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What next for new TLDs? Part 4 – GAC Concerns

Kevin Murphy, December 15, 2010, Domain Policy

Like or loathe the decision, ICANN’s new top-level domains program appears to have been delayed again.

But for how long? And what has to happen now before ICANN starts accepting applications?

In short, what the heck happened in Cartagena last week?

In this four-part post, I will attempt an analysis of the various things I think need to happen before the Applicant Guidebook (AGB) is approved.

In this fourth post, I will look at areas of the AGB that the Governmental Advisory Committee is still concerned about.

GAC Concerns

The GAC’s laundry list of objections and concerns has grown with every official Communique it has released during an ICANN public meeting over the last few years.

While it has not yet published its official “scorecard” of demands for the home-stretch negotiations, it has released a list of 11 points (pdf) it wants to discuss with the board.

These 11 points can be grouped into a smaller number of buckets: objections and disputes procedures, trademark protection, registry-registrar separation, and the treatment of geographical names.

I wrote about the trademark issue in part one of this post.

The GAC appears to have adopted many of the arguments of the IP lobby – it thinks the AGB does not currently do enough to ensure the costs to business of new TLDs will be minimized – so we might expect that to be a major topic of discussion at the GAC-Board retreat in February.

I’ll be interested to hear what it has to say about registry-registrar separation.

The GAC has been pushing for some looser cross-ownership restrictions, in order to foster competition, since 2007, and most recently in September.

It has previously been in favor of restrictions on “insider” companies with market power, but for a more relaxed environment for new entrants (such as “community” TLDs that may largely operate under agreements with their local governments).

This position looks quite compatible with ICANN’s new vertical integration policy, to me, so I’m not sure where the GAC’s concerns currently lie.

The issue of disputes and objections may be the trickiest one.

The GAC basically wants a way for its members to block “controversial” TLD applications on public policy grounds, without having to pay fees.

The “Rec6” policy, previously known as “morality and public order objections” is one of the issues the ICANN board has specifically acknowledged is Not Closed.

This is from its Cartagena resolution:

Discussions will continue on (1) the roles of the Board, GAC, and ALAC in the objection process, (2) the incitement to discrimination criterion, and (3) fees for GAC and ALAC-instigated objections. ICANN will take into account public comment including the advice of the GAC, and looks forward to receiving further input from the working group in an attempt to close this issue.

GAC members on the Rec6 working group repeatedly highlighted objection fees as a deal-breaker – governments don’t want to have to pay to object to TLD applications.

This appears to been cast as some kind of sovereignty-based matter of principle, although I suppose it could just as easily be an “in this economic climate” budgeting concern.

ICANN’s position is that the GAC as a whole can object for free, but that individual governments have to pay. Fees for some objection procedures will run into tens of thousands of dollars.

The GAC also has beef with the AGB’s treatment of geographic strings.

This is an area where ICANN says the AGB already “substantially reflects the views of the ICANN community” but intends to take GAC comments into account.

ICANN has already made substantial concessions on the geographic names issue, but there may still be a few loopholes through which territory names could slip through the net and be approved without the endorsement of their local governments.

Finally, the GAC wants to include amendments to the Registrar Accreditation Agreement, previously recommended by law enforcement agencies, in the AGB discussion.

The appears to have come completely out of the blue, without any direct relevance to the new TLD program.

It’s a long list covering a lot of issues, and it could get longer when the GAC publishes its official “scorecard”. We’ll have to wait and see.

Governments still want new TLD morality veto

Kevin Murphy, November 23, 2010, Domain Registries

ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee still wants to block “controversial” new top-level domains on morality grounds.

In a letter to ICANN chairman Peter Dengate Thrush, a copy of which I have obtained, the GAC makes it clearer than ever that it wants national laws to play a part in approving new TLDs.

It also suggests that national governments should be able to pre-screen strings before applications are filed, to give applicants “early warning” that they are stepping into controversial waters.

