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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.

ICANN explains how .org pricing decision was made

ICANN has responded to questions about how its decision to lift price caps on .org, along with .biz and .info, was made.

The buck stops with CEO Göran Marby, it seems, according to an ICANN statement, sent to DI last night.

ICANN confirmed that was no formal vote of the board of directors, though there were two “consultations” between staff and board and the board did not object to the staff’s plans.

The removal of price caps on .org — which had been limited to a 10% increase per year — proved controversial.

ICANN approved the changes to Public Interest Registry’s contract despite receiving over opposing messages from 3,200 people and organizations during its open public comment period.

Given that the board of directors had not voted, it was not at all clear how the decision to disregard these comments had been made and by whom.

The Internet Commerce Association, which coordinated much of the response to the comment period, has since written to ICANN to ask for clarity on this and other points.

ICANN’s response to DI may shed a little light.

ICANN staff first briefed the board about the RA changes at its retreat in Los Angeles from January 25 to 28 this year, according to the statement.

That briefing covered the reasons ICANN thinks it is desirable to migrate legacy gTLD Registry Agreements to the 2012-round’s base RA, which has no pricing controls.

The base RA “provides additional safeguards and security and stability requirements compared to legacy agreements” and “creates efficiencies for ICANN org in administration and compliance enforcement”, ICANN said.

Migrating old gTLDs to the standardized new contract complies with ICANN’s bylaws commitment “to introduce and promote competition in the registration of domain names and, where feasible and appropriate, depend upon market mechanisms to promote and sustain a competitive environment in the DNS market”, ICANN said.

They also contain provisions forcing the registry to give advance notice of price changes and to give registrants the chance to lock-in prices for 10 years by renewing during the notice period, the board was told.

After the January briefing, Marby made the call to continue negotiations. The statement says:

After consultation with the Board at the Los Angeles workshop, and with the Board’s support, the CEO decided to continue the plan to complete the renewal negotiations utilizing the Base RA. The Board has delegated the authority to sign contracts to the CEO or his designee.

A second board briefing took place after the public comment periods, at the board’s workshop in Marrakech last month.

The board was presented with ICANN’s staff summary of the public comments (pdf), along with other briefing documents, then Marby made the call to move forward with signing.

Following the discussion with the Board in Marrakech, and consistent with the Board’s support, the CEO made the decision for ICANN org to continue with renewal agreements as proposed, using the Base gTLD Registry Agreement.

Both LA and Marrakech briefings “were closed sessions and are not minuted”, ICANN said.

But it appears that the board of directors, while not voting, had at least two opportunities to object to the new contracts but chose not to stand in staff’s way.

At the root of the decision appears to be ICANN Org’s unswerving, doctrinal mission to make its life easier and stay out of price regulation to the greatest extent possible.

Reasonable people can disagree, I think, on whether this is a worthy goal. I’m on the fence.

But it does beg the question: what’s going to happen to .com?

Charities “could move to .ngo” if .org prices rise

File this one under “wrong-headed argument of the day”.

The head of policy at the Charities Aid Foundation reportedly has said that the recent removal of price increase caps at .org could lead to charities moving to other TLDs, “like .ngo”, which would cause confusion among charitable givers.

Rhodri Davies told The Telegraph (registration required) newspaper:

One of the benefits at the moment is you have at least at least one very well known and globally recognised domain name, that indicates to people that what they’re looking at is likely to be a charity or a social purpose organisation. If in the future, the pricing changes, and suddenly organisations have all sorts of different domain names, it’s going to be much harder for the public to know what it is they’re looking at. And that will get confusing and will probably have a negative impact on on people’s trust

The Telegraph gave .ngo (for non-governmental organization) as an example of a TLD they could move to. It’s not clear whether that was the example Davies gave or something the reporter came up with.

While Davies’ argument is of course sound — if charities were forced en masse to leave .org due to oppressive pricing, it would almost certainly lead to new opportunities for fraud — the choice of .ngo as an alternative destination is a weird one.

.ngo, like .org, is run by Public Interest Registry. It also runs .ong, which means the same thing in other languages.

But as 2012-round new gTLDs, neither .ngo or .ong have ever been subject to any pricing controls whatsoever.

At $30 a year, PIR’s wholesale price for .ngo is already a little more than three times higher than what it charges for .org domains. I find it difficult to imagine that .org will be the more expensive option any time soon.

.org domains currently cost $9.93 per year, and PIR has said it has no current plans to increase prices.

PIR does not have a monopoly on charity-related TLDs. Donuts runs .charity itself, which is believed to wholesale for $20 a year. It’s quite a new TLD, on the market for about a year, and has around 1,500 domains under management compared to .org’s 10 million.

