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How the GAC could derail new TLDs in Singapore

Kevin Murphy, June 1, 2011, Domain Policy

The pieces are moving into place for what could be the final battle over new top-level domains between ICANN and its Governmental Advisory Committee, in Singapore later this month.

ICANN made few concessions to the GAC’s biggest concerns in the latest Applicant Guidebook, which begs the question of whether the United States will now be asked to play its trump card.

Earlier this week, European Commissioner Neelie Kroes made threatening noises in ICANN’s direction, saying that by approving the controversial .xxx domain over GAC advice, ICANN had showed that it cannot be trusted with new top-level domains.

If the ICANN board chooses to move forward [with .xxx] despite significant governmental concerns, what does this tell us for the next meeting in Singapore, which is widely expected to launch the next batch of TLDs? The concerns of governments in this process are not trivial, ranking from trademark protection to cooperation with law enforcement

The current Guidebook has not accepted (with some good reasons) many of the GAC’s requests on the issues of trademark protection and the governmental right to object to new TLD applications.

In a recorded address at the EuroDIG conference in Serbia this week, before the Guidebook was published, Kroes called for ICANN’s multistakeholder internet governance model to be “amended to better take into account the voice of governments”.

She said she is supported by colleagues in the EU and overseas, presumably referring to Lawrence Strickling, head of the NTIA, with whom she met last month to discuss .xxx and new TLDs.

In her speech, Kroes called for the United States to leverage its unique position of authority over ICANN to influence change at the organization:

The expiry of the IANA contract in September will be a unique opportunity to sharply focus on a set of minimum requirements for whichever organization will be designated to carry out the future IANA functions. Specifically, I feel that the new contract should include specific provisions to improve standards of corporate governance in the organization in charge.

…whichever will be the organization resp for naming and addressing resources, it should be required to demonstrate it has support of global internet community before it makes proposals to add any further top-level domains to the internet.

This is perhaps the most explicit outside call yet for the US to use the IANA contract both to get the GAC a louder voice at the ICANN table and to have the demands of the trademark lobby taken fully into account in the new TLDs program.

The US Trump Card

It’s no secret that the US has an ace up its sleeve, in the form of the soon-to-expire IANA contract.

IANA is responsible for the paperwork when updates are to be made to the DNS root, whether they are redelegating a ccTLD, changing name servers, or adding an entirely new TLD.

When a new TLD is approved, ICANN’s IANA department forwards the request to the NTIA, which reviews it before instructing VeriSign to add the TLD to the A-root.

IANA is currently a no-fee contract between the NTIA and ICANN. Theoretically, the NTIA could award the contract to whichever organization it chooses, after it expires.

This is unlikely to happen. But if it did, ICANN’s powers would be severely curtailed – another entity would be above it in the root’s chain of command.

Alternatively, the NTIA could amend the contract to impose conditions on ICANN, such as making it more accountable to the GAC. This is what Kroes appears to be pushing for.

Strickling himself said a month ago that he has not ruled out the option of using the IANA contract as “as a vehicle for ensuring more accountability and transparency” at ICANN.

There is another theory, however, which is currently doing the rounds.

As it currently stands, if ICANN approves the Applicant Guidebook in Singapore on June 20, the expected timetable has it accepting new gTLD applications as early as November.

By that time it would, presumably, have already renewed the IANA deal, and would still have its nominal powers to add new TLDs to the root.

But buried deep within the IANA contract (pdf) is a provision that allows the NTIA to unilaterally extend its term by six months – from September 30, 2011 to March 31, 2012.

If the NTIA were to exercise this option, it could put a serious question mark over ICANN’s ability to start accepting new TLD applications this year.

With no guarantee that its authority to add new TLDs to the root would be renewed, would risk-averse ICANN be happy to go ahead and accept tens of millions of dollars in application fees?

It seems unlikely.

I’ve little doubt that this scenario will have been discussed by the NTIA and its allies. It would look better politically for the US if it had the support of the GAC before making such a play.

Since the GAC seems to want to buy time for further talks on new TLDs before ICANN kicks off the program, the IANA contract extension may appear to be a good way of going about it.

But with ICANN seemingly set to approve a Guidebook that will remain open to significant amendments post-Singapore, does the IANA threat need to be invoked at all?

If negotiations over trademark protection, developing world funding and GAC objections can remain open even after the Guidebook has been “approved”, perhaps there’s scope for a more peaceful resolution.

VeriSign drops $150,000 on ICANN Singapore

Kevin Murphy, May 23, 2011, Gossip

VeriSign, which signed up for an unprecedented $500,000 sponsorship package for ICANN’s meeting in San Francisco, has spent a rather more modest amount for the June meeting.

