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ICANN to tackle Trojan TLDs

Kevin Murphy, December 22, 2010, Domain Registries

When failing community-based top-level domain registries attempt to change their business models, ICANN may in future have a new way of dealing with them.

That seems to be a possible result of Employ Media’s controversial .jobs liberalization plans and the subsequent Reconsideration Request, which I blogged about last week.

The .jobs reconsideration revealed that not only are Reconsideration Requests a rubbish way to appeal ICANN’s decisions, but also that the Registry Services Evaluation Process is often a rubbish way to handle major contract changes.

The RSEP was introduced back in 2005 in belated response to a couple of controversial “services” that VeriSign, testing boundaries, had planned to unilaterally introduce in the .com registry, notably Site Finder and the Waiting List Service.

But since then the process has been used as a general-purpose tool for requesting changes to registry contracts, even when it’s debatable whether the changes fit the definition of “registry services”.

For example, when .jobs launched five years ago, it was put into Employ Media’s contract that the TLD was designed for companies to register their brands and list their jobs, and that’s all.

But that model didn’t work. It’s one of the least successful TLDs out there.

So the registry decided it could make more money with general purpose jobs boards, using generic .jobs domains. But it did not necessarily want to let existing independent jobs sites take part.

For want of a better term, I’ll call this an example of a “Trojan” TLD – a registry that gets its attractive TLD string approved by ICANN after making a certain set of promises, then later decides to move the goal posts to broaden its market, potentially disenfranchising others.

I’ve no reason to believe it was a premeditated strategy in Employ Media’s case, but precedent has now been set for future TLD applicants to use “community” as a foot in the door for broader aspirations.

To take a stupid, extreme, unrealistic example, imagine that ICM Registry’s .xxx flops badly. Should the company be allowed to start selling all the good .xxx domains to churches and other anti-porn campaigners? That would be a pretty big departure from its promises.

There were similar concerns, although not nearly as loudly expressed, with regards to Telnic’s recent contract changes, which will allow it to start registering phone number domain names in .tel, despite years of promises that it would not.

Go Daddy’s policy chief Tim Ruiz objected to the proposal on the grounds that it would be “unfair to other [.tel] applicants and potential applicants to allow an sTLD to change its purpose after the fact.”

The ICANN Board Governance Committee, which handles Reconsideration Requests, acknowledged these problems in its decision on .jobs in Cartagena (pdf), concluding that it:

thinks that the Board should address the need for a process to evaluate amendments that may have the effect of changing, or seeking to change, an sTLD Charter or Stated Purpose of a sponsored, restricted or community-based TLD.

The BGC seems to be saying that the RSEP is not up to the task of dealing with community-based TLDs that later decide their business plans are not the money-spinners they had hoped and want to loosen up their agreed community restrictions.

The committee went on to say that:

Because such a process may impact gTLDs greatly and is a policy issue, the GNSO is the natural starting point for evaluating such a process. We therefore further recommend that the Board direct the CEO to create a briefing paper for the GNSO to consider on this matter, and for the GNSO to determine whether a policy development process should be commenced.

So the GNSO will soon have to decide whether new policies are needed to deal with broad contract changes at failing community TLDs.

Any new policies would, I believe, be binding on community TLDs approved under the new gTLD program as well as older sTLDs, so it will be an interesting policy track to follow.

Sponsor stonewalls .jobs critics

Kevin Murphy, November 19, 2010, Domain Registries

The sponsor of the .jobs top-level domain appears to be giving opponents including Monster.com a hard time as they continue to challenge the liberalization of the domain.

In its most recent ICANN filing (pdf), the Society for Human Resource Management said it does not want to meet with the .JOBS Charter Compliance Coalition and ICANN to help resolve their differences.

Last week, SHRM declined to given ICANN a straight answer when it asked whether jobs sites like Monster.com will be able to register domains under the new .jobs rules.

The Coalition of jobs sites was assembled to oppose the “Phased Allocation Program”, which allows .jobs registry Employ Media to allocate thousands of premium geographic and vocational domains to its partners.

