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After .org price outrage, ICANN says it has NOT scrapped public comments

Kevin Murphy, October 11, 2019, Domain Policy

ICANN this evening said that it will continue to open up gTLD registry contract amendments for public comment periods, despite posting information yesterday suggesting that it would stop doing so.

The organization recently formalized what it calls “internal guidelines” on when public comment periods are required, and provided a summary in a blog post yesterday.

It was very easy to infer from the wording of the post that ICANN, in the wake of the controversy over the renegotiation of Public Interest Registry’s .org contract, had decided to no longer ask for public comments on future legacy gTLD contract amendments.

I inferred as much, as did another domain news blogger and a few other interested parties I pinged today.

I asked ICANN if that was a correct inference and Cyrus Namazi, head of ICANN’s Global Domains Division, replied:

No, that is not correct. All Registry contract amendments will continue to be posted for public comment same as before.

He went on to say that contract changes that come about as a result of Registry Service Evaluation Process requests or stuff like change of ownership will continue to not be subject to full public comment periods (though RSEP does have its own, less-publicized comment system).

The ICANN blog post lists several scenarios in which ICANN is required to open a public comment period. On the list is this:

ICANN org base agreements with registry operators and registrars.

The word “base” raised at least eight eyebrows of people who read the post, including my two.

The “base” agreements ICANN has with registries and registrars are the 2013 Registrar Accreditation Agreement and the 2012/2017 Registry Agreement.

The RAA applies to all accredited registrars and the base RA applies to all new gTLD registries that applied in the 2012 round.

Registries that applied for, or were already running, gTLDs prior to 2012 all have bespoke contracts that have been gradually brought more — but not necessarily fully — into line with the 2012/17 RA in renewal renegotiations over the last several years.

In all cases, the renegotiated legacy contracts have been subject to public comment, but in no cases have the comments had any meaningful impact on their ultimate approval by ICANN.

The most recent such renewal was Public Interest Registry’s .org contract.

Among the changes were the introduction of the Uniform Rapid Suspension anti-cybersquatting policy, and the removal of price caps that had limited PIR to a 10% increase per year.

The comment period on this contract attracted over 3,200 comments, almost all of which objected to the price regulation changes or the URS.

But the contract was signed regardless, unaffected by the comments, which caused one registrar, NameCheap, to describe the process as a “sham”.

With this apparently specific reference to “base” agreements coming so soon thereafter, it’s easy to see how we could have assumed ICANN had decided to cut off public comment on these contentious issues altogether, but that appears to not be the case.

What this seems to mean is that when .com next comes up for renewal, it will be open for comment.

PIR’s “new” .org domain is just temporary. Help it pick another new one!

Kevin Murphy, September 18, 2019, Domain Registries

Public Interest Registry unveiled a fancy new set of logos and a swanky new web site yesterday, but CEO Jon Nevett tells us that its new domain name is temporary.

The new site and logos are undeniably superior to those they replace, but what raised eyebrows was the fact that the non-profit company has replaced its old pir.org domain with thenew.org, and deprecated the PIR brand almost entirely on its site.

The old PIR domain now redirects to the new thenew one, but the older domain still ranks higher in search engines.

But Nevett tells us it’s not a permanent move.

“Think of it more as a marketing campaign,” Nevett said. “This is a limited campaign, then we’ll move to another name.”

The campaign is basically about PIR going back to its roots and repositioning itself as the .org guys.

It’s only been six years since PIR last rebranded. In September 2013, the company started calling itself “Your Public Interest Registry” in its logo, deliberately playing down the “.org”.

Then-CEO Brian Cute told us at the time that playing up .org “made a lot of sense when we were a single-product company” but that with the imminent launch of sister TLDs .ngo and .ong, the decision was made to lead with the PIR branding instead.

.ngo and .ong — for “non-governmental organization” in English and other languages — haven’t exactly flown off the shelves. Neither one has ever topped 5,000 domains under management, while .org, while declining for a few years, still sits comfortably at over 10 million domains.

“I wouldn’t say so,” Nevett said, when I asked him whether PIR is now essentially back to being a single-product company. “But .org is the flagship, and we’re going back to leading with .org as the key brand. It’s what we’re known for and to say otherwise would be silly.”

People outside the industry have no idea what PIR is, he said, but they all know what .org is.

Some suspect that the rebranding is a portent of PIR gearing up to raise prices, given its newly granted ability to up its registry fees beyond the 10% annual price increase cap that it has it has been to date contractually bound to.

But Nevett said the rebranding is “not at all related to a price increase”. He told me several times that PIR still has “no plans to raise prices”.

He said the rebranding was first put in motion over a year ago, after Cute’s departure but before Nevett’s hiring, during Jay Daley’s interim interregnum.

