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Delays to two-letter domains after governments take a second bite at the apple

Kevin Murphy, February 16, 2015, Domain Registries

New gTLD registries will have to wait a bit longer before they’re allowed to start selling two-character domain names, after ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee controversially issued new guidelines on their release.

The registries for hundreds of gTLDs will be affected by the delays, which could last a few months and were put in place by the ICANN board of directors at the request of the GAC at the ICANN 52 meeting in Singapore last week.

The two-character domain issue was one of the most contentious topics discussed at ICANN 52.

Exasperated registries complained to ICANN’s board that their requests to release such domains had been placed on hold by ICANN staff, apparently based on a letter from GAC chair Thomas Schneider which highlighted concerns held by a small number of governments.

The requests were frozen without a formal resolution by the board, and despite the fact that the GAC had stated more than once that it did not have consensus advice to give.

Some governments don’t want any two-letter domains that match their own ccTLDs to be released.

Italy, for example, has made it clear that it wants it.example and 1t.example blocked from registration, to avoid confusion.

Others, such as the US, have stated publicly that they have no issue with any two-character names being sold.

The process for releasing the names went live in December, following an October board resolution. It calls for a 30-day comment period on each request, with official approval coming seven to 10 days later.

But despite hundreds of requests going through the pipe, ICANN has yet to approve any. That seems to be due to Schneider’s letter, which said some governments were worried the comment process was not transparent enough.

This looked like a case of ICANN staff putting an unreasonable delay on part of registries’ businesses, based on a non-consensus GAC position that was delivered months after everyone thought it was settled law.

Registries grilled the board and senior ICANN executives about this apparent breakdown in multi-stakeholder policy-making last Tuesday, but didn’t get much in the way of an explanation.

It seems the GAC chair made the request, and ICANN implemented a freeze on a live business process, without regard to the usual formal channels for GAC advice.

However, the GAC did issue formal advice on two-letter domains on Wednesday during the Singapore meeting. ICANN’s board adopted the advice wholesale the next day.

This means that the comment period on each request — even the ones that have already completed the 30-day period — will be extended to 60 days.

The delay will be longer than a month for those already in the pipe, however, as ICANN still has to implement the board-approved changes to the process.

One of those changes is to alert governments when a new registry request has been made, a potentially complex task given that not every government is a member of the GAC.

The board’s resolution says that all comments from governments “will be fully considered”, which probably means we won’t be seeing the string “it” released in any new gTLD.

The GAC has also said it will publish a list of governments that do not intend to object to any request, and a list of governments that intend to object to every request.

Chehade declines to backtrack on domain “hogging” comments

Kevin Murphy, February 10, 2015, Domain Policy

ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade responded yesterday to anger from domain investors over recent comments in which he talked about “hogging” domain names and implied a link to cybersquatting.

But he did not, at least as far as I understood his explanation, backtrack on his original remarks.

Chehade was cheekily asked his current thoughts on domain “hoggers” by blogger David Goldstein during a press conference at the ICANN 52 meeting in Singapore yesterday.

This is the entirety of his reply:

I think the statement I made to a different media outlet about that was conflated to signify I was including in this all those who are in the domain name business. And that’s not true. There are those that do this as a business and do it very well and actually enhance the market and there are those that do it and make the business and the market less attractive and less desirable. So I think any insinuation that that statement engulfs everyone that is in this business is not true. As you know very well I’ve a very big supporter of the industry groups and was one of the people who was frankly very happy when the Domain Name Association was created and I attended their first formation meeting. This is where we stand and we continue to feel good about how this market is evolving and how these players are making this a good market that serves the public interest.

Having listened to it a few times, I wonder whether Chehade deliberately didn’t backtrack on his original remarks, or whether he doesn’t quite understand why they caused offense in the first place.

A couple of weeks back, Chehade was talking to the Huffington Post about new gTLDs during an interview at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

The interviewer asked about “concerns about a land-grab going on” among domain speculators.

It was a bit of a silly question, if you ask me. A speculative land-grab is pretty low down the list of concerns held by critics of the new gTLD program. Regardless, Chehade replied:

The reality is, the more there are names, the less people will actually be hogging names in order to charge a lot for them. Because if somebody took your name on dot X, you can go get another name on dot Y now.

I’d personally agree with that characterization of the program. It’s meant to make finding a good name at a cheap price easier. “Hogging” was probably a poor choice of words, but Chehade was talking off the cuff so I could give him a pass.

But later in the same reply, he used the term “cybersquatting” in such a way as to make it easy to infer he was conflating domain investing with cybersquatting. That’s a loaded term that is usually reserved for trademark infringement, at least when used inside the industry.

Obviously this was guaranteed to get investors’ hackles up.

First up with the hackles was Mike Berkens, who called Chehade out on The Domains, saying he “throws large domain investors under the bus and then backs up the bus and rolls over them again”.

