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US wants veto power over new TLDs

Kevin Murphy, January 29, 2011, Domain Registries

The United States is backing a governmental power grab over ICANN’s new top-level domains program.

In a startling submission to the ICANN Governmental Advisory Committee, a copy of which I have obtained, the US says that governments should get veto power over TLDs they are uncomfortable with:

Any GAC member may raise an objection to a proposed string for any reason. If it is the consensus position of the GAC not to oppose objection raised by a GAC member or members, ICANN shall reject the application.

In other words, if Uganda objected to .gay, Iran objected to .jewish, or Egypt objected to .twitter, and no other governments opposed those objections, the TLD applications would be killed off.

The fate of TLDs representing marginal communities or controversial brands could well end up subject to back-room governmental horse-trading, rather than the objective, transparent, predictable process the ICANN community has been trying to create for the last few years.

The amendments the US is calling for would also limit the right to object to a TLD on “morality” grounds to members of the GAC, while the current Applicant Guidebook is much broader.

The rationale for these rather Draconian proposals is stability and “universal resolvability”.

The worry seems to be that if some nations start blocking TLDs, they may well also decide to start up their own rival DNS root, fragmenting the internet (and damaging the special role the US has in internet governance today).

The US also wants TLDs such as “.bank” or “.pharmacy” more closely regulated (or blocked altogether) and wants “community” applications more strictly defined.

In the current ICANN Applicant Guidebook, any applicant can designate their application “community-based”, in order to potentially strengthen its chances against rival bids.

But the US wants the Guidebook amended to contain the following provisions:

“Community-based strings” include those that purport to represent or that embody a particular group of people or interests based on historical components of identity (such as nationality, race or ethnicity, religion or religious affiliation, culture or particular social group, and/or a language or linguistic group). In addition, those strings that refer to particular sectors, in particular those subject to national regulation (such as .bank, .pharmacy) are also “community-based” strings.

In the event the proposed string is either too broad to effectively identify a single entity as the relevant authority or appropriate manager, or is sufficiently contentious that an appropriate manager cannot be identified and/or agreed, the application should be rejected.

In practice, this could potentially kill off pretty much every vertical TLD you can think of, such as .bank, .music and .hotel. How many industries have a “single entity” overseeing them globally?

While the goal appears to be noble – nobody wants a .bank or .pharma managed by hucksters – the Community Objection procedure in the Guidebook arguably already provides protection here.

The US also wants the policy allowing the vertical integration of registries and registrars reining in, for TLD applicants to justify the costs their domains will incur on others, and a dramatic overhaul of the trademark protection mechanisms in the Guidebook.

In short, the US wants the new TLDs program substantially overhauled, in ways that are certain to draw howls of protest from many in the ICANN community.

The document does not appear to be official GAC policy yet. It could well be watered down before the GAC meets the ICANN board in Brussels at the end of February.

ICANN said earlier this week that it plans to approve a Guidebook “as close as practically possible” to the current draft, and heavily hinted that it wants to do so at its San Francisco meeting in March.

But if many of the US recommendations were to make it through Brussels, that’s a deadline that could be safely kissed goodbye.

IP lawyers call for halt to new TLDs

Kevin Murphy, January 13, 2011, Domain Registries

Some trademark interests are ratcheting up the rhetoric in opposition to ICANN’s new top-level domains program, with one company calling for it to be scrapped altogether.

While ICANN’s extended public comment period on the proposed final Applicant Guidebook does not end until the weekend, a Danish bloc of companies has already made its objections known.

The most vociferous views so far this week have come from Lundbeck, a drug company that researches treatments for diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Lundbeck trademark counsel Søren Ingemann Larsen accused ICANN of operating “fake” comment periods that ignore feedback from the trademark lobby.

In a cap-happy missive, he said the program should be “HALTED” until ICANN can prove the domain market lacks competition, then “cancelled” if such proof is not forthcoming.

The fact of the matter is that the only entities that are in favour of the Program are the ones who can make money out of it, and that is ICANN and the Registrars. The “internet community”, including private users and brand owners, are NOT interested.

Lundbeck, which has brands such as “Cipralex” and “Xenazine”, does not appear to be a major target for cybersquatters, judging by how many UDRP complaints it has filed (none).

It did however join CADNA, the Coalition Against Domain Name Abuse, at the same time as prolific UDRP user Lego Juris, last November.

Lego, and a few other companies submitting virtually identical comments to ICANN this week, have reiterated criticisms of the program’s trademark protections expressed in previous months.

