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ICANN to tackle Trojan TLDs

Kevin Murphy, December 22, 2010, Domain Registries

When failing community-based top-level domain registries attempt to change their business models, ICANN may in future have a new way of dealing with them.

That seems to be a possible result of Employ Media’s controversial .jobs liberalization plans and the subsequent Reconsideration Request, which I blogged about last week.

The .jobs reconsideration revealed that not only are Reconsideration Requests a rubbish way to appeal ICANN’s decisions, but also that the Registry Services Evaluation Process is often a rubbish way to handle major contract changes.

The RSEP was introduced back in 2005 in belated response to a couple of controversial “services” that VeriSign, testing boundaries, had planned to unilaterally introduce in the .com registry, notably Site Finder and the Waiting List Service.

But since then the process has been used as a general-purpose tool for requesting changes to registry contracts, even when it’s debatable whether the changes fit the definition of “registry services”.

For example, when .jobs launched five years ago, it was put into Employ Media’s contract that the TLD was designed for companies to register their brands and list their jobs, and that’s all.

But that model didn’t work. It’s one of the least successful TLDs out there.

So the registry decided it could make more money with general purpose jobs boards, using generic .jobs domains. But it did not necessarily want to let existing independent jobs sites take part.

For want of a better term, I’ll call this an example of a “Trojan” TLD – a registry that gets its attractive TLD string approved by ICANN after making a certain set of promises, then later decides to move the goal posts to broaden its market, potentially disenfranchising others.

I’ve no reason to believe it was a premeditated strategy in Employ Media’s case, but precedent has now been set for future TLD applicants to use “community” as a foot in the door for broader aspirations.

To take a stupid, extreme, unrealistic example, imagine that ICM Registry’s .xxx flops badly. Should the company be allowed to start selling all the good .xxx domains to churches and other anti-porn campaigners? That would be a pretty big departure from its promises.

There were similar concerns, although not nearly as loudly expressed, with regards to Telnic’s recent contract changes, which will allow it to start registering phone number domain names in .tel, despite years of promises that it would not.

Go Daddy’s policy chief Tim Ruiz objected to the proposal on the grounds that it would be “unfair to other [.tel] applicants and potential applicants to allow an sTLD to change its purpose after the fact.”

The ICANN Board Governance Committee, which handles Reconsideration Requests, acknowledged these problems in its decision on .jobs in Cartagena (pdf), concluding that it:

thinks that the Board should address the need for a process to evaluate amendments that may have the effect of changing, or seeking to change, an sTLD Charter or Stated Purpose of a sponsored, restricted or community-based TLD.

The BGC seems to be saying that the RSEP is not up to the task of dealing with community-based TLDs that later decide their business plans are not the money-spinners they had hoped and want to loosen up their agreed community restrictions.

The committee went on to say that:

Because such a process may impact gTLDs greatly and is a policy issue, the GNSO is the natural starting point for evaluating such a process. We therefore further recommend that the Board direct the CEO to create a briefing paper for the GNSO to consider on this matter, and for the GNSO to determine whether a policy development process should be commenced.

So the GNSO will soon have to decide whether new policies are needed to deal with broad contract changes at failing community TLDs.

Any new policies would, I believe, be binding on community TLDs approved under the new gTLD program as well as older sTLDs, so it will be an interesting policy track to follow.

Porn trade group director says .xxx could be a gTLD

One of the directors of porn industry organization the Free Speech Coalition has suggested the .xxx top-level domain could be approved as an unrestricted gTLD.

Tom Hymes, who sits on the Free Speech Coalition’s board of directors, wrote to ICANN urging it first and foremost to kill ICM Registry’s .xxx application once and for all.

But Hymes went on to say: “If that scenario is unacceptable to the Board for one reason or another, I would then encourage it to explore a gTLD option for ICM.”

He noted that he was writing in a personal capacity, not as a representative of the FSC.

ICM’s application was filed under the 2005 round of “sponsored” TLDs, which meant it had to show backing from a sponsorship organization and some measure of ownership restriction.

For example, the Society for Human Resource Management is the sponsor for .jobs and the Universal Postal Union backed .post.

ICM, which has never been part of the adult entertainment industry, created a policy-making body called the International Foundation For Online Responsibility, IFFOR, to act as its sponsor.

In my view, IFFOR was basically a crude hack to get around the fact that in 2005 ICANN was not looking for any new gTLDs.

The FSC doesn’t like IFFOR, because a) it will make policy on what can be hosted under .xxx domains and b) the adult industry will not control its board or see any of its money.

Hymes, in his personal capacity, seems to be saying that an unrestricted .xxx gTLD would be okay. It’s the first ground I’ve seen anyone in the porn industry give in this debate. He says:

To its credit, the Board is striving to solve the dot xxx imbroglio by dangling a gTLD in front of ICM, a solution ICM thus far has refused to consider. But that sort of suspicious recalcitrance can no longer be tolerated. Instead of threatening to bring a costly lawsuit against ICANN in order to secure control of a policy making regime for which it does not have the required support, ICM should cut its losses, save everyone a lot of money and take the gTLD while it has the opportunity.

I happen to agree, mostly: .xxx would make a heck of a lot more sense, and would be a whole lot less controversial (Christians notwithstanding), as a gTLD.

Unfortunately, I can’t see it happening. Not easily, anyway.

There’s no ICANN process in place for approving gTLDs today, and if ICANN were to choose to kick ICM into the next new gTLD round, there’s a pretty good chance that ICM would find itself fighting a contested string battle with other applications.

From a process point of view, sponsored TLDs are a failed experiment.