While the program has already been approved by ICANN’s board, the Coalition has filed a Reconsideration Request appeal in an attempt to get the ruling overturned.

This week, Coalition lawyer Becky Burr sent a letter (pdf) to ICANN asking for a face-to-face meeting with representatives of ICANN, the Coalition, Employ Media and SHRM.

In response, SHRM general counsel Henry Hart said the organization “does not believe that it should participate in such a meeting.”

Last week, SHRM threw its full support behind Employ Media, tersely responding (pdf) to a list of ICANN’s questions relating to the registry’s plans for the domain.

ICANN’s reconsideration committee wanted to know whether the allocation program violated the .jobs charter by allowing registrants from outside the human resources community.

SHRM said it did not, but it did confirm that it does expect .jobs – which has so far been reserved for companies to list their own job vacancies – to be used in future for aggregated jobs sites operated by Employ Media.

Did the SHRM PD Council intend to enable the Registry (Employ Media) to register domain names in the .JOBS sTLD for the purpose of allowing third-party job postings on those sites? If so, please explain how this consistent with the .JOBS Charter.

Yes. The PD Council concluded, based on input from the Community, that this would serve the needs of the international human resource management community.

But when ICANN asked whether this means Monster.com, for example, would qualify, SHRM response was more vague.

Are independent job site operators (such as Monster.com) engaged in “human resources management” for the purpose of the definition set forth in the .JOBS Charter if the job site operator is advertising for jobs outside its own organization?

Independent job site operators provide a highly valued service to the international human resource management community.

The Coalition, in Burr’s letter, said the answers “simply ignore the responses sought by the direct questions of the [Board Governance Committee”.

Hart disputed this characterization of the answers.

Employ Media plans to allocate premium domains at first via an RFP process. It’s believed that the DirectEmployers Association is set to receive the lion’s share of the good domains for its universe.jobs plan.

.jobs opponents get to the point

Kevin Murphy, November 11, 2010, Domain Registries

The .JOBS Charter Compliance Coalition has sent off another ream of text to ICANN, spelling out more clearly its objections to Employ Media’s plan to open up the .jobs namespace.

The Coalition wants ICANN to reject the registry’s plan to allocate thousands of premium .jobs domain names to partners including the DirectEmployers Association.

While previous filings danced around the issue, the latest Coalition missive makes it a little clearer what its beef is: it thinks DirectEmployers’ universe.jobs plan is bogus and should be blocked.

The documents were filed as part of an ongoing Reconsideration Request. The Coalition wants ICANN to reverse its decision to approve the .jobs “Phased Allocation Program”.

The program allows Employ Media to allocate “non-companyname” .jobs domains via an RFP process and, later, auctions and regular sales.

But the Coalition thinks it is a smokescreen designed to enable universe.jobs, a planned free jobs board that would be fed traffic from possibly thousands of premium generic domains.

Its objection boils down to the fact that Employ Media seems to be planning to register these premium domains to itself and allow DirectEmployers, which probably would not be a qualified HR registrant under the .Jobs Charter, to “use” them.

As the Coalition puts it:

Employ Media states that it intends to solicit plans under the Program “which may create a self managed class of domains registered in Employ Media’s name.” Presumably, in this “self-managed” scenario, Employ Media would register the domain names itself, and permit third parties to “use” the domains even if those third parties could not register them consistent with the Charter.

What we seem to have here is a case of a registry planning to monetize its premium domains by running them itself, in order to compete with companies that are barred from becoming registrants themselves.

This bothers the Coalition’s members, which all run jobs sites but would not qualify to register premium domains under the .Jobs Charter.

For Reconsideration Requests to be successful, the requester has to show that ICANN’s board did not have all the facts at its disposal, or failed to consider them, when it made its decision.

Having read through the recently published minutes and board briefing materials from the meeting at which the program was approved, the Coalition thinks it now has a stronger case.

Its latest filing accuses ICANN of failing to adequately investigate Employ Media’s claims about its program and of brushing off critics as “a bunch of sore losers that were afraid of a little competition”.

