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New TLD rulebook unlikely to get March nod

Kevin Murphy, February 9, 2011, Domain Registries

ICANN’s new top-level domains Applicant Guidebook is unlikely to get its final approval at ICANN’s March meeting, according to the senior staffer responsible for the program.

Senior vice president of stakeholder relations Kurt Pritz, who gave the keynote at today’s .nxt conference, later told me the Guidebook “probably won’t be approved in San Francisco”.

But impatient new TLD applicants may not have to wait too long afterward for the Guidebook to get the nod and the program to launch.

Pritz said that the Guidebook, currently in a “Proposed Final” version, will likely be revised following ICANN’s upcoming talks with its Governmental Advisory Committee.

But whatever emerges from the GAC consultation will not necessarily be opened for public comment, which would add a month or two of delay to the process. That will be for the board to decide.

Pritz indicated that the community needs to understand that one day ICANN will produce a version of the Guidebook that will be for voting, not commenting.

That’s likely to come sooner rather than later.

It seems to me to be quite likely that a version of the Guidebook emerging in the weeks following San Francisco will be submitted straight to the ICANN board of directors for approval.

During his keynote, which he gave following ICANN CEO Rod Beckstrom’s unexpected eleventh-hour cancellation, Pritz said he wanted “to reset expectations and what I think our job is going forward”.

“Public discussion needs to turn to: should we launch the new gTLD process or should we not?” he said during his remarks.

The keynote was upbeat, talking about the Guidebook being a “road map”, not a series of “road blocks”.

Referring to the recently relaunched .me and .co country-code TLDs, which have been successfully marketed as generic TLDs, Pritz said:

To a certain extent new TLDs are already off and running. There’s a first mover advantage there, so the rest of us need to catch up.

Four more ICANN 40 sponsors revealed

Kevin Murphy, February 3, 2011, Domain Policy

Iron Mountain, IronDNS, RegistryPro and the Public Interest Registry have added their names to the list of companies prepared to fork out big bucks to sponsor ICANN’s San Francisco meeting.

That brings the total number of ICANN 40 sponsors revealed so far to five, after VeriSign’s unprecedented $500,000 “Diamond” deal.

The new sponsors have splashed out more modest fees. Of the six tiers of sponsorship available, all four have opted for least expensive two.

Iron Mountain, IronDNS and RegistryPro have all chosen the same tiers as they have before, but they are likely paying more since ICANN has doubled its list prices since last year.

Meanwhile, .org manager PIR has downgraded to a $25,000 “Silver” package, having been a “Gold” sponsor at the Cartagena meeting.

The deadline for signing sponsorship deals and handing over artwork is February 15.

ICANN chair expects more new TLDs delay

Kevin Murphy, February 3, 2011, Domain Registries

ICANN’s new top-level domains program is unlikely to be approved at its San Francisco meeting next month, according to chairman Peter Dengate Thrush.

“We don’t think we’ll be able to approve the final applicant guidebook in March,” he said in a new interview with World Trademark Review.

This confirms my suspicion that changes to the Guidebook made following the upcoming meeting between ICANN and its Governmental Advisory Committee may be too extensive for ICANN to rubber-stamp without first consulting the community.

The ICANN board and the GAC are due to meet in Brussels, February 28 and March 1, to discuss the GAC’s outstanding concerns.

Chief among these concerns is trademark protection, where the GAC is pretty much aligned with the interests of the intellectual property constituency.

Brussels will also cover matters such as geographic names protection and procedures for dealing with controversial strings that governments may want to object to.

While ICANN is under no obligation to adopt the GAC’s suggestions wholesale, if it makes substantial concessions its bylaws will likely demand more public comment on the changes.

ICANN’s board indicated last week that it plans to tell the GAC where it disagrees with its advice at a consultation March 17, one day before its San Francisco meeting.

It also said that it plans to approve a Guidebook “as close as practically possible to the form as set out in the Proposed Final Applicant Guidebook” published in November.

UPDATE: I had an opportunity to put Dengate Thrush’s comments to ICANN CEO Rod Beckstrom this afternoon. He said: “I’m not going to forecast when the final Applicant Guidebook will be approved.”

Details of ICANN’s government showdown emerge

Kevin Murphy, February 1, 2011, Domain Registries

Eight governments will face off against nine ICANN directors and an outside lawyer at the Governmental Advisory Committee showdown in Brussels at the end of the month.

