A defiant ICANN working group looking at cybersquatting rules for intergovernmental organizations is sticking to its guns in an ongoing face-off with the Governmental Advisory Committee.
In a report published for public comment this week, the GNSO working group recommended that IGOs should be given the right to use the UDRP and URS rights protection mechanisms, despite not being trademark owners.
But the recommendations conflict with the advice of the GAC, which wants ICANN to create entirely new mechanisms to deal with IGO rights.
The WG was tasked with deciding whether changes should be made to UDRP and URS to help protect the names and acronyms of IGOs and INGOs (international non-governmental organizations).
For INGOs, including the special cases of the International Olympic Committee and the Red Cross/Red Crescent, it decided no changes and no new mechanisms are required, concluding:
Many INGOs already have, and do, enforce their trademark rights. There is no perceivable barrier to other INGOs obtaining trademark rights in their names and/or acronyms and subsequently utilizing those rights as the basis for standing in the existing dispute resolution procedures (DRPs) created and offered by ICANN as a faster and lower cost alternative to litigation. For UDRP and URS purposes they have the same standing as any other private party.
The case with IGOs is different, because using UDRP and URS requires complainants to agree that the panel’s decisions can be challenge in court, and IGOs by their nature have a special legal status that allows them to claim jurisdictional immunity.
The WG recommends that these groups should be allowed access to UDRP and URS if they have protection under Article 6ter of the Paris Convention, a longstanding international intellectual property treaty.
This rule would actually extend UDRP and URS to hundreds more IGO names and acronyms than the GAC has requested protection for, which is just a few hundred. WIPO’s 6ter database by contrast currently lists 925 names and 399 abbreviations.
To deal with the jurisdictional immunity problem, the WG report recommends that IGOs should be allowed to file cybersquatting complaints via a third-party “assignee, agent or licensee”.
It further recommends that if an IGO manages to persuade a court it has special jurisdictional immunity, having been sued by a UDRP-losing registrant, that the UDRP decision be either disregarded or sent back to the arbitration for another decision.
The recommendations with regard IGOs are in conflict with the recommendations (pdf) of the so-called “small group” — a collection of governments, IGOs, INGOs and ICANN directors that worked quietly and controversially in parallel with the WG to come up with alternative solutions.
The small group wants ICANN to create separate but “functionally equivalent” copies of the UDRP and URS to deal with cybersquatting on IGO name and acronyms.
These copied processes would be free for IGOs to use and, to account for the immunity issue, would not be founded in trademark law.
The WG recommendations are now open for public comment and are expected to be the subject of some debate at the March ICANN meeting in Copenhagen.
The biggest dot-brand gTLD active today has about 50,000 domains under management, but the vast majority of them may not be compliant with ICANN rules.
Real Estate Domains LLC runs .realtor in partnership with the National Association of Realtors, a US-based real estate agent membership organization.
RED/NAR has an ICANN policy exemption that means it does not have to open .realtor to competition between registrars, but it does not appear to be sticking to the promises it made when it asked for that exemption.
RED has told DI that it believes it is fully compliant with its contractual obligations.
The .realtor gTLD is highly unusual, possibly even unique, in the market.
It is, by most comparisons, a thriving new gTLD. It has tens of thousands of domain names and thousands of active web sites.
It’s the 59th-biggest 2012-round gTLD, according to zone file counts. It has more names than .blog, .webcam and .ninja.
It currently has about 48,000 names in its zone file, a bit less than half of its November 2015 peak of 110,000. It’s been offering a free first-year name to NAR members since launch, which may account for the first-year peak and second-year trough.
It’s arguably a “dot-brand”, but its domains are primarily used by fee-paying third parties, which is not the case for the over 500 other dot-brands out there today.
The string “realtor” is in fact an trademark, fiercely guarded by the NAR and apparently at genuine risk of genericide.
To call yourself a realtor, you have to pay NAR local and national membership fees that can run into hundreds of dollars a year.
To register a .realtor domain, you have to be an NAR member. So, even though the price of a .realtor domain is only around $40 at Name Share (the only approved .realtor registrar), the cost of eligibility is much higher.
I think that the way the NAR is selling its names to third-party realtors is very possibly a breach of ICANN rules, but explaining why I think that will get a bit complicated.