Anyway, here are the new logos:

PIR logos

To the untrained eye, like both of mine, the new, primary .org logo may just look like two blue circles and the word “org”, but PIR’s press release tells us it’s communicating so much more:

The open “ORG” lettering on either side of the sphere signals that .ORG is an open domain for anyone; it serves as a powerful and inclusive global connector. The logo uses a deep royal blue, evoking feelings of trust, security, and reliability that reflect .ORG’s long-standing reputation.

Because I don’t want to alienate any of PIR’s utterly lovely public relations agency people (the same PR agency that came up with the new branding), I’m not going to pass any comment whatsoever on this piffle.

I think the new logos and web site are improvements. They’re also long-term investments, while the new domain name is not.

“For three to six months we’ll be leading with the marketing campaign of thenew.org, after that we’ll be using a new name as the lead,” Nevett said.

But it won’t be back to pir.org or thenew.org, he said.

Which begs the question: what domain will PIR switch to?

During the course of our conversation, Nevett made the mistake of asking me what I thought the next domain should be, and I made the mistake of saying that I should open the question up to my readers.

So… what should PIR’s next domain be?

Be nice.

.org price cap complaints more like “spam” says Ombudsman

Kevin Murphy, September 11, 2019, Domain Policy

ICANN’s Ombudsman has sided with with ICANN in the fight over the lifting of price caps on .org domains, saying many of the thousands of comments objecting to the move were “more akin to spam”.

Herb Waye was weighing in on two Requests for Reconsideration, filed by NameCheap and the Electronic Frontier Foundation in July and August after ICANN and Public Interest Registry signed their controversial new registry agreement.

NameCheap wants ICANN to reverse its decision to allow PIR to raise .org prices by however much it chooses, while the EFF complained primarily about the fact that the Uniform Rapid Suspension anti-cybersquatting measure now appears in the contract.

In both cases, the requestors fumed that ICANN seemed to “ignore” the more than 3,200 comments that were filed in objection back in April, with NameCheap calling the public comment process a “sham”.

But Waye pointed to the fact that many of these comments were filed by people using a semi-automated web form hosted by the pro-domainer Internet Commerce Association.

As far as comments go for ICANN, 3200+ appears to be quite a sizeable number. But, seeing as how the public comments can be filled out and submitted electronically, it is not unexpected that many of the comments are, in actuality, more akin to spam.

With this eyebrow-raising comparison fresh in my mind, I had to giggle when, a few pages later, Waye writes (emphasis in original):

I am charged with being the eyes and ears of the Community. I must look at the matter through the lens of what the Requestor is asking and calling out. The Ombuds is charged with being the watchful eyes of the ICANN Community. The Ombuds is also charged with being the alert “ears” of the Community — with listening — with making individuals, whether Requestors or complainants or those just dropping by for an informal chat, feel heard.

Waye goes on to state that the ICANN board of directors was kept well-briefed on the status of the contract negotiations and that it had been provided with ICANN staff’s summary of the public comments.

He says that allowing ICANN’s CEO to execute the contract without a formal board vote did not go against ICANN rules (which Waye says he has “an admittedly layman’s understanding” of) because contractual matters are always delegated to senior staff.

In short, he sees no reason for ICANN to accept either Request for Reconsideration.

The Ombudsman is not the decision-maker here — the two RfRs will be thrown out considered by ICANN’s Board Accountability Mechanisms Committee at its next meeting, before going to the full board.

But I think we’ve got a pretty good indication here of which way the wind is blowing.

You can access the RfR materials and Waye’s responses here.

EFF becomes second to appeal new .org contract

Kevin Murphy, August 7, 2019, Domain Registries

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has appealed ICANN’s decision to add stronger trademark protection rules to .org.

The civil liberties organization has filed a Request for Reconsideration with ICANN, saying that the new .org contract should not oblige Public Interest Registry to implement the Uniform Rapid Suspension policy.

URS is a swifter, cheaper version of the anti-cybersquatting UDRP policy. It can lead to clear-cut cases of trademark-infringing domains being relatively quickly suspended, but not transferred.

But the EFF is worried that it could be abused to curtail free speech.

It said URS is “particularly dangerous for the many .org registrants who are engaged in an array of noncommercial work, including criticism of governments and corporations”.

URS was created via ICANN’s bottom-up, community-led policy-making process to apply to new gTLDs applied for in 2012, not legacy gTLDs such as .org, EFF argues,

Adding more rights protection to a legacy gTLD “should be initiated, if at all, through the multistakeholder policy development process, not in bilateral negotiations between a registry operator and ICANN staff”, the RfR states.

The EFF is also concerned that the new contract allows PIR to unilaterally create its own additional rights protection mechanisms.

I don’t think this is a new power, however. Remember when PIR proposed a “Copyright UDRP” a couple of years ago, evidently as a way to turf out The Pirate Bay? That plan was swiftly killed off after protests from, among others, the EFF.

The EFF’s reconsideration request (pdf) does not address the issue of price increase caps, which were removed in the new contract.