That’s according to a draft agenda for the two-day bilateral meeting on new top-level domains, posted to an ICANN mailing list over the weekend.

The GAC’s 12 remaining concerns appear to have lumped together into eight thematic sessions, each of which is assigned one or more GAC reps, ICANN directors and staffers to “lead” the discussions.

The lead governments are: the US, UK, European Commission, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, Sri Lanka and Kenya. The US will lead or jointly lead three of the eight sessions.

Bruce Tonkin of Melbourne IT has been assigned the unenviable task of representing the ICANN board on the “morality and public order objections” issue, which the US government is currently trying to recast as a governmental right of veto over new TLDs.

Tonkin recently told ICANN’s GNSO Council that he believes Brussels will be focused on trying to understand the GAC’s current objections to new TLDs and help the GAC understand where ICANN has tried to take its previous advice into account.

If the GAC still does not believe that their advice has been heeded, the Board and GAC may discuss how the GAC advice could be taken into account in such a way that the interests of the overall ICANN community continue to be balanced.

He added that any “significant changes” proposed post-Brussels will likely be taken to the rest of the ICANN community for discussion at the San Francisco meeting, March 13.

Any changes proposed by the GAC would have to be “mutually agreeable between the GAC and the rest of the ICANN community”, he wrote.

The trademark protection discussion, likely to be one of the livelier sessions, will be led by the US, UK and Sri Lanka, with Rita Rodin Johnston, Ram Mohan and Gonzalo Navarro representing the board.

ICANN also plans to lawyer up. According to the document, the sole board lead on registry-registrar separation is Joe Sims, ICANN’s long-time outside counsel, a partner with the law firm Jones Day.

Porn set to steal the show in San Francisco

Kevin Murphy, January 28, 2011, Domain Registries

ICM Registry’s .xxx top-level domain looks set to grab the headlines at ICANN’s meeting in San Francisco, due to government-forced delays.

While ICANN is hoping to approve its new top-level domains program in March, that decision may wind up receiving less media attention than the final approval of the porn-only domain.

ICANN last month said that it wanted to hold a final consultation to resolve its differences with the Governmental Advisory Committee – which broadly objects to .xxx – in February 2011.

This referred to a proposed meeting between the GAC and the board, which has now been officially scheduled for February 28 in Brussels.

But a resolution carried by ICANN this week has pushed the consultation back to “no later than Thursday 17 March, 2011”, the day before its San Francisco meeting.

That would put the sign-off of ICM’s contract on the same billing as the planned final approval of the new top-level domains Applicant Guidebook and the launch of the new TLDs program.

San Francisco is set to be the focus of unprecedented media attention, due to its location and the likely presence of Bill Clinton. We’re probably looking at tighter stage management than usual.

With that in mind, I expect ICANN bosses won’t be too happy that porn-friendly .xxx is likely to steal away many column inches they would prefer devoted to new TLDs.

Porn in headlines gets clicks. Readers understand it, and you generally don’t need to explain to an editor what a TLD is. I know which story would be easier for me to sell.

Had ICANN put .xxx on the agenda for Brussels – which does not appear to have been ruled out yet – it could have wrapped up the ICM saga with a resolution quite quickly afterward.

That would have given ICM a week or so of undiluted media coverage, and the new TLDs program would not have had to share the spotlight with porn come San Francisco.

The question is: why is .xxx apparently not on the agenda for Brussels? Given ICANN’s previous decision to hold the meeting in February, responsibility seems to lie with the GAC.

Rumor has it that there’s a bit of a power struggle going on behind the scenes, with some elements of the GAC resistant to make Brussels the official final .xxx consultation.

Time will tell whether this position is firm or flexible.

ICANN sets March deadline for new TLDs

Kevin Murphy, January 28, 2011, Domain Registries

ICANN appears determined to put debates about its new top-level domains program to bed at its San Francisco meeting in March.

The resolutions from Tuesday’s ICANN board meeting, published this evening, give every indication that ICANN wants an end to the delays.

This seems to mean it will take a hard line with its Governmental Advisory Committee, with which it is due to meet in Brussels at the end of February.

The board resolved that it “intends to progress toward launching the New gTLD Program, as close as practically possible to the form as set out in the Proposed Final Applicant Guidebook.”