To begin with, whether a gTLD is a “dot-brand” depends to a great extent on your definition of the term.
I usually take “dot-brand” to mean any new gTLD that has Specification 13 — which allows registries to ignore ICANN policies such as the otherwise mandatory Sunrise period — in its Registry Agreement.
There are 463 gTLDs that have Spec 13 so far. They’re being used to a greater or lesser extent by the respective registries to promote their own brands.
Some have set up a bunch of domains with redirects to specific URLs on their .com or ccTLD site. Others have built a modest number of custom sites to promote various products, services, offers or marketing campaigns.
A small number have been using their domains to help business partners. Spanish car maker Seat points scores of .seat domains to cookie-cutter sites promoting local car dealerships, but I’ve seen no evidence these dealers have any control over these domains.
Almost all of the time, the only entity actually using the domain is the registry — that is, the brand owner — itself.
There’s also another definition of dot-brand — any gTLD that does not have Spec 13, but does have an exemption to Specification 9 of the standard ICANN Registry Agreement.
Spec 9, also called the “Code of Conduct”, is the part of the RA that requires registries to give equal, non-discriminatory access to all ICANN-accredited registrars.
It’s there to stop registries favoring registrars they have close relationships with and therefore to keep the market competitive.
Every Spec 13 dot-brand has a Spec 9 exemption, but not every TLD with a Spec 9 exemption has signed Spec 13.
There are 66 gTLDs that have the Spec 9 exemption but do not have Spec 13 in their contracts. Almost all of these have fewer than 100 domains in their zone file today.
The Spec 9 exemption was created to avoid the stupid and undesirable situation where a big-name company has to open access to its dot-brand back-end registry to multiple registrars, even though it is the only registrant permitted to register names there.
The Code of Conduct is there to protect registrants. When there is only one registrant, there’s no need for protection. With multiple registrants, competition needs to be enforced.
To get the Spec 9 exemption, dot-brands have to send a letter to ICANN promising three things:
- All domain name registrations in the TLD are registered to, and maintained by, Registry Operator for the exclusive use of Registry Operator or its Affiliates (as defined in the Registry Agreement);
- Registry Operator does not sell, distribute or transfer control or use of any registrations in the TLD to any third party that is not an Affiliate of Registry Operator; and
- Application of the Code of Conduct to the TLD is not necessary to protect the public interest
Those bullets are copied from the March 2014 .realtor letter (pdf), but they’re all basically the same.
The first bullet says that domains have to be registered to the registry operator. In the case of .realtor, that’s RED/NAR.
And in fact, as far as I can tell, every .realtor domain has the RED/NAR listed in the “Registrant” field of its Whois record. The registry owns the lot.
But that bullet also says that .realtor domains have to be “maintained by” and “for the exclusive use of” the registry operator (in this case, the NAR) and its “Affiliates”.
The second bullet says that the registry cannot give “control or use” of any .realtor domain to a third party that is not an “Affiliate” of the registry.
The term “Affiliate” is important here. The Spec 9 exemption states that it is defined by the RA, and the RA defines it like this:
For the purposes of this Agreement: (i) “Affiliate” means a person or entity that, directly or indirectly, through one or more intermediaries, or in combination with one or more other persons or entities, controls, is controlled by, or is under common control with, the person or entity specified, and (ii) “control” (including the terms “controlled by” and “under common control with”) means the possession, directly or indirectly, of the power to direct or cause the direction of the management or policies of a person or entity, whether through the ownership of securities, as trustee or executor, by serving as an employee or a member of a board of directors or equivalent governing body, by contract, by credit arrangement or otherwise.
My reading of this is that an Affiliate is an entity that is controlled, in a corporate sense, by the registry. The definition came about as a way to stop domain companies trying to avoid policy obligations by hiding behind shell companies.
However, in my opinion, the vast majority of .realtor domains today are in fact being controlled and used by third parties that are not registry Affiliates by the RA definition.
The first giveaway is Whois. While RED/NAR is listed as the “Registrant” of pretty much all .realtor domains, in most cases the “Administrative” contact is listed as the person or company who caused the name to be registered. Third-party realtors, in other words.