But they have now also seized upon elements of the latest independent economic report into the costs and benefits of new TLDs, which ICANN published last month.

One extract Lego and the others quote questions whether new TLDs are needed to provide some of the services proposed by community TLD wannabes:

Are there other ways to achieve the primary objectives of the proposed gTLD, such as: (a) second-level domain names; (b) certificates; (c) software tags; and (d) filters that look at content beyond the URL and any tags? How do the alternatives, if any, compare in terms of their likely effectiveness in achieving the primary objectives of the gTLD and the costs they would impose on different members of the Internet community?

It’s an interesting argument – that a community TLD could just as well operate as a second-level domain – not one I recall reading in a long while. I don’t think it has legs.

What next for new TLDs? Part 1 – Unresolved Issues

Kevin Murphy, December 14, 2010, Domain Services

Like or loathe the decision, ICANN’s new top-level domains program appears to have been delayed again.

But for how long? And what has to happen now before ICANN starts accepting applications?

In short, what the heck happened in Cartagena last week?

In this four-part post, I will attempt an analysis of the various things I think need to happen before the Applicant Guidebook (AGB) is approved.

In this first post I will look at the issues that ICANN has explicitly tagged as unresolved, with special reference to trademarks.

Unresolved Issues

ICANN chairman Peter Dengate Thrush, explaining the board’s resolution on new TLDs on Friday, said:

The intention has been, as much as possible, to indicate those areas where the board feels that the work that has been done is sufficient to move to closure… What we’ve also tried to do is indicate which areas are still clearly open for consideration.

The resolution names only two issues that are explicitly still open for further policy development: geographic strings and “morality and public order” objections. I’ll discuss these in a future post.

Issues considered already reflecting “the negotiated position of the ICANN community” include “trademark protection, mitigating malicious conduct, and root-zone scaling”.

But does this mean that the trademark issue, easily the most contentious of these three “overarching issues” is really sufficiently “closed” that we’ll see no more changes to those parts of the AGB?

I don’t think so. While the Cartagena resolutions say trademark protection has been addressed, it also says “ICANN will take into account public comment including the advice of the GAC.”

It may be too late for the IP community to affect changes directly, beyond the comments they’ve already filed, but the GAC, which has already aligned itself with the trademark lobby, may be able to.

Beyond the text of the resolution, ICANN chair Peter Dengate Thrush said in an interview with ICANN head of media relations Brad White:

We’ve spent a lot of time with the trademark community and come up with three new independent mechanisms for protecting trademark rights on the internet. So the sense of board and the sense of the community is that that’s probably a sufficient effort in developing mechanisms. What we now might look at is how we might enhance, tweak and improve those processes, but we’re not going to convene another process to look at yet another kind of solution for intellectual property rights.

In other words, according to Dengate Thrush, ICANN isn’t planning to create any new IP rights protection mechanisms in the AGB, but these mechanisms, such as Uniform Rapid Suspension and the Trademark Clearinghouse, could be still be modified based on comments received from the trademark lobby over the last week or so.

Most of the outcry from the IP lobby recently has called for the specifics of these two mechanisms to be tilted more in favor of trademark interests; there’s been little call for any new mechanisms.

Trademark rights protections also account for two of the 11 issues that the Governmental Advisory Committee has tagged “outstanding” which “require additional discussion”, by my reading.

More on the GAC bottleneck in part two of this post.

Trademarks may delay new TLD approval

Kevin Murphy, December 8, 2010, Domain Registries

The intellectual property lobby won a notable victory this week, after governments told ICANN they want it to delay approval of the new top-level domains program until it has more cybersquatting protections.

Some members of the Governmental Advisory Committee appear to have been lobbied hard by the IP community, and have taken its concerns on board more or less wholesale.

The UK representative, Mark Carvell of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, was most vocal during a meeting of the GAC and ICANN board here in Cartagena, Colombia yesterday.

He said of the proposed final Applicant Guidebook for new TLDs (which the GAC still pointedly refers to as the “DAG”, for Draft Applicant Guidebook):

Most representations we received came from brand owners, rights holders, they’re the ones being most agitated by this. I think they also recognized the potential opportunities, but the big issue for them was the costs…

The rights protection mechanisms are still not effective enough, that’s what’s coming to us in the Ministry… If you’re really hoping to sign off the guidebook this week, I think that’s something you really ought to reconsider.

Carvell pointed in particular to the proposed Trademark Clearinghouse and Uniform Rapid Suspension policies as needing work – this is essentially the IP lobby’s position also.