The letter draws the battle lines for what could be some heated debate at ICANN’s meeting in Cartagena next month.

Given that the letter does not appear to have been published by ICANN yet, I will quote liberally.

Under the heading “Universal Resolvability of the DNS”, GAC interim chair Heather Dryden, the Canadian representative on the committee, wrote:

Due to uncertainties regarding the effectiveness of ICANN’s review and objections procedures, a country may feel compelled to block a new gTLD at the national level that it considers either objectionable or that raises national sensitivities.

To date, there do not appear to be controversial top level domains that have resulted in significant or sustained blocking by countries.

The GAC believes it is imperative that the impact on the continued security, stability and universal resolvability of the domain name systems of the potential blocking at the national level of the new gTLD strings that are considered to be objectionable or that raise national sensitivities be assessed prior to introducing new gTLDs.

The letter carries on to say that the GAC will “seek advice from the technical community” on the issue.

Dryden wrote that there should be a “prior review” process that would be able to identify strings that are “contrary to national law, policy or regulation” or “refer to religions, ethnicity, languages or other cultural identifiers that might raise national sensitivities”.

It sounds like the GAC envisions a pre-screening process, before new TLD applications are officially filed, similar to the “expressions of interest” concept that ICANN abandoned in March.

What TLDs this process would capture is unclear. The GAC letter notes by way of example that “several governments restrict the registration of certain terms in their ccTLDs”.

In practical terms, this would raise question marks over TLDs such as “.gay”, which would quite clearly run contrary to the policies of many national governments.

(As I reported earlier this month, the recently relaunched .so registry currently bans “gay”, “lesbian” and related terms at the second level.)

There’s more to be reported on the the implications of this letter, particularly with regards the work of ICANN’s “morality and public order” policy working group and the GAC’s relationship with ICANN in general.

Watch this space.

How “final” is the new TLD guidebook?

Kevin Murphy, November 19, 2010, Domain Registries

Many would-be new top-level domain registries were pleasantly surprised a week ago when ICANN published the latest Applicant Guidebook and referred to it as the “proposed final” version.

But it was pretty clear, even on a cursory reading, that the AGB is far from complete; in some cases, text is explicitly referred to as being subject to further revision.

There’s also a public comment period ongoing, providing feedback some of which will presumably be taken on board by ICANN at its Cartagena meeting next month.

But ICANN has now provided a little bit more clarity on how “final” the “proposed final” AGB really is.

Senior veep Kurt Pritz, ICANN’s point man on the new TLD program, had this to say on Thursday’s teleconference of the GNSO Council:

There are always going to be changes to the guidebook. And so, even though this is the proposed final guidebook, we’re doing some final work on trying to find areas of accommodation with the Recommendation 6 working group and making some changes there, and working through perhaps a registry code of conduct; there are perhaps some issues with data protection there.

If folks want to consider this as final it will have to be with the understanding that the guidebook will always be changing, but having an understanding that those changes really don’t materially change the positions of applicants or the decisions of whether or not to go ahead and apply or the resources necessary to apply or sustain registry operations.

I reported on some of the issues with the Rec 6 working group, which is dealing with the “morality an public order objections” process, earlier this week.

The registry code of conduct, which sets limits on what data can be shared in co-owned registries/registrars, was new in the latest AGB draft. It looks to me like the kind of thing you’d normally expect to be debated for many months before being accepted.

But apparently future changes to these parts of the guidebook will not be substantive enough to change potential applicants’ plans.

Pritz said on the GNSO call that the current public comment period, which ends on the day of the Cartagena board meeting, could be thought of as similar to the comment periods that precede votes on ICANN’s budget.

In those cases, the board votes to approve the budget subject to changes based on public comments in advance of those changes being made.

It seems to me that the board’s options in Cartagena are to a) approve the AGB, b) approve it subject to directed changes (the “budget” scenario), or c) delay approval pending further community work.

