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Private auction settles controversial plural gTLD fight

Kevin Murphy, December 8, 2014, Domain Registries

A private auction has been used to settle a new gTLD contention set containing two different strings for the first time.

Afilias has won the right to run .pet after Google withdrew its application for .pet and Donuts withdrew its bid for .pets.

The two strings, one the plural of the other, had been placed into indirect contention by ICANN after a String Confusion Objection panel controversially ruled in August 2013 that .pet and .pets were too confusingly similar to be allowed to coexist.

This means that Donuts has been forced to withdraw an uncontested application.

Notably, it was Google that filed, fought and won the SCO complaint, and it didn’t even wind up with the TLD it wanted.

The final settlement of the contention set reflects ICANN’s inconsistent policy on plurals. Several plural/singular combinations — such as .career(s) and .photo(s) — already coexist in the DNS.

The plurals debate is over as ICANN delegates 17 more new gTLDs

Kevin Murphy, December 18, 2013, Domain Policy

Another 17 new gTLDs were delegated to the DNS root last night, most of them belonging to Donuts.

Notably, Donuts now runs .photos and .careers, the first two delegated gTLDs where live applications also exist for the singular form of the string.

Uniregistry is currently contracted and awaiting the delegation of .photo, while dotCareer is already contracted for .career.

The debate about whether ICANN should permit singular and plural versions of the same string to coexist is now surely over.

Just a week ago, the Internet Association — a trade group comprising Amazon, Google, AOL, Yahoo, Salesforce, Zynga and many others — called on ICANN to rethink its policy of coexistence.

Calling the policy a “violation of user trust”, the Association said (pdf), “the existence of these domain names poses significant risks to the DNS, Internet companies, and their users”.

The Association noted that the Governmental Advisory Committee had strong concerns about singular and plural coexistence, due to the risk of consumer confusion.

String Confusion Objection panels have reached quite different conclusions about whether adding an “s” makes a string confusingly similar to another.

Personally, while I’m all for competition, I believe coexistence will lead to parasitical business models that will bring the domain name industry into further disrepute.

I know for a fact that some registries are considering the merits of tailgating their confusingly similar competitors.

But it seems ICANN’s decision was final.

There’s currently no mechanism for ICANN to un-approve a gTLD once it’s been delegated — failing serious wrongdoing by the registry — so it’s difficult to see how it could now decide that plural and singular forms of the same string should be mutually exclusive.

While I’m sure the Internet Association and others will carry on complaining, I think they’re now talking to deaf ears.

There were 17 new gTLDs delegated yesterday in total, 15 of which were in Donuts portfolio.

Donuts has also added the following to its portfolio: .cab, .camp, .academy, .center, .company, .computer, .domains, .limo, .management, .recipes, .shoes, .systems and .viajes (Spanish for “travel”).

CONAC, the China Organizational Name Administration Center had .政务 (“government”) and .公益 (“public interest”) delegated.

Panel says .sport and .sports are confusingly similar

Kevin Murphy, August 22, 2013, Domain Registries

Olympics-backed new gTLD applicant SportAccord has won a String Confusion Objection against Donuts, with an arbitration panel finding that .sport and .sports are too similar to coexist.

It’s the second SCO case involving a plural to go against Donuts, after the shock .pet/.pets decision last week.

While the judgment is sure to fuel the debate about singular and plural gTLD coexistence, the strings in question in this case do have some unique characteristics.

As panelist M Scott Donahey noted, .sport is both singular and a collective noun, making it essentially a plural and synonymous with .sports.

The sentences “I like sports” and “I like sport” both make sense and mean the same thing. The same could not be said for, for example, “I like car” or “I like pet”.

Donahey was also persuaded by the argument that because “sport” is also a French word meaning the same thing, the fact that “sports” and “sport” are pronounced the same in French means the two strings confusingly similar aurally. He wrote:

The convergence of all these similarities, the fact that the words look very similar in English and sound the same in French, and that the words can be used interchangeably as nouns in English to indicate the panorama of sporting activities, and that the words are interchangeable when used as adjectives in English, all lead the Expert to conclude that it is probable that confusion will arise in the mind of the average, reasonable internet user.

The panelist had access to the rulings in the .pets v .pet case (cited by SportAccord) and the .car v cars case (which went the other way and was cited by Donuts).