Berkens pointed out, quite reasonably I thought, that ICANN is funded to a great extent by domain investors. He estimates that he alone pays ICANN about $15,000 a year in the fees that are collected at the point of registration and renewal.

By some estimates, which may even be conservative, about a third of new gTLD registrations to date have been made to speculators.

Berkens made the even better point that many of the people who have pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into the new gTLD program — Uniregistry’s Frank Schilling, XYZ.com’s Daniel Negari and multiple Donuts executives, for example — made their fortunes investing in second-level domains.

He concluded:

All and all some pretty ignorant statements in our opinion made by the CEO of ICANN and an insult to those domain investors that are some of the biggest buyer’s of new gTLD’s domain names who have paid ICANN a small fortune over the years allowing them to travel the world, pay millions a year in salary and other benefits.

Phil Corwin Jeremiah Johnston of the Internet Commerce Association followed up a few days ago with an open letter to Chehade which explained the outrage in slightly more formal and lawyerly way, with all the apostrophes in the right places. He wrote:

The ICA objects to your statement as it expresses a disdainful view towards the legitimate activity of domain investing, a hostile view of domain investors who are significant ICANN stakeholders who are deeply affected by its policies, a lack of awareness of the market realities of domains as an asset class, and an unwarranted promotion of new gTLD domains over those at legacy gTLDs.

Domain investors are not “hogs” and they most certainly are not deliberate trademark infringers, or “cybersquatters”. It is not clear what you intended by your reference to “cybersquatting”, though it is concerning that you used this pejorative term just after making disparaging remarks about domain investors.

With all these criticisms in mind, let’s go back and parse what Chehade said in Singapore yesterday.

First, he said his remarks had been wrongly “conflated to signify I was including in this all those who are in the domain name business”.

I’m not sure that’s what happened. I’m pretty certain Berkens and his commenters, and then Corwin Johnston, got the hump purely because Chehade dismissed domain investing as “hogging” and then implied a link between investing and trademark infringement.

Who is Chehade talking about when he draws a distinction between those who “enhance the market” and those who “make the business and the market less attractive”?

Is the line drawn between the trademark infringers and the legitimate investors, or its it drawn somewhere else?

Why did Chehade go on to express his support for the DNA, a sell-side trade group funded largely by registries and registrars? Was he drawing the line between regular second-level domainers (hogging) and those that in many cases are essentially just top-level domainers (enhancing)?

Chehade was given the opportunity to backtrack and he didn’t take it.

I’m not a domainer, but if I were I don’t think I’d be particularly satisfied about that.

Ebola 1 – ICANN 0 as Marrakech dumped for Singapore

Kevin Murphy, November 4, 2014, Domain Policy

Ebola has claimed its first Moroccan victim, in the form of ICANN 52.

The organization confirmed overnight that its next public meeting will not be held in Marrakech next February after all.

Instead, the ICANN community will head to Singapore, and the now-familiar halls of the Raffles Convention Center.

ICANN had previously said it was reconsidering Marrakech due to the worry of African travel restrictions in light of the Ebola virus, which has infected over 13,000 people in West Africa.

While Morocco, thousands of kilometers away, has not recorded any cases, there’s concern that large international gatherings, such as the African Cup of Nations or ICANN 52, could import the disease.

ICANN did not mention Ebola in its announcement today, however.

Instead, it said that is relocating the meeting to Singapore due to the overworked community’s desire to stick to its three-meetings-per-year schedule.

It will head to Marrakech in early 2016 instead.

The Singapore meeting will be held on the same dates — February 8 to 12 — at a location that will be familiar to regular ICANN travelers. ICANNs 41 and 49 have been held there in the last few years.

ICANN holds its ground on weaseled GAC advice

Kevin Murphy, September 11, 2014, Domain Policy

While many members of the community are getting upset about the plan to make it harder for ICANN’s board to overrule GAC advice, today we got a reminder that the board is not the GAC’s lapdog.

The New gTLD Program Committee is standing firm on the way it creatively reinterpreted Governmental Advisory Committee advice to make it less punishing on a few dozen new gTLD registries.

The NGPC passed a resolution on Monday approving an updated scorecard to send to the GAC. ICANN chair Steve Crocker delivered it to GAC chair Heather Dryden yesterday.

A “GAC scorecard” is a table of the GAC’s demands, taken from the formal advice it issues at the end of each public meeting, with the NGPC’s formal responses listed alongside.

The latest scorecard (pdf) addresses issues raised in the last five ICANN meetings, dating back to the Beijing meeting in April 2013.

The issues mainly relate to the GAC’s desire that certain new gTLDs, such as those related to regulated industries, be locked down much tighter than many of the actual applicants want.

One big point of contention has been the GAC’s demand that registrants in gTLDs such as .attorney, .bank and .doctor should be forced to provide a relevant licence or other credentials at point of sale.