I’m guessing option b) is the preferred outcome, but there’s no predicting what surprises could emerge over the next few weeks.

Is ICANN too scared of lawsuits?

Kevin Murphy, November 17, 2010, Domain Registries

Arguments about the new top-level domain Applicant Guidebook kicked off with a jolt this week, when ICANN was accused of abdicating its responsibilities and being too risk-averse.

In what I think was the first case of a top ICANN staff member publicly discussing the AGB, senior veep Kurt Pritz fielded questions about “morality and public order objections” on a packed and occasionally passionate conference call (mp3).

On the call, Robin Gross of IPJustice accused ICANN’s of shirking its duties by proposing to “fob off” decisions on whether to reject controversial TLDs onto third-party experts.

She said:

I’m concerned that there’s a new policy goal – a new primary policy goal – which is the risk mitigation strategy for ICANN. I don’t remember us ever deciding that that was going to be a policy goal. But it seems that now what is in the best interest for the Internet is irrelevant. The policy goal that rules is what is in the best interest for ICANN the corporation

A cross-constituency working group (CWG) had said that controversial TLDs should be rejected only after a final nod from the ICANN board, rather than leaving the decision entirely in the hands of outside dispute resolution providers.

There was a concern that third parties would be less accountable than the ICANN board, and possibly more open to abuse or capture.

But ICANN rejected that recommendation, and others, on “risk mitigation” grounds. Explanatory notes accompanying the new AGB (pdf) say:

Independent dispute resolution is a cornerstone of the risk mitigation strategy. Without outside dispute resolution, ICANN would have to re-evaluate risks and program costs overall.

Almost a third of every new TLD application fee – $60,000 of every $185,000 – will go into a pool set aside for ICANN’s “risk costs”.

These costs were based on an estimate that there will be 500 applications, and that ICANN will need $30 million to cover risks.

These are often thought to be primarily risks relating to litigation.

There’s a fear, I suspect, that ICANN could become embroiled in more interminable .xxx-style disputes if it allows the board to make subjective calls on TLD applications, rather than hiring independent experts to make decisions based on uniform criteria.

On Monday’s conference call, Gross said that ICANN’s treatment of the CWG’s recommendations was a “really big shock”. She added:

clearly here this is just a fobbing off of that responsibility, trying to again avoid litigation, avoid responsibility rather than take responsibility and take accountability

But ICANN says that the risk mitigation strategy benefits TLD applicants by removing uncertainty from the program, as well making ICANN more credible.

Pritz said on the call:

the risk to the program is in creating a process or procedure that isn’t transparent and predictable for applicants. By what standard can a TLD be kicked out? It’s got to be: here’s the standards, here’s the decision maker and here’s the process.

When I talk about risk, it’s risk to this process.

If this process attracts a lot of litigation, and ICANN published the process and then did not follow it, or that the process wasn’t clear so that the applicant had no way of predicting what was going to happen to its application, the risk is then litigation would halt the process and undermine the ICANN model.

So it doesn’t really have anything to do with the people that are the directors or the people that are the staff; it has to do with the credibility of ICANN as a model for Internet governance.

In other words, if TLD applicants pay their fees and go into the process knowing what the rules are, and knowing that there’s little chance of being jerked around by the ICANN board, there’s less chance of the program as whole being disrupted by lawsuits.

Seems fair enough, no?

Will the new TLD guidebook provide answers?

Kevin Murphy, November 8, 2010, Domain Registries

ICANN is due to publish an Applicant Guidebook for new top-level domain registries tomorrow, and there are still big question marks over its contents.

Judging from a preliminary report from the ICANN board’s most-recent official meeting, some key decisions may not have yet been taken.

Perhaps the biggest unresolved issue is whether to permit the “vertical integration” of registry and registrar functions.

Which way ICANN swings on this problem will determine which companies are eligible to apply for new TLDs, how their business models will be structured, and how realistic “.brand” TLDs will be.