Donahey’s ruling is notable also because of what he explicitly declined to consider, namely: the possible harms that could be created by string confusion. He wrote:

Objector’s many references to possible fraud, deceit, cybersquatting or other types of abuse through the use of the gTLD proposed by Applicant are in the nature of a legal rights objection, and mere speculation, and are unworthy of any consideration by an Expert in a string confusion analysis.

In other words, he focused just on the visual, aural and semantic similarity of the two strings. It’s going to be hard for anyone to argue that he overstepped the bounds of an SCO, which has happened following other decisions.

All in all it seems like a pretty sensible decision (pdf). It’s hard to fault Donahey’s logic.

(As an aside, I’ve started to notice that the SCO decisions with the soundest reasoning seem to be coming from panelists, such as Donahey, with extensive experience adjudicating UDRP complaints).

If the ruling stands — that is, if ICANN does not reopen the plurals/singulars policy debate — Donuts’ application for .sports will be forced into a contention set with the two applications for .sport.

Plural gTLDs not confusing, says ICANN (and two gotchas proving it wrong)

Dozens of new gTLD applicants will be breathing a sigh of relief this morning as ICANN said it will allow single and plural versions of the same gTLD to co-exist after all.

The decision, made Tuesday by ICANN’s New gTLD Program Committee, affects at least 98 applications. It said:

NGPC has determined that no changes are needed to the existing mechanisms in the Applicant Guidebook to address potential consumer confusion resulting from allowing singular and plural versions of the same string.

It was in response to the Governmental Advisory Committee, which had advised ICANN to “reconsider its decision to allow singular and plural versions of the same strings.”

Because of the wording of the advice, ICANN is able to disagree with the the GAC’s opinion that “singular and plural versions of the string as a TLD could lead to potential consumer confusion” without triggering its bylaws provision that forces it into time-consuming GAC negotiations.

By “reconsidering” plural/singular coexistence and not doing anything, it has stuck to the letter of the advice.

In its reconsideration it reconsiderated whether it should overturn the findings of its independent String Similarity Panel, which did not believe any plural/singular pairs were confusingly visually similar.

It also used the coexistence of second-level plural and singular domains, registered to different people, as evidence that users would not find similar coexistence at the top level confusing.

The decision has potentially far-reaching consequences on the new gTLD program.

First, it could mean that some plural/singular pairs will be allowed to exist while others will not.

There are a handful of formal String Confusion Objections filed by applicants for gTLDs that have singular or plural competitors in the current round.

These string pairs are not currently in contention sets, but if the objectors prevail only one of the strings will survive to delegation.

Other string pairs have no objections and will be allowed to coexist. This may be fair in a sense, but it’s not uniform nor predictable.

(One wonders if the String Confusion Objection arbitration panels will use ICANN’s ruling this week in their own decision-making process, which could open a can of worms.)

Second, I think the decision might encourage bad business practices by registries.

My beef with coexistence

I don’t think coexistence is a wholly terrible idea, but I do think it will have some negative effects, as I’ve expressed in the past.

First, I think it’s going to lead to millions of unnecessary defensive registrations.

And by “defensive” I’m not talking about companies protecting their trademarks. Whether you think they’re adequate or not, trademark owners already have protections in new gTLDs.

I’m talking about regular domain registrants, small businesses, entrepreneurs and so on. These people are going to find themselves buying two domains when they only need one.

Let’s say you’re Mad John’s Autos, and you’re registering madjohn.auto. You get to the checkout and Go Daddy offers you the matching .autos domain. Assuming similar pricing, you’d definitely register it, right?

You’ve always got to assume a certain subset of users will get confused and either wind up at a dead URL or a competitor’s site. It’s simpler just to defensively register both.

What if one was priced a little higher than the other? Maybe you’d still register it. How big would the price differential have to be before you decided not to buy the plural duplicate?

Buying two domains instead of one may not be a huge financial burden to individual registrants, but it’s going to lead to situations where gTLDs exist in symbiotic — or parasitic — pairs.

If you run the .auto registry, you may find that your plural competitor is spending so much on marketing .autos that you don’t need to lift a finger in order to sell millions of domain names.

Just make sure you’re partnered with the same registrars and bingo: you’re up-sell.

Attractive business plan, right? You may disagree, but when ICANN opens the floodgates for the second round of new gTLD applications in a couple years, we’ll find out for sure.