Second, the registry’s web site states plainly that NAR member realtors can “get” and “use” .realtor domains and goes on to specify that they can use the names to build a web site, set up an email address, and even redirect the domain to an existing site.
Doing a Google search for .realtor sites, you’ll find that realtors are in fact using .realtor domains for these permitted purposes.
This seems to be a case of thousands of non-registry parties paying for “control” and “use” of domains that are supposed to be restricted to the registry’s control and use.
It seems to be true that they don’t “own” the domains that they “use”, but they nevertheless do “use” them in much the same way as I expect a significant majority of non-domainer registrants in other TLDs “use” their domains.
NAR/RED is of course fully aware of its RA obligations, and has written its own terms to accommodate them.
On a .realtor registry web site, its registration agreement, or “License Agreement”, states:
You represent, warrant and agree that you are a REALTOR®, an NAR member, the Canadian Real Estate Association (“CREA”), a member of CREA, an NAR or CREA member Board or Association, an NAR affiliate, an NAR licensee, or otherwise in a contractual relationship with NAR relating to use of NAR’s REALTOR® mark and that, in such capacity, you are deemed an “Affiliate” of RED as such is defined in the Registry Agreement, including as specifically set forth in the Code of Conduct Exemption.
The NAR is basically asking its members to affirm, via the small print of their registration agreement (that the majority won’t read) and the .realtor RA (which I’m sure none of them will read), that the NAR has some kind of corporate control over them.
That’s clearly not the case, in my understanding. The NAR’s members are generally fully independent sole traders or limited companies.
Realtors causing .realtor domains to be registered on their behalf are no more “Affiliates” of RED or the NAR than I would be an Affiliate of Facebook if, perchance, there’s a similar clause in the Facebook terms of service.
While I’ve been asking industry experts about this for the last couple of weeks, it was suggested to me that the fact that .realtor registrants have a “contract” with the registry (to license the Realtor trademark) is enough to satisfy the “Affiliate” definition.
I don’t buy it. Every registrant in every TLD signs a contract whenever they register a domain name. If a contract were sufficient for a Spec 9 opt-out, every gTLD would have the opt-out.
At this point you may be wondering what the harm of this business model is. I wondered the same thing myself.
The main harm, as far as I can see it, is that it sets a precedent for other gTLDs to avoid contractual obligations.
The other is that .realtor registrants (for want of a better term) are locked into the one approved registrar, Name Share, forever. If Name Share were to raise its prices, they would not have the option to move to another registrar.
Name Share, part of the EnCirca registrar family, specializes in niche TLDs and currently charges a not-unreasonable $39.95 per year for a .realtor domain.
There’s also the fact that gTLDs themed around real estate are thin on the ground right now.
RED/NAR also controls the new gTLD .realestate, but it has yet to launch for unknown reasons.
.realtor went from delegation to general availability in less than three months back in mid-2014 — a fast launch — but .realestate was delegated in April 2016 and hasn’t even set out its launch plan yet.
It’s a fully generic, non-brand gTLD but it hasn’t told ICANN when its sunrise, trademark claims or GA dates are yet. It hasn’t even launched its nic.realestate web site yet, which is a contractual obligation also in the RA.
I don’t know why RED/NAR has not started to launch .realestate yet. When I asked RED’s top brass I did not get a reply.
But I do know that a real estate agent in North America today who wants to get a domain in a semantically valuable TLD has one fewer option due to the absence of .realestate from the market.
Another option, buying a .realty domain from Top Level Spectrum, is not possible either because, 18 months after delegation, it also has not launched.
Then there’s .homes, a restricted gTLD operated by Dominion Enterprises, but that has virtually no registrar support and fewer than 100 names in its zone eight months after general availability started.
The only real option right now (other than using an unrelated TLD) is to buy a .realtor domain, but they’d have to pay hundreds of dollars to NAR for membership and then would not have a choice of registrars through which to register.
I put all of my questions about the business model and the Spec 9 exemption to RED last week.
“We believe we are in full compliance with the Spec 9 exemption as granted by ICANN based on our request and posted publicly here,” CEO Matthew Embrescia said in an email (link in original).
Brian Johnson, general counsel for RED, said in a separate email:
our position is that RED is in full compliance as such relates to Spec 9 for .REALTOR. In fact, we think .REALTOR is a very successful example of a TLD with a legitimate business model which incorporates a Spec 9 exemption.
