and that parents will be given a “false sense of security” if they choose to filter .xxx domain names.

She also didn’t buy ICANN’s rationale for its decision, saying it contained “mostly procedural arguments that do not adequately reflect the significant political and cultural sensitivities” created by .xxx.

She additionally noted that:

Most importantly, perhaps, are the wider consequences that we have all have to deal with as a result of this decision. We are both aware of the broader geo-political Internet governance debate that continues regarding the legitimacy of the ICANN model. I am concerned therefore that ICANN’s decision to reject substantive GAC advice – of which there is also an apparent risk in relation to the new generic TLD process – may be detrimental to the multi-stakeholder, private sector-led model which many of us in the international community have been stoutly defending for years.

This seems to be a reference to the longstanding debate over whether the International Telecommunications Union, or another intergovernmental body, may be better suited to overseeing domain name system policy.

In his reply to Kroes, Strickling offered to meet her by teleconference or in person in Brussels, in order to discuss how to proceed.

The fallout from .xxx’s approval may not be over by a long shot.

UPDATE: Read the Kroes letter: Page One, Page Two.

Did Europe ask America to block .xxx?

Kevin Murphy, May 5, 2011, Domain Policy

The European Commission may have asked the US Department of Commerce to block or delay the .xxx top-level domain, it has emerged.

I’ve heard rumors for a few weeks that Neelie Kroes, vice president of the Commission responsible for the digital economy, wrote to Commerce in April, asking it to delay the go-live date for .xxx.

Today, a reply from Lawrence Strickling, assistant secretary at Commerce, has emerged, published on the blog of Polish technology consultant Andrzej Bartosiewicz.

It appears to confirm the rumors. Strickling wrote:

While the Obama Administration does not support ICANN’s decision, we respect the multi-stakeholder Internet governance process and do not think it is in the long-term best interest of the United States or the global Internet community for us unilaterally to reverse the decision.

It’s certainly possible to infer from this that Kroes had asked the US to exercise its unique powers over the domain name system’s root database to block or delay .xxx.

The Kroes letter was evidently sent April 6, about 10 days before the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, part of Commerce, instructed VeriSign to add .xxx to the root.

In his April 20 response, Strickling shared Kroes’ “disappointment” with ICANN’s decision, saying the organization “ignored the clear advice of governments worldwide, including the United States”.

He said the decision “goes against the global public interest and will spur more efforts to block the Internet” and agreed that ICANN “needs to make to engage governments more effectively”.

To that end, Strickly offered to fly to Brussels to meet with Kroes to conduct a “senior level exchange” on how to better work with ICANN.

While it’s probably too late for any of this to affect .xxx, operated by ICM Registry, it is a clear sign that governments are taking a renewed interest in ICANN’s work.

ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee issued weak advice on .xxx, noting merely that no governments outright supported it, and that “several” were opposed. The was no consensus.

Because the GAC did not explicitly say “do not approve .xxx”, ICANN was able to rationalize its decision by saying it was not explicitly overruling governmental advice.

At least three countries — Saudi Arabia, India and Kenya — have already indicated that they may block .xxx domains within their borders.

UPDATE: Kroes did in fact ask Commerce to delay .xxx.

.xxx domains go live

Kevin Murphy, April 16, 2011, Domain Registries

Click here: icmregistry.xxx, then come back.

That’s right. After ICM Registry’s almost 11 years of campaigning, and almost $20 million in legal and other expenses, .xxx domain names are actually live in the domain name system.

ICANN, IANA, the US government and VeriSign, in that order, have all agreed to delegate the internet’s newest gTLD, and the first few .xxx domains went live within the last couple hours.

The domains sex.xxx and porn.xxx are now also resolving to placeholder sites. They’re currently “safe for work”, but possibly not for much longer.

IANA has a .xxx page, complete with a lengthy delegation report (in a snazzy new pdf format) that broadly explains the convoluted process ICANN used to ultimately, albeit reluctantly, approve the TLD.