Two gotchas

Defenses of plural/singular gTLD coexistence often come from, unsurprisingly, the portfolio applicants that have applied for them and, presumably, may apply for them in future rounds.

“Singulars and plurals live together now on the [second-level domain] side,” Uniregistry said. “They create healthy competition and do not unduly confuse consumers to the point of annoyance.”

I wouldn’t disagree with that statement. Plural/singular coexistence may not confuse internet users to the point of danger or annoyance. But, I would argue, they do make people buy more domain names than they need to.

If you were buying autos.com today you’d definitely definitely buy auto.com as well and redirect it to autos.com. You’d be an idiot not too.

When I put this to Uniregistry execs privately several weeks ago, they disagreed with me. Nobody would bother with such duplicative/defensive domains, they said.

In response, I asked, cheekily: so why do you own uniregistries.com, redirecting it to uniregistry.com?

Another portfolio applicant, Donuts, also didn’t like the idea of plurals and singulars being mutually exclusive, according to this CircleID article. It doesn’t think they’re confusingly similar.

Yet a press release put out by the company last month accidentally said it planned to put its application for .apartment to auction.

The problem is that Donuts hasn’t applied for .apartment, it has applied for .apartments.

I feel rotten for highlighting a simple typo by a fellow media professional (I make enough of those) but isn’t that what we’re often talking about when discussing confusing similarity? Typos?

If the registry can get confused by its own applied-for strings, doesn’t that mean internet users will as well?

Oh, I’m a cybersquatter

Interestingly, ICANN’s belief that plurals are not confusing appears to be institutional.

At least, I discovered this morning that icanns.org, the plural of its primary domain, was available for registration.

So I bought it.

Let’s see how much traffic it gets.

If I get hit by a UDRP, that could be interesting too.

Plural gTLDs could be a casualty as ICANN accepts big chunk of GAC advice

ICANN has accepted nine pieces of Governmental Advisory Committee advice pertaining to new gTLDs, essentially killing off two applications and putting question marks over many more.

Notably, the question of whether plural and singular versions of the same string should be allowed to coexist has been reopened for debate, affecting as many as 98 applications.

ICANN’s New gTLD Program Committee, which carries board powers but does not include directors with conflicts of interest, this week passed a resolution that addresses a good chunk of the GAC’s Beijing communique.

It does not discuss any of the amorphous “safeguard” advice from the document, which was subject to a recently closed public comment period and is likely to take much longer to resolve.

By far the line item with the broadest immediate impact is this:

The NGPC accepts this advice and will consider whether to allow singular and plural versions of the same string.

That’s right folks, singular and plural gTLDs (eg, .car and .cars) may not be allowed to coexist after all.

Using a broad interpretation (that treats .new and .news as clashes, for example), 98 applications could be affected by this decision.

Singular vs plural is a contentious issue with some strongly held religious views. Whether you come down on one side or the other depends largely on how you see new gTLDs being used in future.

Proponents of coexistence see a future of 30,000 gTLDs being used as direct navigation and search tools, while opponents worry about the risk of freeloading plural registries making a killing from unnecessary defensive registrations.

The NGPC did not say how the debate would be moved forward, but I’d be surprised if it didn’t involved the broader community through public comments or meetings in Durban next month.

Ding dong…?

Two line items appear to put the final nails in the coffins of two new gTLD applications: DotConnectAfrica’s .africa and GCCIX WLL’s .gcc.

Both clash with the names of geographic regions (.gcc is for Gulf Cooperation Council, a name often associated with nations in the Arabian/Persian Gulf) and received the GAC’s strongest possible form of objection.

In both cases, the NGPC said the applications “will not be approved” and invited the applicants to withdraw.

However, it gave both applicants the right to appeal using “ICANN’s accountability mechanisms”.

Islamic strings on life support

Some governments in the GAC had taken issue with the applications for strings such as .islam and .halal, and the NGPC said it “stands ready to enter into dialogue with the GAC on this matter”.

That’s the Applicant Guidebook-mandated response when the GAC cannot reach a consensus that an application should be killed off.

Amazon among geo strings delayed

As expected, the NGPC decided to work with the GAC’s extended timetable for the consideration of 19 applications whose chosen strings clash with geographic names such as .thai and .persiangulf.

Basically, the GAC asked for more time to discuss them.