I also pushed Johnson and Embrescia for specific explanations of why I might be wrong in my interpretation of the Spec 9 exemption and how RED is applying it, but I did not get any replies.
A senior ICANN staffer, while declining to comment on the specifics of any TLD or any compliance investigation, told me that my understanding of the Spec 9 exemption is correct.
I gather that all Spec 9-exempt registries are obliged to submit an annual report about their exemption compliance, and that the 2016 report is due tomorrow.
However, I believe .realtor’s business model is well over one year old already, so it’s debateble whether ICANN has been paying attention.
Donuts has delayed the price increases coming to its trademark-blocking service and extended availability of the “plus” version for three more months.
Domain Protected Marks List Plus, which lets companies block brands and variations such as typos and brand+keywords across Donuts stable of 200ish TLDs, will now be available until March 31.
The price hike for vanilla DPML, which does not include the variant-blocking, has also been delayed until the end of January, the registry said.
Both deadlines were previously December 31.
DPML Plus, which grants 10-year blocks on one trademark and three variants in every Donuts TLD, has a recommended retail price of $9,999.
Retail prices for the plain DPML are reportedly going up from $2,500 per string to $4,400 for a five-year block at one registrar when the price rise kicks in. That’s a 76% increase.
Afilias’ .mobi is to become the latest of the pre-2012 gTLDs to agree to adopt the Uniform Rapid Suspension policy in exchange for lower ICANN fees.
Its Registry Agreement is up for renewal, and Afilias and ICANN have come to similar terms to .jobs, .travel, .cat, .pro and .xxx.
Afilias has agreed to take on many of the provisions of the standard new gTLD RA that originally did not apply to gTLDs approved in the 2000 and 2003 rounds, including the URS.
In exchange, its fixed registry fees will go down from $50,000 a year to $25,000 a year and the original price-linked variable fee of $0.15 to $0.75 per transaction will be replaced with the industry standard $0.25.
It’s peanuts really, given that .mobi still has about 690,000 domains, but Afilias is getting other concessions too.
Notably, the ludicrous mirage that .mobi was a “Sponsored” gTLD serving a specific restricted community (users of mobile telephones, really) rather than an obvious gaming of the 2003-round application rules, looks like it’s set to evaporate.
Appendix S to the current RA is not being carried over, ICANN said, so .mobi will not become a “Community” gTLD, with all the attendant restrictions that would have entailed.
Instead, Afilias has simply agreed to the absolute basic set of Public Interest Commitments that apply to all 2012 new gTLDs. Text that would have committed the registry to abide by the promises made in its gTLD application have been removed.
But the change likely to get the most hackles up is the inclusion of URS in the proposed new contract.
URS is an anti-cybserquatting measure that enables trademark owners to shut down infringing domains, without taking ownership, more quickly and cheaply than the UDRP.
It’s obligatory for all 2012-round gTLDs, and five of the pre-2012 registries have also agreed to adopt it during their contract renewal talks with ICANN.
Most recently, ICM Registry agreed to URS in exchange for much deeper cuts in its ICANN fees in .xxx.
In recent days, ICANN published its report into the public comments on the .xxx renewal, summarizing some predictably irate feedback.
Domainer group the Internet Commerce Association, which is concerned that URS will one day be forced upon .com and .net, had a .xxx comment that seems particularly pertinent to the .mobi news:
Given the history of flimsy and self-serving justifications by [Global Domains Division] staff and the ICANN Board for similar actions taken in 2015, we are under no illusion that this comment letter will likely be successful in effecting removal of the URS and other new gTLD RA provisions from the revised .XXX RA. Nonetheless, we strenuously object to this GDD action that intrudes upon and debases ICANN’s legitimate policymaking process, and urge the GDD and Board to reconsider their positions, and to ensure that GDD staff ceases and desists from taking similar action in the context of future RA renewals and revisions until the RPM Review WG renders the community’s judgment as to whether the URS and other new gTLD RPMs should become Consensus Policy and such recommendation is reviewed by GNSO Council and the ICANN Board.
The Intellectual Property Constituency of the GNSO, conversely, broadly welcomed the addition of more rights protection mechanisms to .xxx.