The ICANN community failed to reach consensus on this issue, largely due to differing business interests and a few consumer protection concerns.

But it looks like the ICANN board did not even discuss the matter at its October 28 meeting. The preliminary report has this to say:

2. Vertical Integration

In the interests of time, the Chair adjourned this item of discussion to a later date.

That “later date” may have been last Thursday and Friday, when the board held its rescheduled “retreat”, which is not designated as an official meeting.

On “Rec6”, previously known as the “morality and public order” objections process, the board passed no resolution October 28, but seems to have endorsed further discussions with the community.

The preliminary report states:

The Board discussed staff presentation and, in conformance with staff recommendation, directed staff to provide a briefing paper to the working group and to coordinate a call with the working group to further discuss the issues.

If the Rec6 working group mailing list and the GNSO calendar are any guides, that meeting has not yet been called (at least not publically).

The report also addresses geographic domains and issues that need to be taken into account given what ICANN’s Affirmation of Commitments with the US government says about new TLDs.

The Board agreed that staff provide a paper on geographic names to the GAC, the Chair of the GAC would check on the scope of issues still requiring discussion, and then the Chairs of the GAC and the Board would discuss the process for resolution to move this issue forward prior to Cartagena.

The Board discussed a paper regarding the adherence to the conditions set out in the Affirmation of Commitments in launching New gTLDs, and the need for identifying objective metrics to measure ICANN’s performance. The Board asked staff to consider what known performance indicators for the New gTLD program may be, what the adequacy scale is for measuring, and try to set that out for future conversation.

With all this in mind, it seems to me that while we may have a timeline for the launch of the new TLD program, there’s still much more to do than merely cross t’s and dot i’s.

Can we expect more placeholder text in tomorrow’s Applicant Guidebook?

.XXX debate could test GAC powers

Kevin Murphy, November 1, 2010, Domain Policy

The long-running .xxx top-level domain saga has tested ICANN processes to their limits over the last decade, and it looks like it may do so at least one more time.

Digging a little deeper into the board’s decision to consult with its Governmental Advisory Committee before approving the TLD, it looks like the discussion will be quite broad-based.

The .xxx consultation could in fact have consequences for the board/GAC power balance, helping define the parameters of their future interactions.

This PDF, published at the same time as last week’s board resolution on .xxx, outlines three GAC positions that could have a bearing on the matter.

The first is its communiqué from the Wellington meeting in 2007, which noted that several GAC members were “emphatically opposed” to the introduction of .xxx.

The GAC operates on a consensus basis. When it can’t find consensus, its communiqués also reflect minority positions. So ICANN now wants to know whether the Wellington letter constitutes GAC “advice”.

The question remains whether a position taken by “several members of the GAC” can be equated with GAC advice on public policy matters. If it is not GAC advice, then the concern of inconsistency [of the .xxx contract with GAC advice] diminishes.

Some may be surprised to discover that, after over a decade, there’s no broad agreement about when something the GAC says constitutes official “advice” that ICANN, under its bylaws, must consider.

Attendees to the Brussels meeting this June will recall that the joint board-GAC meeting, transcribed here, spent most of its time labouring on this apparent oversight.

In consulting with the GAC on .xxx, there’s an outside chance that some answers with regards the definition of “advice” may be found.

It wouldn’t be the first time ICM Registry’s controversial application has forced ICANN to address shortcomings in its own accountability procedures.

Notably, the Independent Review Process, promised in the bylaws for years, was eventually implemented to allow ICM’s appeal after it had pushed the Reconsideration Request process to its limit.

ICANN’s latest resolution on .xxx also refers to a letter (pdf) GAC chair Heather Dryden sent to the board in August, which expressed a desire that no “controversial” TLDs should be added to the root.

