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Booking.com uses .africa precedent to challenge .hotels ruling

Kevin Murphy, July 21, 2015, Domain Policy

Booking.com has become the first new gTLD applicant to publicly cite the recent .africa Independent Review Process ruling in an attempt to overturn an adverse ICANN decision.

The challenge relates to the decision by ICANN, under the rules of the new gTLD program, to place applications for .hotels and .hoteis into a contention set due to their potential for visual confusion.

The two strings are heading to auction, where the winner will likely have to fork out millions.

In a missive to ICANN (pdf) last week, Booking.com outside attorney Flip Petillion said that the .africa IRP ruling shows that ICANN has to revisit its decision-making over .hotels.

The letter highlights a wider issue — how can ICANN follow community-established rules whilst sticking to its rather less well-defined Bylaws commitment to be “fair”?

Petillion wrote:

ICANN — and the BGC — has maintained the position 1) that the fact the process established by ICANN was followed is sufficient reason to reject that challenge and 2) that the fact that the process allowed neither for Booking.com to be heard nor for a review of the decision by the ICANN Board is of no relevance.

In the interim, IRP panels have confirmed that this process-focussed position is unsustainable. The ICANN Board has an overriding responsibility for making fair, reasoned and non-discriminatory decisions under conditions of full transparency.

He cites the .africa IRP decision to support this assertion.

Booking.com is the applicant for .hotels, while a different company, Travel Reservations (formerly Despegar Online), has applied for .hoteis, the Portuguese translation.

While both applicants are happy for the two gTLDs to co-exist on the internet, ICANN’s third-party String Similarity Review panel, part of the new gTLD evaluation process, ruled that they cannot.

They’re just too similar — in standard browser sans-serif fonts they can be indistinguishable — and would likely lead to user confusion, the panel decided in February 2013.

Booking.com challenged this decision with a Request for Reconsideration, which was dismissed.

It then filed an IRP, but that concluded this March with the panel awarding a grudging win to ICANN, which it orders should split the costs of the case.

In April, the ICANN board adopted the IRP panel’s findings, saying that the two applicants should remain in the contention set.

Booking.com, along with Travel Reservations, filed a second RfR, challenging the board’s decision, but this was rejected by ICANN’s Board Governance Committee in June.

The ICANN board has not yet formally adopted the BGC’s recommendations — I expect it to consider them at its next scheduled meeting, July 28 — hence Booking.com’s last-ditch attempt to get ICANN to change its mind.

Petillion wrote:

Simply following the processes and procedures developed by ICANN cannot alone be sufficient grounds for declining to review a decision. If the requirements of fairness, reasoned decision making, non-discrimination and transparency have not been met in the implementation of the process and procedures, the ICANN Board must, when invited to, conduct a meaningful review.

In the .africa case, the IRP panel ruled that ICANN should have asked the Governmental Advisory Committee for its rationale for objecting to DotConnectAfrica’s .africa bid, even though there’s nothing in the new gTLD rules or ICANN Bylaws specifically requiring it to do so.

However, in the Booking.com case, the IRP panel raised serious questions about whether the String Similarity Review rules were consistent with the Bylaws, but said that the time to challenge such rules had “long since passed”.

In both cases, ICANN followed the rules. Where the two panels’ declarations diverge is on whether you can win an IRP challenging the implementation of those rules — for DotConnectAfrica the answer was yes, for Booking.com the answer was no.

In a new gTLD program that has produced long lists of inconsistencies; IRP panel decisions appear to be but the latest example.

The question now is how the ICANN board will deal with the BGC recommendation to reject Booking.com’s latest RfR.

If it summarily approves the BGC’s resolution, without doing some extra due diligence, will it be breaking its Bylaws?

GAC demands appeal of IDN ccTLD bans

Kevin Murphy, July 2, 2012, Domain Policy

The Governmental Advisory Committee has slammed ICANN’s decisions to reject at least three non-Latin ccTLDs because they might pose security risks.

Remarkably, the GAC has also asked ICANN to “urgently reconsider” the rulings, which were made to mitigate the risk of phishing attacks and other types of domain name abuse.

In its official post-Prague communique, published over the weekend, the GAC tells ICANN that the way it decides whether to approve IDN ccTLDs has been “too conservative”.

While the letter does not single out any specific ccTLDs, I understand that the advice was formulated primarily at the behest of the European Union and Greece, which have both had IDN ccTLD applications rejected on the grounds of confusing similarity.

The Prague communique (pdf) states:

The GAC is of the view that decisions may have erred on the too-conservative side, in effect applying a more stringent test of confusability between Latin and non-Latin scripts than when undertaking a side by side comparison of Latin strings.

It goes on to ask ICANN to publish its criteria for evaluating the similarity of IDN ccTLDs, to create an appeals process, to publish its rationales for rejecting bids, and to revisit old decisions.

The communique states, as formal GAC Advice:

Recently refused IDNs, particularly those nominated by public or national authorities should be urgently re-considered in light of the above considerations.

This request instantly loses the GAC credibility points, in my view, casting it as little more than another special interest group focused on the goals of its members first and internet security second.

To be clear, the GAC is appealing ICANN decisions that were designed to prevent phishing.

Greece’s application for .ελ,was rejected by ICANN last year due to its visual similarity with .EA, a non-existent – but potential future – ccTLD.

While there’s not much on the public record about the European case, I understand Eurid’s bid for a Greek version of .eu was blocked because it looks too much like Estonia’s EE.

Bulgarian IDN supporters have also been very vocal the last couple of years in opposition to ICANN’s decision to forbid .бг due to its alleged resemblance to Brazil’s .br.

While decent arguments can and have been made that some of these rulings were a little on the silly side, it’s hard to argue that they were made without the best of intentions.

The GAC has promised to write to ICANN with “further reflections on the methodology that should be followed when evaluating two character IDNs”.

The GAC as a technical regulator? That letter should make for some interesting reading.