That more-controversial provision is already the subject of an RfR, filed by NameCheap last month.

Both RfRs will be dealt with by ICANN’s Board Accountability Mechanisms Committee before being passed to the full board.

Can NameCheap reverse .org price cap scrap?

Kevin Murphy, July 25, 2019, Domain Policy

NameCheap has taken it upon itself to fight ICANN’s decision to remove price increase caps on .org. But does it stand a snowball’s chance in hell of winning?

The registrar has filed a Request for Reconsideration with ICANN, appealing the organization’s signing of a Registry Agreement with Public Interest Registry that allows PIR to raise prices by however much it wants, more or less whenever that it wants.

NameCheap, which had over 390,000 .org domains under management at the last count, says it is fighting for 700-odd of its customers whose comments, filed with ICANN, were allegedly not taken into account when the decision was made, along with registrars and everyone else that may be adversely impacted by unfettered .org price increases.

NameCheap thinks its business could be harmed if price increases are uncapped, with customers perhaps letting their domains expire instead of renewing. It’s RfR states:

The decision by ICANN org to unilaterally remove the price caps when renewing legacy TLDs with little (if any) evidence to support the decision goes against ICANN’s Commitments and Core Values, and will result in harm to millions of internet users throughout the world.

Unrestricted price increases for legacy TLDs will stifle internet innovation, harm lesser served regions and groups, and significantly disrupt the internet ecosystem. An incredible variety of public comments was submitted to ICANN from all continents (except Antarctica) imploring ICANN to maintain the legacy TLD price caps — which were completely discounted and ignored by ICANN org.

Before the new contract was signed, PIR was limited to a 10% increase in its .org registry fee every year. It didn’t always exercise that right, and has said twice in recent months that it still has no plans to increase its prices.

The new contract — which has already been signed and is in effect — was subjected to a public comment period that attracted over 3,200 comments, almost all of them expressing support for maintaining the caps.

Despite not-for-profit PIR’s protestations, many commenters came from the position that giving PIR the power to increase its fee without limit would very possibly lead to price gouging.

That ICANN allegedly “ignored” these comments is the key pillar of NameCheap’s RfR case.

The public comment period was a “sham”, the registrar claims.

But is this enough to make ICANN change its mind and (somehow) unsign the .org contract?

There are three ways, under ICANN’s bylaws, to win an RfR.

Requestors can show that the board or staff did something that contradicts “ICANN’s Mission, Commitments, Core Values and/or established ICANN policy(ies)”

They also win if they can show the decision was was taken “without consideration of material information” or with “reliance on false or inaccurate relevant information”.

It’s quite a high bar, and most RfRs are rejected by the Board Accountability Mechanisms Committee, which is the court of first instance for reconsideration requests.

Requestors rarely show up with sufficient new information sufficiently persuasive to kick the legs from under ICANN’s original decision, and the question of something contradicting ICANN’s core principles is usually a matter of interpretation.

For example, in this case, NameCheap is arguing that failing to side with the commenters who disagreed with the removal of price caps amounts to a breach of ICANN’s Core Value to make all decisions in consultation with stakeholders:

The ICANN org will decide whether to accept or reject public comment, and will unilaterally make its own decisions — even if that ignores the public benefit or almost unanimous feedback to the contrary, and is based upon conclusory statements not supported by the evidence. This shows that the public comment process is basically a sham, and that ICANN org will do as it pleases in this and other matters.

But one of ICANN’s stated reasons for approving the contract was to abide by its Core Value to depend “on market mechanisms to promote and sustain a competitive environment in the DNS market”. It doesn’t want to be a price regulator, in other words.

So we have a clash of Core Values here. It will be pretty easy for ICANN’s lawyers — who drafted the contract and will draft the resolutions of the BAMC and the full board — to argue that the Core Values were respected.

I think NameCheap is going to have a hard time here.

Even if it were to win, how on earth does one unsign a contract? As far as I can tell, ICANN has no termination rights that would apply here.

Where the RfR will certainly succeed is to force the ICANN board itself to take ownership, on the record, of the .org contract decision.

As ICANN explained to DI earlier this month, while the board was very much kept in the loop on the state of negotiations, it was senior staff that made all the calls on the new contract.

But an RfR means that the BAMC, which comprises five directors, will first have to raise their hands to confirm the .org decision was kosher.

NameCheap will then get a chance to file a rebuttal before the BAMC decision is handed to the full ICANN board for a confirmatory vote.

While the first two board discussions of the .org contract were not minuted, the bylaws contain an interesting feature related to RfRs that I’d never noticed before today:

If the Requestor so requests, the Board shall post both a recording and a transcript of the substantive Board discussion from the meeting at which the Board considered the Board Accountability Mechanisms Committee’s recommendation.

I sincerely hope NameCheap invokes this right, as I think it’s pretty important that we get some additional clarity on ICANN’s thinking here.