ICANN asks the US to cut it loose

Kevin Murphy, March 25, 2011, Domain Policy

ICANN has officially requested the loosening of its contractual ties to the US government.

In a letter to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (pdf), ICANN president Rod Beckstrom said the US should finally make good on its promise to privatize the management of the internet’s naming and addressing resources.

Currently, ICANN manages the so-called IANA functions, which give it powers over the domain name system’s root zone, under a no-fee procurement deal with the NTIA.

That contract is up for renewal in September, and the NTIA recently issued a Notice Of Inquiry, soliciting public comments on how the IANA functions should be handled in future.

In Beckstrom’s response to the NOI, he says that a US government procurement contract is not the most suitable way to oversee matters of global importance.

Its close links to the NTIA are often cited by other governments as proof that ICANN is an organization that operates primarily in the interest of the US.

Beckstrom said there is “no compelling reason for these functions to be performed exclusively pursuant to a U.S. Government procurement contract.”

He noted that the original plan, when ICANN was formed by the Clinton administration in 1998, was to transition these functions to the private sector no later than September 2000.

The privatization of the DNS is, in effect, 11 years late.

Beckstrom wrote:

The IANA functions are provided for the benefit of the global Internet: country code and generic top-level domain operators; Regional Internet Registries; the IETF; and ultimately, Internet users around the world. Applying U.S. federal procurement law and regulations, the IANA functions should be performed pursuant to a cooperative agreement.

His position was not unanticipated.

At the start of ICANN’s San Francisco meeting last week, Beckstrom and former chairman Vint Cerf both said that a “cooperative agreement” would be a better way for the US to manage IANA.

VeriSign’s role in root zone management is currently overseen by this kind of arrangement.

The NTIA has specifically asked whether IANA’s three core areas of responsibility – domain names, IP addresses and protocol parameters – should be split between three different entities.

Beckstrom also argued against that, saying that there are “many examples of cross-functional work”, and that ICANN already has the necessary expertise and relationships in place to handle all three.

The NOI (pdf) is open until end of play next Thursday, March 31. Half a dozen responses have already been filed here.

At least one respondent believes the IANA powers could be broken up.

US upset with ICANN over .xxx

Kevin Murphy, March 20, 2011, Domain Policy

The US government has expressed disappointment with ICANN for approving the .xxx top-level domain, surprising nobody.

Fox News is reporting Lawrence Strickling, assistant secretary at the Department of Commerce and one of ICANN’s keynote speakers at the just-concluded San Francisco meeting:

We are disappointed that ICANN ignored the clear advice of governments worldwide, including the US. This decision goes against the global public interest, and it will open the door to more Internet blocking by governments and undermine the stability and security of the Internet.

As I reported Friday, ICANN used a literal interpretation of its Governmental Advisory Committee’s advice in order to make it appear that it was not disagreeing with it at all.

Essentially, because the GAC didn’t explicitly say “don’t delegate .xxx”, the ICANN board of directors was free to do so without technically being insubordinate.

Whether the GAC knew in advance that this was the board’s game plan is another question entirely.

Strickling is of course duty-bound to complain about .xxx – no government wanted to be seen to associate themselves with pornography – but he’s in a unique position to do something about it.

Strickling heads the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the named “Administrator” of the DNS root and ergo ICANN’s overseer.

It’s within his power to refuse to instruct VeriSign to inject .xxx into the DNS root system, but it’s a power few observers expect him to exercise.

As Milton Mueller of the Internet Governance Project noted yesterday:

If the US goes crazy and interferes with XXX’s entry into the root it will completely kill ICANN and open a Pandora’s box for governmental control of the DNS, a box that will never be closed.

Dire consequences indeed. It’s unlikely that the NTIA would risk killing off the ICANN project after so many years over a bit of T&A.