While ostensibly addressing future TLD applications, rather than TLDs applied for under previous rounds, the letter did say that “objection procedures should apply to all pending and future TLDs”, which was widely interpreted as referring directly to .xxx.

Last week’s ICANN board documents say:

If the “pending” TLD refers to .XXX, the approval of the .XXX sTLD Registry Agreement without allowing for these types of objections would be inconsistent with GAC advice.

I’ve reason to believe that the “pending” language may have been inserted quite late into the drafting of the Dryden letter, and may not enjoy the unanimous support of GAC members.

Regardless, the letter implies that whatever “morality and public order” or “Rec6” objections process winds up in the new TLD Applicant Guidebook should also apply, retroactively, to ICM.

If ICANN were to agree on this point, a precedent would presumably be set that would allow the GAC to issue thirteenth-hour “advice” that moves the goal-posts for future new TLD applicants, removing a significant amount of predictability from the process.

For that reason, I think it’s unlikely that ICM will be told it is subject to the Rec6 process (whatever that may ultimately look like).

The consultation, however, may result in some clarity around where the GAC’s powers of “advice” begin and end, which is probably a good thing.

Former ICANN chief speaks out against new TLD morality veto

Kevin Murphy, October 26, 2010, Domain Policy

Former ICANN president and CEO Paul Twomey has expressed his support for rules curbing the ability of international governments to object to new top-level domains.

Twomey’s suggestions could be seen as going even further to limit government powers in the new TLD process than previous recommendations from the community.

The advice came during the ICANN comment period on the so-called “Rec6” recommendations, which previously sought to create an objection process based on “morality and public order” or “MOPO” concerns.

There had been a worry from some elements of the ICANN community that backwards governments could use Rec6 to arbitrarily block controversial new TLDs on national interest grounds.

But a cross-constituency working group, which included a few members of ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee, instead developed recommendations that would create a much narrower objections process with a greater emphasis on free speech.

Twomey, who quit ICANN in June 2009, has now expressed broad support for the working group’s recommendations, and suggests a few tweaks to make the process less open to abuse.

He said ICANN “should be careful not to view one government alone as having veto power over any particular gTLD string which is designed to serve a global or at least international user group”.

Notably, Twomey has urged ICANN to steer clear of the phrase “national interest”, which appears in the current Rec6 recommendations, and instead use “national law”.

He reasons that giving weight to “national interests” could enable fairly junior civil servants to object to new TLDs without the full backing of their governments or legislation.

phrases such as “perceived national interest” reflect a degree of political consideration which can be more fleeting, be expressed by very junior officials without Ministerial or Parliamentary approval, and often is a matter of debate between different groups within the country and government. In some respects it is similar to the phrase “public policy”. I remember a GAC member many years ago stating that “public policy is anything I decide it is”.

Twomey then recommends that even when a government has an objection based on an actual national law, that law “should only derive from a national law which is in accordance with the principle of international law.”

A law which violated human rights treaties, for example, or which was hurriedly passed specifically in order to scupper a TLD bid, would therefore not be valid grounds for objection.

Twomey’s reasoning here is fascinating and a little bit shocking:

without such a linkage, a unique, one-off power to a government would be open to gaming by well-funded commercial interests with political influence.

I am aware of some commercial entities involved in the ICANN space in years past that quietly boasted of their ability to get laws passed in certain small jurisdictions which would suit their commercial interests in competing with other players. This is not behaviour the ICANN Board should inadvertently incent.

I’ll leave it for you to speculate about which companies Twomey is referring to here. I don’t think there are many firms in the domain name space that well-funded.

Prior to becoming ICANN’s president, Twomey chaired the GAC as the Australian representative. He’s currently president of Leagle and managing director of Argo Pacific, his own consulting firm.

His full commentary, which delves into more areas than I can get into here, can be found here. The Rec6 working group’s recommendations can be found here (pdf). My previous coverage of the Rec6/MOPO issue can be found here.