It remains open, however, to take action on the GAC’s concerns, which include trademark protection and the treatment of geographic strings.

It wants the final GAC consultation, which is mandated by its bylaws, to take place March 17, the day before the board meets in San Francisco.

This is encouraging news for anybody who wants to apply for a new TLD, as it means ICANN would be able to launch the program shortly thereafter.

If that happens, it could be able to start accepting applications possibly as early as mid-July (although a late-August/early September window may be more likely).

More on this tomorrow.

Governments to take trademark concerns to ICANN

Kevin Murphy, January 24, 2011, Domain Registries

ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee will head to Brussels next month determined to persuade ICANN to strengthen the trademark protections in its new top-level domains program.

The GAC is set to take many of the concerns of the trademark lobby to its meeting with ICANN’s board of directors, UK GAC representative Mark Carvell said in an interview today.

“It’s very important that the interests of trademark holders are fully respected and that the costs that might flow to them are mitigated as much as possible,” he said.

“Their interests should not be undermined in any way that creates unnecessary burdens for them – it interferes with trade, business development and so on.”

The GAC is currently working on 12 “scorecards” that enumerate its concerns with the Applicant Guidebook for new TLDs, as well as more “overarching” issues with the program.

Carvell has been charged with writing the scorecard on trademark protection. He recently met with several large brand interests in London, as World Trademark Review reported last week.

I get the impression that the GAC’s position will be less hard-line than some of the IP lawyers WTR quoted, who want a wholesale return to their proposals of two years ago.

One protection the IP lobby wants restored to the Guidebook is the Globally Protected Marks List, which would take a lot of the cost out of defensive registrations in new TLDs.

The GPML was proposed by brand holders, but did not make it into the current version of the Guidebook.

“Whether we can simply go back to that, I doubt, but we may discuss it,” Carvell said. “I’d be hesitant to simply revert to a set of proposals that did not get full support.”

He added that protections granted in the launches of .eu and .co – which had a Specially Protected Marks List similar to the GPML – could also provide the basis for discussion.

Another protection, the Uniform Rapid Suspension policy, designed to allow trademark holders to quickly block blatant cases of cybersquatting, has been watered down quite a lot since its first iteration.

“The URS does not achieve its original objectives,” Carvell said. The GAC will push for it to be strengthened, not fundamentally revisited, he said.

“We don’t want the Trademark Clearinghouse completely remodeled, we’re not looking for the URS to be totally reshaped, we want to work with ICANN to improve these mechanisms,” he said.

The two-day Brussels meeting, scheduled for February 28, will not all be about trademarks, of course. Other issues include geographical name protection and the treatment of “controversial” strings.

There’s a feeling in some parts of the GAC that TLDs deemed so controversial they they are likely to be blocked by certain nations (think .sex, .gay etc) should be given an “early warning” dissuading them from continuing with their applications.

Unsurprisingly (given its role in overseeing the DNS root) but ironically (given its First Amendment) it is the US GAC representative who has been assigned work on this particular scorecard.

It seems to me that the list of concerns the GAC will take to Brussels is going to be quite substantial. We’re likely not talking about only minor edits to the Guidebook.

While ICANN may feel under some pressure to officially launch the new TLDs program at the close of its splashy San Francisco meeting in March, it’s my growing feeling that this may not be realistic.

If the GAC gets even half of what it intends to ask for, ICANN’s rules could well call for another public comment period before it can sign off on the Applicant Guidebook.

Carvell said that the GAC is very sensitive to the concerns of applicants, eager to launch their TLDs, saying the GAC has been placed “in a very unfortunate position”.

“Nobody wants this to go beyond San Francisco,” he said. “One would hope not, but we can’t rule out that possibility.”

He suggested that some of the GAC’s issues could be deferred in the interests of timing.

Trademark and geographic string protections refer directly to the content of the Guidebook, but other issues, such as economic analysis and supporting applications from developing countries, do not.

“It may be that some of these issues could be further explored and discussed in parallel with the launch,” he said, noting that there’s a four-month buffer period envisioned between the approval of the Guidebook and the opening of the first round of applications.

Clinton agrees to do ICANN meeting

Kevin Murphy, January 14, 2011, Domain Policy

ICANN has confirmed that former US president Bill Clinton has agreed to speak at its San Francisco meeting in March.