The company is currently listed as a Platinum Elite sponsor for the Singapore meeting, which kicks off June 19. This tier has a list price of $150,000, though I believe ICANN’s prices are negotiable.

VeriSign’s two main registry services competitors, Neustar and Afilias, had already signed up for cheaper sponsorship tiers, with lower visibility.

It would be my guess that the company waited for its rivals to show their hands before deciding to how much it needed to spend to trump them.

The Singapore meeting may see the approval of the Applicant Guidebook for the new top-level domains program.

(UPDATE: Thanks to the reader who pointed out that ICANN will almost certainly vote to approve the renewal of VeriSign’s .net contract in Singapore.)

There are 19 sponsors for Singapore so far, but currently no takers for the two available top-tier Diamond packages, which are listed at $250,000.

The amount VeriSign coughed up for San Francisco is believed to have largely contributed to the speaking fees of former US president Bill Clinton.

ICANN expects to make about $1.2 million from its three fiscal 2011 meetings, which is less than the cost of a single meeting.

New TLDs timetable tightened

Kevin Murphy, April 19, 2011, Domain Registries

ICANN’s effort to squeeze out a process for approving new top-level domains has been about as easy and painless as giving birth, so it perhaps appropriate that it now expects to take at least nine months to gestate the very easiest applications.

The new version of the Applicant Guidebook, published Saturday, makes a number of changes to the expected new TLDs timetable, including the addition of an extra month to the minimum likely processing time for non-controversial strings.

This is not, as you might think, a result of the new objection powers granted to the Governmental Advisory Committee.

(UPDATE: On closer analysis, it appears that the timetable has in fact been rejiggered in order to give more time to the GAC’s Early Warning mechanism. Thanks to Mike, in the comments, for the correction.)

The Administrative Check part – the bit where ICANN goes through the applications to make sure they’ve all been correctly filed – that has been extended, from four weeks to eight.

ICANN has also shortened the first-round application-filing window by a month, to 60 days, off-setting the extended processing time.

New TLDs may start entering the root around the same time they were previously expected.

The timetable for the launch of new TLDs now looks a little like this:

June 20 – Applicant Guidebook approved in Singapore.

July-October 2011 – four-month communication/outreach period.

November-December 2011 – first-round application window

October 2012 – first new TLDs delegated to DNS root.

The new Guidebook advises applicants to avoid waiting to the last minute to file their applications, due to the complexity of the new TLD Application System (TAS) it’s created.

Given the application period is likely to end shortly after the end of year holiday period, I expect applicants will have plenty of impetus to get their applications in early without encouragement.

ICANN sponsors line up for Singapore

Kevin Murphy, April 6, 2011, Domain Policy

ICANN’s web page for its Singapore meeting has gone live, and the organization looks to have already attracted almost $200,000 in sponsorship fees.

The meeting, which officially begins June 19 at the Raffles City Convention Center, is widely expected to be the meeting when ICANN finally signs off on its Applicant Guidebook for new top-level domains.

As such, I expect it’s going to see a fair bit of sponsor interest.

Prices have been reduced somewhat since the San Francisco meet last month, due to some complaints from domain name companies, but there are still some big-ticket opportunities, including a $250,000 Diamond deal and two $150,000 Platinum Elite deals.

So far, five sponsors have already signed up, the biggest spenders being Neustar and the Public Interest Registry, which have both opted for $75,000 Platinum-tier arrangements.

Don’t expect any lengthy security briefings this time around – Singapore is one of the safest cities in the world, due in part to its harsh judicial system. You’re more likely to get beaten up under court order than by a mugger.

The weather: hot and wet.

The host of the meeting, which is ICANN’s 41st, is the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore.

ICANN cancels Jordan meeting

Kevin Murphy, February 17, 2011, Domain Policy

ICANN will not hold its 41st public meeting in Amman, Jordan, apparently due to safety concerns in the region, which is experiencing a rash of sometimes violent protest.

In an email to the GNSO Council half an hour ago, ICANN vice president of policy development support David Olive wrote:

The ICANN June meeting will not take place in Jordan. A decision was made and the Jordanian host has already been contacted about this change.

In a day or so, there will be a formal ICANN announcement concerning this matter as well information on the location for the next meeting.

The rumor currently circulating on Twitter and mailing lists is that Singapore is a likely replacement candidate. Singapore, like Jordan, recently received an IDN ccTLD in its local script.

Following popular revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt over the last several weeks, many Middle Eastern nations, including Jordan, have experienced anti-government protests, some of which have turned violent.

ICANN has been very sensitive to the security of its delegates since many stakeholders stayed at home rather than attend its terrorist-threatened meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, a year ago.