In response, ICANN will not delay Initial Evaluation for these applications, but it will not sign contracts with the applicants until the GAC has issued its final advice.

The list includes two big trademarks: retail giant Amazon and the clothing brand Patagonia.

Both will have to wait until at least Durban to discover their fate.

The list also includes .wine and .vin, because some in the wine industry have been kicking up a stink about the protection of special geographic identifiers (eg Champagne, Bordeaux) at the second-level.

Weasel words on community objections

There’s one piece of advice that the NGPC said it has “accepted” but which it clearly has not.

The GAC had said this:

The GAC advises the Board that in those cases where a community, which is clearly impacted by a set of new gTLD applications in contention, has expressed a collective and clear opinion on those applications, such opinion should be duly taken into account, together with all other relevant information.

I think any reasonable interpretation of this item would require ICANN or somebody else to make a subjective judgement call on which applications should win certain contention sets.

To my mind, the advice captures contested strings such as .book (where publishers hate the idea of Amazon running it as a closed generic) and .music (where the music industry favors a restricted registration policy).

But ICANN, always reluctant to have to pick winners and losers, seems to have chosen to interpret the advice somewhat differently. In its response, it states:

The NGPC accepts this advice. Criterion 4 for the Community Priority Evaluation process takes into account “community support and/or opposition to the application” in determining whether to award priority to a community application in a contention set. (Note however that if a contention set is not resolved by the applicants or through a community priority evaluation then ICANN will utilize an auction as the objective method for resolving the contention.)

I don’t think this covers the GAC’s advice at all, and I think the NGPC knows it.

As the parenthetical comment says, communities’ views are only taken into account if an applicant has filed a formal “Community” bid and chooses to resolve its contention set with a Community Priority Evaluation.

To return to the above examples, this may well capture .music, where at least one applicant intends to go the CPE route, but it does not capture .book, where there are no Community applications.

There are 33 remaining Community applications in 29 contention sets.

Will the GAC accept the NGPC’s response as a proper implementation of its advice? If it’s paying attention and feels strongly enough about the issue, my guess is probably not.

More special favors for the Olympics

The International Olympic Committee holds extraordinary power over governments, which has resulted in the GAC repeatedly humiliating itself by acting an Olympic lobbyist before the ICANN board.

In the Beijing communique, it asked ICANN to make sure that the temporary temporary protections granted to Olympics and Red Cross are made permanent in the Applicant Guidebook.

Prior to April, the Registry Agreement in the Guidebook said that the protected strings “shall be initially reserved”, but this language has been removed in the current version of the RA.

The NGPC said that this was due to the GAC’s advice. Box ticked.

But here’s the kicker: the protections will still be subject to a Generic Names Supporting Organization Policy Development Process.

In other words, the discussion is not over. The rest of the ICANN community will get their say and ICANN will try to reconcile what the GNSO decides with what the GAC wants at a later date.

While “accepting” the GAC’s advice, it’s actually proposing something of a compromise. The NGPC said:

Until such time as the GNSO approves recommendations in the PDP and the Board adopts them, the NGPC’s resolutions protecting IOC/RCRC names will remain in place. Should the GNSO submit any recommendations on this topic, the NGPC will confer with the GAC prior to taking action on any such recommendations.

New gTLD registries will not be able to argue in future that their contracts only require them to “initially” protect the Olympic and Red Cross strings, but at the same time the GNSO as a whole gets a say in whether permanent protections are warranted.

It seems like a pretty nice compromise proposal from ICANN — particularly given the problems it’s been having with the GNSO recently — but I doubt the GAC will see it that way.

Other stuff

There were two other items:

  • The GAC had advised that no new gTLD contracts should be approved until the 2013 Registrar Accreditation Agreement is finalized. ICANN agreed. It’s already built into the timetable.
  • The GAC wanted its existing views taken into account in the current, ongoing, formative discussions about a replacement service for Whois. That’s already happening.

In summary…

…it’s a pretty sensible response from the NGPC, with the exception of the weaselly response to the “community views” advice.

Taken as a whole, it’s notable for its respect for other stakeholders and processes, which is admirable.

Even in the case of .africa and .gcc, which I firmly believed would be dead today, it’s given the applicants the opportunity to go through the appropriate appeals channels.

The GAC, it seems, doesn’t even get the last word with its kiss of death.