But ICANN’s Scott Pinzon said in a blog post that a formal contract, which would be funded by a “targeted sponsorship” deal, has not yet been signed. He wrote:

We are also aware that ICANN meetings are highly structured, work-intensive events, and we want to be sure that an appearance by President Clinton enhances the meeting’s outcomes rather than distracts from them.

Read into that what you will.

Clinton’s appearance will likely make the San Francisco meeting ICANN’s best-attended so far, at least for a day or so. Expect TV.

It will also raise the profile of the new top-level domains program, if ICANN in fact approves it during the meeting.

On a personal level, this is tragic news. It’s already hard enough to get a coffee in the ICANN press room without a thousand other newbie reporters crowding the place out.

I’ve put in a request for an interview anyway.

Will Bill Clinton keynote at ICANN San Francisco?

Kevin Murphy, January 7, 2011, Domain Policy

There’s been a rumor going around for at least a month that Bill Clinton is being lined up to provide the keynote address for the next ICANN meeting, to be held in San Francisco in March.

I’m not going to pretend to have any inside information, but I’ve heard it from so many people recently that I thought it was worthy of a post.

One reason the rumor may have been reinvigorated this week is the revelation of the hefty sums ICANN is charging its top sponsors for the San Francisco meeting.

As I reported earlier in the week, VeriSign appears to have paid up $500,000 to get one of two top-tier Diamond-level sponsorship deals for the meeting.

Clinton, like many former world leaders, can command powerful sums for public speaking engagements, reportedly up to $350,000 a gig a few years ago.

ICANN, of course, was the brainchild of the Clinton administration in 1998.

While the US government’s attitude to ICANN’s activities has changed over the years, the organization was formed largely to introduce competition in the registrar and registry markets.

Since these are two likely results of the approval of the new TLDs program, Clinton’s appearance at the meeting where it will possibly happen would be appropriate.

ICANN wants to make millions from SF meeting

Kevin Murphy, January 5, 2011, Domain Policy

ICANN hopes to sign millions of dollars in sponsorship deals for its San Francisco meeting in March.

The organization has revamped its sponsorship options, adding new “Diamond” and “Platinum Elite” tiers (together worth up to $1.5 million) and doubling the price of its existing opportunities.

ICANN is looking for two companies to act as Diamond sponsors, paying $500,000 each, and two more to sign up for the Platinum Elite deal, each paying $250,000.

For the money, these companies will get the best booths, exclusive branding on bags and T-shirts, along with a bunch of other benefits not available to lesser sponsors.

Diamond sponsors will be given a “90-minute industry/technology related presentation delivered by your company at a scheduled session”, which I believe might be a first for ICANN.

They’ll also get “exclusive press access”, according to the ICANN site.

(In Cartagena, “the press” was pretty much just me and the guy from Managing Internet IP. I can’t speak for him, but access to me can be had in SF for the price of a couple of pints of Anchor Steam).

Prices for the Platinum, Gold, Silver and Bronze deals it has offered at previous meetings have also been doubled, to $100,000, $50,000, $20,000 and $10,000 respectively.

ICANN is also looking for another $160,000 to sponsor its three evening events, $125,000 to sponsor the twice-daily coffee breaks and $210,000 to sponsor the lunches.

According to my back-of-the-envelope calculations, ICANN took in less than half a million dollars in sponsorship money for its meeting in Brussels last summer, which was its last big “first-world” gig.

For the March meeting, the organization is clearly hoping to benefit from the concentration of technology companies in the San Francisco bay area, which of course includes Silicon Valley.

I suspect that tapping this pool of sponsor cash may be the main reason the conference is amusingly being referred to officially as the “Silicon Valley in San Francisco” meeting.

How many sponsorship slots get filled by the domain name industry will depend to a degree on how likely it appears that ICANN will approve the new top-level domains program at the SF meeting.

I expect there would be a reluctance from registry service providers to drop half a million bucks on a conference from which the main headline at the end of the week is “ICANN delays gTLDs again”.

The current ICANN budget, incidentally, forecasts just $500,000 in sponsorship revenue for fiscal 2011, which ends in June. Its meetings typically cost $1 million each to run.

UPDATED: In the two hours since this post was first published, .com registry VeriSign has appeared on the ICANN web site as the first $500,000 “Diamond” sponsor of the meeting.