The Non-Commercial Stakeholder Group, meanwhile, expressed concern that whenever ICANN negotiates a non-consensus policy into a contract it negates and discourages all the work done by the volunteer community.
You can read the summary of the .xxx comments, along with ICANN staff’s reasons for ignoring them, here (pdf).
The .mobi proposed amendments are also now open for public comment.
Any lawyers wishing to rack up a few billable hours railing against a fait accompli can do so here.
ICANN’s transition away from US government oversight is not even a month old and the same old bullshit power struggles and existential threats appear to be in play as strongly as ever.
Governments, via the chair of the Governmental Advisory Committee, last week yet again threatened that they could withdraw from ICANN and seek refuge within the UN’s International Telecommunications Union if they don’t get what they want from the rest of the community.
It’s the kind of thing the IANA transition was supposed to minimize, but just weeks later it appears that little has really changed in the rarefied world of ICANN politicking.
Thomas Schneider, GAC chair, said this on a conference call between the ICANN board and the Generic Names Supporting Organization on Thursday:
I’m just urging you about considering what happens if many governments consider that this system does not work. They go to other institutions. If we are not able to defend public interest in this institution we need to go elsewhere, and this is exactly what is happening currently at the ITU Standardization Assembly.
This is a quite explicit threat — if governments don’t like the decisions ICANN makes, they go to the ITU instead.
It’s the same threat that has been made every year or two for pretty much ICANN’s entire history, but it’s also something that the US government removing its formal oversight of ICANN was supposed to help prevent.
So what’s this “public interest” the GAC wants to defend this time around?
It’s protections for the acronyms of intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) in gTLDs, which we blogged about a few weeks ago.
IGOs are bodies ranging from the relatively well-known, such as the World Health Organization or World Intellectual Property Organization, to the obscure, such as the European Conference of Ministers of Transport or the International Tropical Timber Organization.
According to governments, the public interest would be served if the string “itto”, for example, is reserved in every new gTLD, in other words. It’s not known if any government has passed laws protecting this and other IGO strings in their own ccTLDs, but I suspect it’s very unlikely any have.
There are about 230 such IGOs, all of which have acronyms new gTLD registries are currently temporarily banned from selling as domains.
The multi-stakeholder GNSO community is on the verge of coming up with some policy recommendations that would unblock these acronyms from sale and grant the IGOs access to the UDRP and URS mechanisms, allowing them to reclaim or suspend domains maliciously exploiting their “brands”.
The responsible GNSO working group has been coming up with these recommendations for over two years.
While the GAC and IGOs were invited to participate in the WG, and may have even attended a couple of meetings, they decided they’d have a better shot at getting what they wanted by talking directly to the ICANN board outside of the usual workflow.
The WG chair, Phil Corwin of the Internet Commerce Association, recently described IGO/GAC participation as a “near boycott”.
This reluctance to participate in formal ICANN policy-making led to the creation of the so-called “small group”, a secretive ad hoc committee that has come up with an opposing set of recommendations to tackle the same IGO acronym “problem”.
I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to call the the small group “secretive”. While the GNSO WG’s every member is publicly identified, their every email publicly archived, their every word transcribed and published, ICANN won’t even say who is in the small group.
I asked ICANN for list of its members a couple of weeks ago and this is what I got:
The group is made up of Board representatives from the New gTLD Program Committee (NGPC), primarily, Chris Disspain; the GAC Chair; and representatives from the IGO coalition that first raised the issue with ICANN and some of whom participated in the original PDP on IGO-INGO-Red Cross-IOC protections – these would include the OECD, the UN, UPU, and WIPO.
With the publication two weeks ago of the small group’s recommendations (pdf) — which conflict with the expect GNSO recommendations — the battle lines were drawn for a fight at ICANN 57, which kicks off this week in Hyderabad, India.
Last Thursday, members of the GNSO Council, including WG chair Corwin, met telephonically with GAC chair Schneider, ICANN chair Steve Crocker and board small group lead Disspain to discuss possible ways forward.
What emerged is what Crocker would probably describe as a “knotty” situation. I’d describe it as a “process clusterfuck”, in which almost all the relevant parties appear to believe their hands are tied.
The GNSO Council feels its hands are tied for various reasons.