Referring to the universe.jobs plan and the “self-managed” domains, the Coalition wrote:

There is no indication that the ICANN Staff provided the Board with any analysis of this critical issue, or that the Board considered this material issue

It also wonders aloud whether the Board was even aware of the universe.jobs plan when the allocation program was approved back in August.

I may be reading it incorrectly, but it appears that ICANN’s board governance committee, which handles Reconsideration Requests, may be coming around to the Coalition’s way of thinking.

The BGC recently sent Employ Media’s sponsor, the Society For Human Resource Management, a list of questions about the program, including this one:

Did the SHRM PD Council intend to enable the Registry (Employ Media) to register domain names in the .JOBS sTLD for the purpose of allowing third-party job postings on those sites? If so, please explain how this consistent with the .JOBS Charter.

I’ll be interested in reading its response.

Employ Media answers .jobs critics

Kevin Murphy, October 27, 2010, Domain Registries

The .jobs registry has responded to insinuations from its critics that it set out to break its own sponsorship rules with a plan to open up the TLD to generic and geographic domain names.

In a filing with ICANN (pdf), Employ Media denies that its liberalization program would permit people from outside the human resources sector to register domains, in violation of its Charter.

Employ Media categorically rejects such allegations as unfounded speculation, and made solely to delay the launch of the .JOBS Phased Allocation Program.

The program, which would see non-companyname .jobs registrations allowed for the first time, has already been approved, but a Reconsideration Request was filed by the .JOBS Charter Compliance Coalition in an effort to get the decision reversed.

The Coalition is an ad-hoc group of jobs boards that believe Employ Media’s plans could harm their businesses by attracting users of nursingjobs.com (for example) to nursing.jobs.

Employ Media plans to allocate thousands of premium domains such as these to the DirectEmployers Association, in order to feed traffic to a huge free jobs board at universe.jobs.

The Coalition sent ICANN a list of questions for Employ Media, and ICANN followed up last week with 13 of its own questions, all of which seem to dance around the issue of whether this was kosher.

The registry’s responses, published by ICANN a couple of days ago (and subsequently disappeared), basically deny that it has done anything that would allow non-Charter registrants into its TLD.

It also seeks to put distance between itself and DirectEmployers:

At the time of the 5 August 2010 Board action [approving the program], Employ Media did NOT have any intention of registering names under the Phased Allocation Plan to any entity other than Employ Media.

That appears to be a roundabout way of describing its original plan to register all the premium names to itself, but to allow DirectEmployers to use them, basically hacking its own registry contract.

Universe.jobs, for example, is registered in Employ Media’s own name, but appears to be primarily operated by DirectEmployers (blog posts from Employ Media executives notwithstanding).

Opponents pick holes in .jobs auction plan

Kevin Murphy, September 6, 2010, Domain Registries

A coalition of jobs web sites has accused Employ Media of trying to violate its own charter with its proposal to open up the .jobs namespace to all-comers.

The newly formed .JOBS Charter Compliance Coalition wants ICANN to reverse its approval of the proposal, which would largely liberalize the .jobs domain.

The ad hoc group, made up of dozens of organizations including the International Association of Employment Web Sites, Monster.com and the Newspapers Association of America, wrote:

ICANN is sanctioning a registry operator’s decision to disregard the commitments contained in its charter, which is the fundamental basis upon which the sTLD was awarded.

ICANN approved Employ Media’s “phased allocation program” last month. It allows the company to loosen its previously restrictive policies on who can register domain names and for what purposes.

The first phase of the program, a request for proposals, has already launched. It would assign premium generic .jobs domains to companies willing to offer interesting business partnerships.

It’s seen by some as an obvious smokescreen for Employ Media to hand thousands of domains to the DirectEmployers Association, which plans a huge free jobs portal called Universe.jobs.

The new Coalition is against this plan, and has submitted a paper (pdf) to ICANN claiming to show how the RFP proves Employ Media wants to violate its sponsorship charter.

Its argument seems to boil down to the fact that the charter limits registrations to active human resources professionals, and that the DEA, like members of the Coaltion, does not fall into that strictly defined category.

The document was filed as an addendum to the Coalition’s reconsideration request, which itself was filed with ICANN last month before the Employ Media RFP was published.