New TLDs dominate ICANN board agenda

Kevin Murphy, October 22, 2010, Domain Policy

ICANN has published the agenda for next Thursday’s board meeting and unsurprisingly the new top-level domain process dominates.

The agenda breaks the discussion into several bullet points.

Of interest to absolutely everybody watching the new TLD process is the first bullet – “Update on Timeline”. Everyone wants to know when the Applicant Guidebook will be finalized.

Recently, it became apparent that ICANN seems to view the next draft of the guidebook as a possible candidate for “final” status. As I blogged earlier this week, it could be published in the next two weeks.

The issues of vertical integration of registry and registrar functions, the “Rec 6” objections process, and the Governmental Advisory Committee advice on geographic names are also on the agenda.

The meeting will also discuss the approval of Qatar’s internationalized domain name country-code TLD and the redelegation of the .qa ccTLD to a new entity.

Qatar’s chosen Arabic string was approved back in March, at the same time as other strings that have already been added to the root, so I can only assume that the redelegation issue was what caused the hold-up.

The perennially controversial .xxx application is also due to be wheeled out for another hearing.

ICANN to publish final new TLD rulebook before December

Kevin Murphy, September 26, 2010, Domain Registries

The ICANN board of directors said it will publish the final Applicant Guidebook for new top-level domains before the public meeting in Cartagena this December.

(UPDATE: that statement is not 100% accurate. See this post for an update.)

The decision came at the end of its two-day retreat in Trondheim, Norway yesterday, which seems to have left a number of important issues as yet unresolved.

The matters of registry-registrar cross ownership and morality and public order objections are both still unfinished business, while the intellectual property lobby has at least one bone thrown its way.

On the morality or “MOPO” problem, now known as the “Rec6” problem, the board had this to say:

The Board will accept the Rec6 CWG recommendations that are not inconsistent with the existing process, as this can be achieved before the opening of the first gTLD application round, and will work to resolve any inconsistencies.

The Rec6 working group had recommended a re-framing of the issue that would eliminate the possibility of any one government blocking a new TLD application based on its own laws and interests.

So the board resolution sounds like progress, until you realize that every decision on new TLDs made at the retreat is going to be re-evaluated in light of a shamefully eleventh hour wish-list submitted by the Governmental Advisory Committee on Thursday.

Having failed to get what it wanted through cooperation with the Rec6 working group, the GAC essentially went over the heads of the GNSO, taking its demands directly to the board.

So much for bottom-up policy making.

Resolved (2010.09.25.02), staff is directed to determine if the directions indicated by the Board below are consistent with GAC comments, and recommend any appropriate further action in light of the GAC’s comments.

In other words, the board may only accept the parts of the Rec6 recommendations that the GAC agrees with, and the GAC, judging from its latest missive, wants the first round of applications limited to purely “non-controversial” strings, whatever those may be.

The board also made no firm decision of the issue of registry vertical integration and cross-ownership. This is the entirety of what it said on VI:

The Board will send a letter to the GNSO requesting that the GNSO send to the Board, by no later than 8 October 2010, a letter (a) indicating that no consensus on vertical integration issues has been reached to date, or (b) indicating its documented consensus position. If no response is received by 8 October 2010, then the Board will deem lack of consensus and make determinations around these issues as necessary. At the time a policy conclusion is reached by the GNSO, it can be included in the applicant guidebook for future application rounds.

That’s actually borderline amusing, given that the GNSO working group on VI has recently been waiting for hints from the board about what it intends to do, rather than actually getting on with the job of attempting to create a consensus policy.

The bone I mentioned for the trademark crowd amounts to knocking a week off the length of time it takes to resolve a complaint under the Uniform Rapid Suspension policy.

The Trondheim resolutions also make it clear that the ICANN board will only be required to vote on a new TLD application in limited circumstances, such as when an objection is filed.

For all other applications, a staff mechanism for rapidly signing contracts and adding TLDs to the root will be created.