The GAC’s exact words, from its Beijing communique (pdf), were:

At the time of registration, the registry operator must verify and validate the registrants’ authorisations, charters, licenses and/or other related credentials for participation in that sector.

However, when the NGPC came up with its first response, in November last year, it had substantially diluted the advice. The creative reinterpretation I mentioned earlier read:

Registry operators will include a provision in their Registry-Registrar Agreements that requires Registrars to include in their Registration Agreements a provision requiring a representation that the Registrant possesses any necessary authorisations, charters, licenses and/or other related credentials for participation in the sector associated with the Registry TLD string.

In other words, rather than presenting your medical licence to a registrar when buying a .doctor domain, registrants would merely assert they have such a licence on the understanding that they could lose their domain if they fail to present it on demand in future.

The GAC, which isn’t entirely stupid, spotted ICANN’s reimagining of the Beijing communique.

At the Singapore meeting this March, it issued a list of passive-aggressive questions (pdf) for the NGPC, noting that its Beijing advice had been “amended” by the board and wondering whether this would lead to “greater risks of fraud and deception” in new gTLDs.

ICANN’s response this week is quite lengthy.

The NGPC said it had “to balance many competing positions” when figuring out how to respond to the Beijing communique, and that it tried “to address all of the completing concerns in a way that respected the spirit and intent of the GAC’s advice.”

The committee gives a number of examples (starting on page 15 of this PDF) explaining why the GAC’s original demands would be unreasonably burdensome not only on registries and registrars but also on registrants.

Here’s one example:

consider a potential registrant that is a multinational insurance company seeking to register a domain name in the .insurance TLD. Suppose the multinational insurance company has locations in over 30 countries, including the United States and Kenya. If the potential registrant insurance company attempts to register a domain name in the .insurance TLD, would that trigger an obligation to verify and validate its credentials, licenses, charters, etc. in the location of its headquarters, or all of the places around the globe where it does business. Is it realistic for a Registry Operator or Registrar to have the knowledge and expertise to determine precisely what credentials or authorizations are required in every country around the world (and in every city, county or other political division if those political subdivisions also require credentials [e.g. in the United States, insurance is primarily regulated at the state level and require a license in each of the 50 states])?

The short version is that the NGPC isn’t budging on this particular issue.

Rather than backpedaling, it’s giving the GAC the reasons it disagreed with its advice and explaining how it attempted to at least comply with the spirit, if not the letter, of Beijing.

As far as I can tell, that seems to be the case in each of the 39 items in the new scorecard — explanation not capitulation. Read the full thing here.

.wine frozen after EU complaint

Kevin Murphy, April 5, 2014, Domain Policy

ICANN has frozen the applications for .wine and .vin new gTLDs, again, following a complaint about process violations from the Governmental Advisory Committee.

The New gTLD Program Committee of the ICANN board on Thursday voted to prevent any of the four affected applicants signing Registry Agreements for at least 60 days.

But the NGPC found that there had been “no process violation or procedural error” when it decided to take the .wine and .vin applications off hold status during the Singapore meeting last month.

The 60-day freeze is “to provide additional time for the relevant impacted parties to negotiate”, the resolution states.

The GAC advise in its Singapore communique stated that it had not had time to comment upon “external advice” — believed to be an opinion of a French lawyer (pdf) — that the NGPC had used in its deliberations.

That would have been a violation of ICANN’s bylaws.

The GAC said that ICANN should “reconsider” its decision to allow the applications to proceed and should give the applicants more time to negotiate a truce with the governments opposed to their proposed gTLDs.

The European Union wants .wine and .vin blocked unless the applicants promise to implement special protections for “geographic indicators” such as “Champagne” and “Bordeaux”.

But other nations, including the US, Canada and Australia, don’t want these protections. The GAC has therefore been unable to provide consensus advice against either string.

Essentially, the NGPC this week has found none of the bylaws violations alleged by the GAC, but has nevertheless given the GAC what it asked for in its Singapore communique. ICANN explained:

In sum, the NGPC has accepted the GAC advice and has carefully reviewed and evaluated whether there was a procedure or process violation under the Bylaws. The NGPC has determined that there was not because, among other reasons, ICANN did not seek the Independent Legal Analysis as External Expert Advice pursuant to Article XI-A, or any other portion of the Bylaws.

It’s not “policy”, it’s “implementation”, in other words.

The NGPC also, despairingly I imagine, has suggested that the full ICANN board might want to take a look at the broader issues in play here, resolving:

the NGPC recommends that the full Board consider the larger implications of legally complex and politically sensitive issues such as those raised by GAC members, including whether ICANN is the proper venue in which to resolve these issues, or whether there are venues or forums better suited to address concerns such as those raised by GAC members in relation to the .WINE and .VIN applications.

While I’m sure 60 days won’t be too much of a burden for these long-delayed applicants, this rather vague promise for more talks about “larger implications” may prove a cause for concern.