His views were supported by Germany, Norway and the Canadian GAC chair, among others.

A repeated refrain was “we’re not there yet”, which prompted ICANN vice-chair Dennis Jennings to push for a definition of “there”. What, in other words, would make the GAC happy enough to go ahead?

The GAC isn’t great when it comes to providing straight answers to those kinds of questions, but Carvell gave it a shot.

He said that currently the GAC does not believe that the benefits of new TLDs outweigh the costs. When it does, that would be the “key turning point”:

When we get to that position, that the benefits for businesses, for the global economy, for opportunities for business, are going to be greater, scaled-up, greater than the costs to brand owners and those who are going to have shell out big-time in order to effectively subsidize, in their view, perhaps subsidize the process.

The US representative, Suzanne Sene, added that “the whole issue is of feeling confident that benefits will outweigh the costs”.

That’s still worryingly free of a measurable benchmark, if you’re an impatient new TLD applicant.

In a further open meeting today, it became clear that the GAC is still putting forth the idea that there could be a “fast-track” or “trial” style TLD application round for “non-controversial” TLDs – presumably meaning TLDs of little interest to defensive trademark holders.

GAC chair Heather Dryden said today that “introducing a conservative first round is the best way to manage risk in the unknown”, an idea that was promptly challenged by TLD applicants including Minds + Machines CEO Antony Van Couvering.

I don’t get the feeling that the GAC has thought the idea through a great deal. In order to be half-way objective, it would presumably require the created of a second, parallel AGB for pre-approving applications. I don’t think the idea has legs.

But do the GAC’s objections mean that new TLD program, currently pencilled in to open the first application round May 30, 2011, will be delayed?

The GAC has not yet submitted its formal Cartagena advice (it should be published tomorrow), but it will presumably reflect the concerns raised over the last few days.

Under ICANN’s bylaws, the organization has to justify any decision to reject GAC advice and then “try, in good faith and in a timely and efficient manner, to find a mutually acceptable solution.”

European Commission representative Bill Dee invoked that part of the bylaws during yesterday’s meeting, and ICANN chair Peter Dengate Thrush agreed that talks were needed.

Dengate Thrush said he was in favor of a GAC-board meeting over one or two days at some point between now and the San Francisco ICANN meeting next March, to thrash out their differences and Dryden seemed to agree.

If that meeting was held fairly soon, it would not necessarily mean ICANN misses the May 30 deadline.

The current proposed timeline contains a 30-day window between Friday and January 11 in which ICANN staff update the “approved” AGB according to the board’s directions.

There follows an obligatory four-month ICANN outreach and marketing campaign.

Conceivably, although scheduling may be a challenge, if the GAC and board meet and resolve their differences over the next 30 days or so, the May 30 deadline could be workable.

I think it might be quite unlikely that’s going to happen, however.

The ICANN board convenes to discuss and vote on the AGB this Friday. It will be very interesting to see how its resolution is worded, and whether it can both save face and serve the GAC.

Trademark lobby keeps up pressure on ICANN

Kevin Murphy, October 24, 2010, Domain Policy

The International Trademark Association is continuing to press ICANN into commissioning a study of the potential economic “harms” its new top-level domain program could cause.

INTA executive director Alan Drewsen earlier this month sent ICANN a quick reminder (pdf) that it expects to see the study carried out before the new TLD application round launches.

The trademark lobby believes that new TLDs will increase costs to brand-conscious businesses through an increase in the number of defensive registrations and dispute proceedings they have to pay for.

ICANN hired some third-party analysts to look into the issue, and published a preliminary report in July that basically just speculated about studies that could be carried out in future.

The plan was to carry out a second-phase study, which was to begin after public comments on the first report had been analyzed and summarized by ICANN staff.

Three months after the public comment period closed, this analysis has not been published and there’s no news on phase two.

INTA’s latest missive also notes that the ICANN board does not appear to have discussed the economic study at its Trondheim meeting in September.

Drewson also refers back to previous correspondence, sent in early September by INTA president Heather Steinmeyer, in which she wrote:

trademark owners believe that such a study is not only a sensible recommendation, but an essential prerequisite before any rollout of new gTLDs.

It’s not clear to me whether ICANN also thinks the study needs to be completed before the new TLD program launches.

Such a study would presumably take some considerable time to compile, and noises from ICANN currently point to the program becoming finalized at some point in the next six months.

If the study were to conclude that new TLDs would be hugely financially damaging, after three years of work… well, red faces would be the very least concern.