Of course, .charity doesn’t have price caps either.

In the gTLD world, the only major TLDs left with ICANN-imposed price restrictions are Verisign’s .com and .net.

.org now has no price caps, but “no specific plans” to raise prices

ICANN has rubber-stamped Public Interest Registry’s new .org contract, removing the price caps that have been in effect for the best part of two decades.

That’s despite a huge outcry against the changes, which saw the vast majority of respondents to ICANN’s public comment period condemn the removal of caps.

The new contract, signed yesterday, completely removes the section that limited PIR to a 10% annual price increase.

It also makes PIR pay the $25,000 annual ICANN fee that all the other registries have to pay. Its ICANN transaction tax remains at $0.25.

PIR, a non-profit which funnels money to the Internet Society, is now allowed to raise its wholesale registry fee by however much it likes, pretty much whenever it likes.

But PIR again insisted that it does not plan to screw over the registrants of its almost 11 million .org domains.

The company said in a statement:

Regarding the removal of price caps, we would like to underscore that Public Interest Registry is a mission driven non-profit registry and currently has no specific plans for any price changes for .ORG. Should there be a need for a sensible price increase at some point in the future, we will provide advanced notice to the public. The .ORG community is considered in every decision we make, and we are incredibly proud of the more than 15 years we have spent as a responsible steward of .ORG. PIR remains committed to acting in the best interest of the .ORG community for years to come.

That basically restates the comments it made before the contract was signed.

The current price of a .org is not public information, but PIR has told me previously that it’s under $10 a year and “at cost” registrar Cloudflare sells for $9.93 per year.

The last price increase was three years ago, reported variously as either $0.88 or $0.87.

ICANN received over 3,200 comments about the contract when it was first proposed, almost all of them opposed to the lifting of caps.

Opposition initially came from domainers alerted by an Internet Commerce Association awareness campaign, but later expanded to include general .org registrants and major non-profit organizations, as the word spread.

Notable support for the changes came from ICANN’s Business Constituency, which argued from its established position that ICANN should not be a price regulator, and from the Non-Commercial Stakeholders Group, which caps should remain but should be raised from the 10%-a-year limit.

There’s a bit of a meme doing the rounds that ICANN has been hit by “regulatory capture” in this case, following a blog post from ReviewSignal.com blogger Kevin Ohashi last week, which sought to demonstrate how those filing comments in favor of the new contract had a vested interest in the outcome (as if the thousands of .org registrants filing opposing comments did not).

But I find the argument a bit flimsy. Nobody fingered by Ohashi had any decision-making power here.

In fact, the decision appears to have been made almost entirely by ICANN employees (its lawyers and Global Domains Division staff) “in consultation with the ICANN board of directors”.

There does not appear to have been a formal vote of the board. If there was such a vote, ICANN has broke the habit of a lifetime and not published any details of the meeting at which it took place.

After the public comment period closed, ICANN senior director for gTLD accounts and services Russ Weinstein prepared and published this comment summary (pdf), which rounds up the arguments for and against the proposed changes to the contract, then attempts to provide justification for the fait accompli.

On the price caps, Weinstein argues that standardizing .org along the lines of most of the other 1,200 gTLDs in existence fits with ICANN’s mission to enable competition in the domain name industry and “depend upon market mechanisms to promote and sustain a competitive environment”.

He also states:

Aligning with the Base gTLD Registry Agreement would also afford protections to existing registrants. The registry operator must provide six months’ notice to registrars for price changes and enable registrants to renew for up to 10 years prior to the change taking effect, thus enabling a registrant to lock in current prices for up to 10 years in advance of a pricing change.

This appears to be misleading. While it’s true that the new contract has the six-month notice period for price increases, so did the old one.

The new contract language takes several sentences to say what the old version did in one, and may remove some ambiguity, but both describe the notice period and lock-in opportunity.

If there’s a problem with how the new .org contract was signed off, it appears to be the lack of transparency.

It’s signed by GDD senior VP Cyrus Namazi, but who made the ultimate decision to sign it despite the outrage? Namazi? CEO Göran Marby? It certainly doesn’t seem to have been put before the board for a formal vote.

What kind of “consultation” between GDD and the board occurred? Is it recorded or noted anywhere? Was the board briefed about the vast number of negative comments the price cap proposal elicited?

Are public comment periods, which almost never have any impact on the end result, just a sham?

In my view, .org (along with .com and .net) are special cases among gTLDs that deserve a more thorough, broad and thoughtful consideration than the new .org contract received.

UPDATE: This article was updated at 1600 UTC to correct information related to .org’s current wholesale price.