Beckstrom calls for ICANN’s independence

Kevin Murphy, March 15, 2011, Domain Policy

ICANN president Rod Beckstrom has called for the organization to be allowed to further loosen its ties to the US government.

The two-hour opening ceremony of its 40th public meeting, here in San Francisco this morning, had a heavy focus on ICANN’s relationship with governments, and looked as much to its roots in the Clinton administration as it addressed more immediate concerns internationally.

Beckstrom and others tackled the renewal of the soon-to-expire IANA contract, with which the US grants ICANN many of its powers over the domain name system, head-on.

Beckstrom said some have expressed “a belief that the US government should live up to its 1998 White Paper commitment to transfer management of the IANA functions to the private sector-led organization entrusted to manage the DNS, which is ICANN. ”

That would mean severing one of the most frequently criticized links between ICANN and the USA.

In a press conference later, he confirmed that this is in fact his belief, saying that internet governance is “evolving behind the curve” as internet usage grows internationally.

The US handing the keys to the internet over to ICANN doesn’t appear to be immediately likely, however. But there may be some ways to continue to phase out the US special relationship on a shorter term basis.

Beckstrom took the stage shortly after Lawrence Strickling, head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, part of the US Department of Commerce, made some frank criticisms.

While stressing the Obama administration’s commitment to what he called “multistakeholderism” in internet governance, he had a few pointed remarks to make about ICANN’s decision-making process.

He accused the ICANN board of directors of “picking winners and losers” by making decisions in situations where the community has been unable to reach a consensus policy.

He singled out two recent policies where he believes ICANN has failed to sufficiently rationalize its decisions: registry-registrar integration and economic studies into new TLDs.

The criticisms are not new, and many of them may well go away if and when ICANN implements the recommendations of its Accountability and Transparency Review Team.

My initial sense is that the fact Strickling was able to speak so frankly and so publicly about the administration’s feelings is an encouraging sign of ICANN’s maturity.

And Beckstrom’s response was equally ballsy, urging ICANN’s supporters to lobby the NTIA for a loosening of US-ICANN ties.

The NTIA’s Notice Of Inquiry regarding IANA, which floats the idea of breaking up the IANA functions and possibly assigning them to three different entities, was released a few weeks ago.

During his address this morning, former ICANN chair Vint Cerf put forth the view that this kind of government procurement contract may be an inappropriate mechanism for overseeing IANA functions:

I believe that that concept of procuring service from ICANN really ought to change to become a cooperative agreement because I believe that format expresses more correctly the relationship between ICANN and the Department of Commerce.

Beckstrom evidently agrees with Cerf. At the press conference, he pointed out that the disadvantage of a procurement contract is that it’s short term, undermining confidence in ICANN.

It also requires ICANN to run the IANA to the benefit of the American people, rather than the international community, he said. This obviously can reinforce the perception in some parts of the world that ICANN has an untenable American bias.

“A cooperative agreement seems more befitting of the relationship the NTIA and ICANN has developed,” he said, noting that this is currently the structure of NTIA’s relationship with VeriSign.

The Number Resource Organization may give a further clue to ICANN’s game plan in this email (pdf) published today, in which the NRO says:

We strongly believe that no government should have a special role in managing, regulating or supervising the IANA functions.

The NRO suggests that ICANN, through these coming negotiations, should advocate for a staged reduction of the level of DoC’s oversight to IANA. This process could possibly involve a transitionfrom a contract to a cooperation agreement, and ultimately arrival at a non-binding arrangement, such as an affirmation of commitments

Beckstrom now wants your help to make this happen. During his keynote, he urged the ICANN community to make its disparate views known to the NTIA, “openly and in writing”.

“This is the chance to add your voice to those determining the fate of the IANA function,” he said. “If your voice is to be heard, you must speak up.”

“When all voices are heard, no single voice can dominate an organization – not even governments. Not even the government that facilitated its creation,” Beckstrom said.

Details about how to respond to the NOI can be found in this PDF.