Council chair James Bladel explained that the GNSO Council doesn’t have the power to even enter substantive talks.
“[The GNSO Council is] not in a position to, or even authorized to, negotiate or compromise PDP recommendations that have been presented to use by a PDP working group and adopted by Council,” he said.
He went on to say that while the GNSO does have the ability to revisit PDPs, to do so would take years and undermine earlier hard-fought consensus and dissuade volunteers from participating in policy making. He said on the call:
By going back and revisiting PDPs we both undermine the work of the community and potentially could create an environment where folks are reluctant to participate in PDPs and just wait until a PDP is concluded and then get engaged at a later stage when they feel that the recommendations are more likely adopted either by the board or reconciled with GAC advice.
He added that contracted parties — registries and registrars — are only obliged to follow consensus policies that have gone through the PDP process.
Crocker and Disspain agreed that the the GAC and the GNSO appear to have their hands tied until the ICANN board makes a decision.
But its hands are also currently tied, because it only has the power to accept or reject GNSO recommendations and/or GAC advice, and it currently has neither before it.
Chair Crocker explained that the board is not able to simply impose any policy it likes — such as the small group recommendations, which have no real legitimacy — it’s limited to either rejecting whatever advice the GAC comes up with, rejecting whatever the GNSO Council approves, or rejecting both.
The GNSO WG hasn’t finished its work, though the GNSO Council is likely to approve it, and the GAC hasn’t considered the small group paper yet, though it is likely to endorse it it.
Crocker suggested that rejecting both might be the best way to get everyone around a table to try to reach consensus.
Indeed, it appears that there is no way, under ICANN’s processes, for these conflicting views to be reconciled formally at this late stage.
WG chair Corwin said that any attempt to start negotiating the issue before the WG has even finished its work should be “rejected out of hand”.
With the GNSO appearing to be putting up complex process barriers to an amicable way forward, GAC chair Schneider repeatedly stated that he was attempting to reach a pragmatic solution to the impasse.
He expressed frustration frequently throughout the call that there does not appear to be a way that the GAC’s wishes can be negotiated into a reality. It’s not even clear who the GAC should be talking to about this, he complained.
He sounds like he’s the sensible one, but remember he’s representing people who stubbornly refused to negotiate in the WG over the last two years.
Finally, he raised the specter of governments running off to the UN/ITU, something that historically has been able to put the willies up those who fully support (and in many cases make their careers out of) the ICANN multistakeholder model.
Here’s a lengthier chunk of what he said, taken from the official meeting transcript:
If it turns out that there’s no way to change something that has come out of the Policy Development Process, because formally this is not possible unless the same people would agree to get together and do the same thing over again, so maybe this is what it takes, that we need to get back or that the same thing needs to be redone with the guidance from the board.
But if then nobody takes responsibility to — in case that everybody agrees that there’s a public interest at stake here that has not been fully, adequately considered, what — so what’s the point of this institution asking governments for advice if there’s no way to actually follow up on that advice in the end?
So I’m asking quite a fundamental question, and I’m just urging you about considering what happens if many governments consider that the system does not work. They go to other institutions. They think we are not able to defend public interest in this institution. We need to go elsewhere. And this is exactly what is happening currently at the ITU Standardization Assembly, where we have discussions about protection of geographic names because — and I’m not saying this is legitimate or not — but because some governments have the feeling that this hasn’t been adequately addressed in the ICANN structure.
I’m really serious about this urge that we all work together to find solutions within ICANN, because the alternative is not necessarily better. And the world is watching what signals we give, and please be aware of that.
The proposal calls for governments to get more rights to oppose geographic new gTLD applications more or less arbitrarily.
It emerged not from any failure of ICANN policy — geographic names are already protected at the request of the GAC — but from Africa governments being pissed off that .africa is still on hold because DotConnectAfrica is suing ICANN in a California court and some batty judge granted DCA a restraining order.
It’s not really relevant to the IGO issue, nor especially relevant to the issue of governments failing to influence ICANN policy.
The key takeaway from Schneider’s remarks for me is that, despite assurances that the IANA transition was a way to bring more governments into the ICANN fold rather than seeking solace at the UN, that change of heart is yet to manifest itself.
The “I’m taking my ball and going home” threat seems to be alive and well for now.