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After eight months, similarity review creates only TWO new gTLD contention sets

Kevin Murphy, February 27, 2013, Domain Policy

ICANN has finally delivered its String Similarity Panel’s review of all 1,930 original new gTLD applications, finding that only four applied-for strings are confusingly similar to others.

Two new contention sets have been created:

  • .hotels (Booking.com B.V.) and .hoteis (Despegar Online SRL)
  • .unicorn (Unicorn a.s.) and .unicom (China United Network Communications Corporation Limited)

Only one applicant in each contention set will survive; the strings may go to auction.

The list is bafflingly short given that the panel’s review was originally due in October and has been delayed several times since.

ICANN last month said it was forcing the panel to address “process” issues and heavily suggested that it was trying to make sure the review process was legally defensible, leading to speculation that the list was going to be much longer than expected.

But the panel and ICANN appear to have taken a super-strict approach to finding similarity instead.

The string similarity panel was tasked with deciding whether each applied-for string “so nearly resembles another visually that it is likely to deceive or cause confusion”.

I think the four strings included in its final report pretty conclusively pass that test.

Even the controversial Sword tool – the software algorithm ICANN commissioned to compare string similarity on objective grounds — agrees, scoring them very highly.

According to Sword, .unicorn and .unicom are 94% similar and .hotels. v .hoteis have a score of 99%. For comparison, .hotel versus .hotels produces a score of 81%.

It all seems nice and logical and uncontroversial. But.

All four affected applicants are applying for single-registrant gTLDs, in which the registry owns all of the second-level domains, drastically reducing the chance of abuse.

One of the reasons ICANN doesn’t want to create too-similar TLDs is that they could be exploited by phishers and other bad guys to rip off internet users, or worse.

But with single-registrant TLDs, that’s not really as big of an issue.

It will be interesting to see the affected applicants’ response to these latest findings. Expect complaints.

The results of the review will be a huge relief to most other applicants, which have been wondering since the list of gTLD applications was released last June what the final contention sets would look like.

The high standard that appears to have been used to find similarity may set some interesting precedents.

For example, we now know that plurals are fair game: if Donuts’ application for .dentist is approved in this round, there’s nothing stopping somebody else applying for .dentists in a future application round.

Also, brands with very short acronyms have little to fear from from being found too similar to other existing acronym dot-brands. The applicants for .ged and .gea were among those to express concern about this.

But the question of confusing similarity is not yet completely settled. There’s a second phase.

Applicants and existing TLD registries now have about a week to prepare and submit formal String Confusion Objections, kicking off an arbitration process that could create more precedent for future rounds.

Unlike the just-published visual similarity review, SCOs can take issue with similar meanings and sounds too.

Losing an SCO means your application is dumped into a contention set with the winner; if you lose against an existing TLD operator, your bid is scrapped entirely.