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Reconsideration is not an appeals process: ICANN delivers another blow to Amazon’s gTLD hopes

Kevin Murphy, October 15, 2013, Domain Policy

Amazon has lost its appeal of a ruling that says its applied-for new gTLD .通販 is “confusingly similar” to .shop, with ICANN ruling that its Reconsideration mechanism is not an appeals process.

The e-commerce giant lost a String Confusion Objection filed by .shop applicant Commercial Connect in August, with panelist Robert Nau ruling that the two strings were too confusing to co-exist.

That’s despite one of the strings being written in Latin script and the other Japanese. The ruling was based on the similarity of meaning: 通販 means “online shopping”.

Amazon immediately filed a Reconsideration Request with ICANN.

Days earlier, Akram Atallah, president of ICANN’s Generic Domains Division, had described this process as one of the “avenues for asking for reconsidering the decision”.

Atallah was less clear on whether Reconsideration was applicable to decisions made by third-party panels — the new gTLD program’s Applicant Guidebook contains conflicting guidance.

ICANN’s Board Governance Committee, which handles Reconsideration Requests, has now answered that question: you can ask for Reconsideration of a new gTLD objection ruling, but you’ll only win if you can prove that there was a process violation by the panel.

In its decision, the BGC stated:

Although Commercial Connect’s Objection was determined by a third-party DRSP, ICANN has determined that the Reconsideration process can properly be invoked for challenges of the third-party DRSP’s decisions where it can be stated that either the DRSP failed to follow the established policies or processes in reaching the decision, or that ICANN staff failed to follow its policies or processes in accepting that decision.

That’s moderately good news as a precedent for applicants wronged by objections, in theory. In practice, it’s likely to be of little use, and it was of no use to Amazon. The BGC said:

In the context of the New gTLD Program, the Reconsideration process does not call for the BGC to perform a substantive review of DRSP Panel decisions; Reconsideration is for the consideration of process- or policy-related complaints.

As there is no indication that either the ICDR or the Panel violated any policy or process in accepting and sustaining Commercial Connect’s Objection, this Request should not proceed. If Amazon thinks that it has somehow been treated unfairly in the process, and the Board (through the NGPC) adopts this Recommendation, Amazon is free to ask the Ombudsman to review this matter.

While the BGC declined to revisit the substance of the SCO, it did decide that it’s just fine for a panelist to focus purely on the meaning of the allegedly confusing strings, even if they’re wholly visually dissimilar.

The Panel’s focus on the meanings of the strings is consistent with the standard for evaluating string confusion objections. A likelihood of confusion can be established with any type of similarity, including similarity of meaning.

In other words, Nau’s over-cautious decision stands: .通販 and .shop will have to enter the same contention set.

That’s not great news for Amazon, which will probably have to pay Commercial Connect to go away at auction, but it’s also bad news for increasingly unhinged Commercial Connect, whose already slim chances of winning .shop are now even thinner.

Commercial Connect had also filed a Reconsideration Request around the same time as Amazon’s, using the .通販 precedent to challenge a much more sensible SCO decision, which ruled that .shop is not confusingly similar to .购物, Top Level Domain Holdings’ application for “.shopping” in Chinese.

The BGC ruled that the company had failed to adequately state a case for Reconsideration, meaning that this objection ruling also stands.

The big takeaway appears to be that the BGC reckons it’s okay for objection panels to deliver decisions that directly conflict with one another.

This raises, again, questions that have yet to be answered, such as: how do you form contention sets when one string has been ruled confusingly similar and also not confusingly similar to another?

Registry objects to .jobs shutdown threat

Employ Media will appeal ICANN’s threatened termination of its .jobs registry contract.

The company released a statement (pdf) late yesterday, following ICANN’s unprecedented threat, in which it said ICANN’s claims are “utterly without merit”.

“We view the substance of this notice to be a surprising reversal of position and contradictory to prior decisions issued by its Board of Directors,” the company said.

ICANN yesterday gave Employ Media until the end of the month to cancel its agreement to provide 40,000 .jobs domains to the DirectEmployers Association for its Universe.jobs employment board.

The organization said the allocation of the domains for non-human-resources purposes went against the letter, spirit and intent of the registry’s contract and Charter.

It essentially boils down to a claim that Employ Media hacked its contract to allow it to start making money on names beyond the limited scope of its original “sponsored” community TLD.

The .jobs TLD was originally pitched as a space for corporate HR pages, not independent jobs sites. With Universe.jobs, half of the namespace is an independent jobs site. Employ Media is believed to have a revenue-sharing arrangement with DirectEmployers.

The ICANN breach notice was welcomed by the .JOBS Charter Compliance Coalition, the ad hoc trade group formed by major commercial jobs sites to fight Universe.jobs.

Peter Weddle, executive director of the International Association of Employment Web Sites, said in a press release:

the Dot Jobs Universe was not an innovation but rather an unprecedented attempt by a registry operator to misappropriate an entire TLD for itself and its alliance partner in blatant disregard of ICANN’s rules.

Employ Media disagrees, of course, saying that Universe.jobs came about as a result of its “Phased Allocation” liberalization plan, which was approved by ICANN’s Registry Services Evaluation Process and then survived a Reconsideration Request filed by the Coalition.

The company said: “it is imperative for registry operators to have predictability in the performance of duties and that ICANN has a responsibility to honor its commitments with contracted parties.”

Its registry contract contains a dispute resolution procedure that first calls for bilateral talks and, failing agreement, arbitration via the International Chamber of Commerce.

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.