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The IANA transition in a nutshell

Kevin Murphy, February 27, 2015, Domain Policy

The US plan to remove itself from its unique DNS oversight role is about creating a coalition of nations to thwart attempts by Russia and other “authoritarian” countries to increase government control of the internet.

That’s according to Larry Strickling, assistant secretary at the US National Telecommunications and Information Administration, who delivered a beautifully succinct explanation to confused senators at a hearing in Washington DC this week.

Despite unnecessary diversions into issues such as net neutrality and copyright protection — which I’m sure was not at all due to senators trying to score points with their corporate paymasters — the Commerce Committee hearing was surprising well-informed and not nearly as angry as it could have been.

Senators, mostly Republicans, reiterated their concerns that for the US to give up its role in the IANA functions contract could invite a takeover of ICANN by unfriendly nations such as China and Russia, thereby harming internet freedom.

At one point, Strickling was asked by a senator: “If there’s not a problem, what are we trying to fix here?”

His answer was one the best explanations of the political back-story of the transition that I’ve heard, so I’m going to quote it in full here.

There has been a problem, sir. At the end of 2012 when the world’s governments got together in Dubai for the ITU WCIT — World Conference on International Telecommunications — you had around 80 countries who voted to say the ITU needs to be more involved in internet governance. These were largely countries in the developing world siding with the more authoritarian regimes.

Part of the impetus for this was the continued irritation that many governments have, that has been exploited by authoritarian countries, that the United States with its special role with ICANN is in a position to control the internet in these developing counties and to turn it off in these countries and to otherwise interfere with the ability of countries to manage their own affairs with respect to the internet.

After this [IANA transition] announcement was made the next two large international meetings at which governments came together you saw a major change in position among the developing countries. We didn’t see any change in position from the authoritarian countries — and you’re not, they’re not going to change their views on this. But the key to succeeding in this on the global stage is to bring the rest of the world along with us, and that’s what we saw at the NETmundial conference in Brazil last April where the only countries who spoke out against the multi-stakeholder model of internet governance were Russia and Cuba.

We then flash forward to the ITU plenipotentiary conference in Busan last November and again you had Russia with the same proposals it’s been making for 10 years: that these functions ought to be transferred to the ITU and managed by governments. And that was beaten back by a coalition of developed and developing countries. So we’ve seen immediate results, or significant results, by the basis of our having been able to take this issue off the table for these countries, to get them to look at what’s really best for them without this overhang of a US role that was unique among governments and which was a source of irritation to governments and was being exploited to our detriment by foreign governments.

The fact of the matter is that the role we play with respect of the IANA functions is a clerical role. It’s truly stewardship. As I said before, we don’t provide any oversight of the policy judgments that ICANN and the multi-stakeholder community make. We participate as a government in the Governmental Advisory Committee, and we will continue to do that in future and will be vigorous advocates for a free and open internet.

The special role we play with respect of the IANA functions is totally administrative and clerical, yet it has been exploited by other governments — authoritarian governments — to our detriment. We’ve taken that off to the table by announcing this transition and as we complete it we will continue to see the benefits of that through the continued adoption and support for this model by the developing world.

His views were echoed by ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade more than once during the hearing, talking about how the transition process is designed to bring on board the “middle countries”, rather than already-allied nations or the fringe, minority authoritarian countries.

He cited Brazil as the key example of a government once in favor of more ITU control of the internet that is now, largely due to Chehade’s outreach and its key role in the NETmundial conference, firmly in the multi-stakeholder model camp.

The entire archived hearing can be viewed here.

ICANN ditches plan to give governments more power

Kevin Murphy, February 25, 2015, Domain Policy

ICANN has quietly abandoned a plan to make it harder for its board of directors to go against the wishes of national governments.

A proposal to make a board two-thirds super-majority vote a requirement for overruling advice provided by the Governmental Advisory Committee is now “off the table”, ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade told a US Senate committee hearing today.

The threshold, which would replace the existing simple majority requirement, was proposed last August as a result of talks in a board-GAC working group.

At the time, I described the proposal as a “fait accompli” — the board had even said it would use the higher threshold in votes on GAC advice in advance of the required bylaws change.

But now it’s seemingly gone.

The news emerged during a hearing of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation today in Washington DC, which was looking into the transition of US oversight of ICANN’s IANA functions to a multi-stakeholder process.

Asked by Sen. Deb Fischer whether the threshold change was consistent with ICANN’s promise to limit the power of governments in a post-US-oversight world, Chehade replied:

You are right, this would be incongruent with the stated goals [of the IANA transition]. The board has looked at that matter and has pushed it back. So it’s off the table.

That came as news to me, and to others listening to the hearing.

The original plan to change the bylaws came in a board resolution last July.

If it’s true that the board has since changed its mind, that discussion does not appear to have been documented in any of the published minutes of ICANN board meetings.

If the board has indeed changed its mind, it has done so with the near-unanimous blessing of the rest of the ICANN community (although I doubt the GAC was/will be happy).

The public comment period on the proposal attracted dozens of responses from community members, all quite vigorously opposed to the changes.

The ICANN report on the public comments was due October 2, so it’s currently well over four months late.

UPDATE 1: An ICANN spokesperson just got in touch to say that the board decided to ditch its plan in response to the negative public comments.

UPDATE 2: Another ICANN spokesperson has found a reference to the board’s U-turn in the transcript of a meeting between the ICANN board and GAC at the Los Angeles public meeting last October. A brief exchange between ICANN chair Steve Crocker and Heather Dryden, then chair of the GAC, reads:

DRYDEN: On the issue of the proposed bylaw changes to amend them to a third — two-thirds majority to reject or take a decision not consistent with the GAC’s advice, are there any updates there that the Board would like to — the Board or NGPC? I think it’s a Board matter? Yes?


Well, you’ve seen the substantial reaction to the proposal.

The reaction embodies, to some extent, misunderstanding of what the purpose and the context was, but it also is very instructive to all of us that the timing of all this comes in the middle of the broader accountability question.

So it’s — I think it’s in everyone’s interest, GAC’s interest, Board’s interest, and the entire community’s interest, to put this on hold and come back and revisit this in a larger context, and that’s our plan.

So it seems that the ICANN board did tip its hand a few months ago, but not many people, myself included, noticed.

Rockefeller slams .sucks as “predatory shakedown”

Kevin Murphy, March 12, 2014, Domain Policy

US Senator Jay Rockefeller today came out swinging against the proposed .sucks new gTLD, saying it looks like little more than a “predatory shakedown” by applicants.

In a letter to ICANN (pdf), Rockefeller has particular concern about Vox Populi, the .sucks applicant owned by Canadian group Momentous.

As we’ve previously reported, Vox Populi plans to charge trademark owners $25,000 a year for defensive registrations and has already started taking pre-registrations even though .sucks is still in contention.

Rockefeller told ICANN:

I view it as little more than a predatory shakedown scheme… A gTLD like “sucks” has little or no socially redeeming value and it reinforces many people’s fears that the purpose of the gTLD expansion is to enrich the domain name industry rather than benefit the broader community of internet users.

Unusually, I find myself in agreement with Rockefeller, who chairs the Senate’s Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee — Vox Populi’s plan does bring the domain industry into disrepute.

But it’s not the only applicant for .sucks. Top Level Spectrum and Donuts have also applied for the string.

While neither has revealed their proposed pricing, in Donuts’ case a blocking registration via its Domain Protected Marks List service will cost substantially less on a per-domain basis.

Rockefeller asks that ICANN keep his thoughts in mind when reviewing the application, and I’m sure ICANN will pay lip service to his concerns in response, but I don’t think the letter will have much impact.

A bigger question might be: does Rockefeller’s letter foreshadow more Congressional hearings into the new gTLD program?

The last one, which Rockefeller chaired (for about five minutes, before he buggered off to do more important stuff) was in December 2011, and they have tended to happen every couple of years.

Such a hearing would come at an inopportune moment for ICANN, which is trying to distance itself from the perception of US oversight in light of the Edward Snowden spying revelations.

It’s been setting up offices all over the world and championing the forthcoming NetMundial internet governance meeting, which is happening in Brazil next month.

Consumer Watchdog slams “outrageous” Google and Amazon keyword gTLD bids

Kevin Murphy, September 20, 2012, Domain Registries

Consumer Watchdog, a California-based consumer rights advocacy group, has attacked Google and Amazon’s new gTLD applications in a letter to an influential senator.

The organization has asked Sen. Jay Rockefeller, chair of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, to “thwart” the “outrageous” plans for single-registrant dictionary-word gTLDs.

Google and Amazon have separately applied for dozens of gTLDs — such as .music, .blog and .book — that they would exclusively use to market their own products and services.

Consumer Watchdog said in its letter (pdf):

If these applications are granted, large parts of the Internet would be privatized. It is one thing to own a domain associated with your brand, but it is a huge problem to take control of generic strings. Both Google and Amazon are already dominant players on the Internet. Allowing them further control by buying generic domain strings would threaten the free and open Internet that consumers rely upon. Consumer Watchdog urges you to do all that you can to thwart these outrageous efforts and ensure that the Internet continues its vibrant growth while serving the interests of all of its users.

As we reported yesterday, a number of domain name industry participants are planning to complain to ICANN about these applications on pretty much the same grounds.

New gTLD industry pleads with senators

Kevin Murphy, December 22, 2011, Domain Policy

Twenty-eight domain name industry players have written to two influential US senators in support of ICANN’s new generic top-level domains program.

Calling it “innovative and economically beneficial”, the letter takes issue with third-party claims that the program was “rushed”, pointing out that it took a long time and lots of people to develop.

Since the formation of the multi-stakeholder Internet governance, no process has been as inclusive, and no level of outreach has been as far-reaching as the one facilitating discussion of namespace expansion.

While new gTLDs will experience different levels of end-user adoption, we optimistically anticipate the useful possibilities for new services and applications from the namespace, the positive economic impact in the United States and globally, the inclusion of developing nations in Internet growth and development, and the realization of the hard work and preparation of the thousands of interested stakeholders dedicated not only to their own interests, but that of the global Internet.

The letter (pdf) was signed almost exclusively by registrars, registries, applicants and consultants; with one or two possible exceptions, all companies that stand to make money from new gTLDs.

It was sent to Sen. Jay Rockefeller and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, chair and ranking member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

That committee held a hearing into new gTLDs two weeks ago during which Rockefeller expressed cautious support for the concept, saying he was in favor of competition.

The letter is dated December 8, the day of the Senate hearing.

A similar hearing in the House of Representatives last week resulted in two Congressmen sending a letter (pdf) to the Department of Commerce requesting a delay to the program.

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