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Get ready for thousands of new two-letter domains

Kevin Murphy, November 9, 2016, Domain Policy

New gTLD registry operators have been given the right to start selling two-letter domains that match country codes.

Potentially thousands of names could start being released next year, resulting in a windfall for registries and possible opportunities for investors.

Some governments, however, appear to be unhappy with the move and how ICANN’s board of directors reached its decision.

The ICANN board yesterday passed a resolution that will unblock all two-letter domains that match country codes appearing on the ISO 3166 list, most of which are also ccTLDs.

While the resolution gives some protection to governments worried about abuse of “their” strings, it’s been watered down to virtually nothing.

In the first draft of the rules, published in July, ICANN said registries “must” offer an “Exclusive Availability Pre-registration Period” — a kind of mini-sunrise period limited to governments and ccTLD operators.

In the version approved by ICANN yesterday, the word “must” has been replaced by “may” and the word “voluntary” has been added.

In other words, registries won’t have to give any special privileges to governments when they start selling two-character names.

They will, however, have to get registrants to agree that they won’t pass themselves off as having affiliations with the relevant government. It looks like registries probably could get away with simply adding a paragraph to their terms of service to satisfy this requirement.

Registries will also have to “take reasonable steps to investigate and respond to any reports from governmental agencies and ccTLD operators of conduct that causes confusion with the corresponding country code in connection with the use of a letter/letter two-character ACSCII domain.”

This too is worded vaguely enough that it could wind up being worthless to governments, many of which are worried about domains matching their ccTLDs being passed off as government-approved.

The Governmental Advisory Committee is split on how worrisome this kind of thing is.

For examples, governments such as Spain and Italy have fought for the right to get to pre-approve the release of “es” and “it” domains, whereas the governments of the US and UK really could not care less.

The most-recent formal GAC advice on the subject, coming out of the July meeting in Helsinki, merely said ICANN should:

urge the relevant Registry or the Registrar to engage with the relevant GAC members when a risk is identified in order to come to an agreement on how to manage it or to have a third-party assessment of the situation if the name is already registered

“It is our belief that that our resolution is consistent with GAC advice,” outgoing ICANN board member Bruce Tonkin said yesterday, noting that nobody can claim exclusive rights over any string, regardless of length.

Before and after the resolution passed, the GAC expressed “serious concern” that the board had not formally responded to the Helsinki communique.

In its Hyderabad communique, issued after yesterday’s vote, the GAC advised the board to:

  • Clearly indicate whether the actions taken by the Board as referred to in the resolution adopted on 8 November 2016 are fully consistent with the GAC advice given in the Helsinki Communiqué.
  • Always communicate in future the position of the Board regarding GAC advice on any matter in due time before adopting any measure directly related to that advice.

ICANN staff are now tasked with coming up with a way to implement the two-character release.

My sense is that some kind of amendment to Registry Agreements might be required, so we’re probably looking at months before we start seeing two-letter domains being released.

One and two-letter .at domains coming soon

Nic.at will next month start selling .at domains shorter than three character domains for the first time.

All one-character and two-character domains will be released, the ccTLD registry said, about 5,000 domains in total.

The released domains include those containing any of the 34 non-Latin letters Nic.at supports, it said.

Holders of trademarks valid in Austria before July 1 get the first crack at the names, during a August 29 to September 23 sunrise period.

During this phase, domains will cost €240 ($265) with a €120 ($132) application fee. Contested sunrise names will be auctioned in October.

Everything not grabbed by trademark interests will be put to a public auction from November 7, where the minimum bid will be €72 ($79).

If there’s anything left after that, it will be released into the general available pool for registration at standard .at prices.

Nic.at plans to dump all registered one and two-character domains into the .at zone file, so they can be used, at the same time on December 6.

Austria has no local presence requirements for ccTLD registration.

Given “at” has some semantic value in English, it could be a popular launch.

Buy it or lose it? Governments could get first dibs on two-letter domains

Governments and ccTLD registries would get new rights to own two-letter domains in new gTLDs under a proposed ICANN policy.

These highly-prized domains, many of which are likely worth thousands or tens of thousands of dollars, would be subject to a mini sunrise period, under the proposal.

The so-called Exclusive Availability Pre-registration Period would be limited to those companies or government entities in charge of matching ccTLDs.

The measures are outlined in “Proposed Measures for Letter/Letter Two-Character ASCII Labels to Avoid Confusion with Corresponding Country Codes” (pdf), published by ICANN late last week.

The surprisingly succinct document outlines three things new gTLD registries must do if they want to start selling two-letter domains matching ccTLDs, which are currently restricted.

The key measure is:

Registry Operator must implement a 30-day period in which registration of letter/letter two-character ASCII labels that are country codes, as specified in the ISO 3166-1 alpha-2 standard, will be made exclusively available to the applicable country-code manager or government.

In other words, if you’re a government or company listed as the ccTLD manager here, you get 30 days of exclusive opportunity to buy the LL.example matching your ccTLD.

Until now, governments have been able to block the release of LL new gTLD domains matching their ccTLDs.

The new proposal, introduced in an attempt to settle a long-running debate about the most appropriate way to enable the release of two-character strings, appears to add a “buy it or lose it” component to existing policy.

Under the base New gTLD Registry Agreement, all two-character domains were initially reserved.

Then, in late 2014, ICANN said registries could release all letter-number, number-letter and number-number combinations.

Many registries have already released such names, some selling for thousands at auction. When Rightside released its LN/NL/NN names, some carried price tags as high as $50,000.

Letter-letter domains could also be released following a formal registry request to ICANN, but were subject to a 60-day period during which governments could object.

Almost 1,000 new gTLDs have submitted such requests, and almost all have been “partially approved”.

That means some governments objected to the release of ccTLD-matching domains. Over 16,000 unique domain names have been objected to and therefore blocked over the last year or so.

The new proposal would add an extra process under which these blocked domains could be released, with ccTLD concerns getting first rights.

Interestingly, it appears to bring ccTLD managers into the mix, rather than restricting the names simply to governments.

The Governmental Advisory Committee has been the main driving force behind demands for restrictions on LL domains, but the proposed policy appears to also extend rights to private entities.

Remember, many ccTLDs are operated independently by private companies, without local government oversight.

For example, .uk is managed by Nominet, a non-governmental entity. The UK government has blocked many uk.example domains from being registered. The new policy appears to allow either Nominet or the government to register these names.

The one-page proposal is light on some details. It does not say, for example, what happens when the government and the ccTLD manager both want the name.

In keeping with ICANN’s habit of staying out of pricing, it does not specify price caps either.

It does, however, oblige registries to ban registrants from pretending to be affiliated with the relevant government when they are not.

Governments also get to complain, and registries have to investigate, if the relevant domains are causing “confusion”, though registries do not appear to be under a strict obligation to delete or suspend domains.

The policy is open for public comment until August here.

US Congresspeople tell ICANN to ignore GAC “interference”

Kevin Murphy, June 12, 2015, Domain Policy

A bispartisan group of US Congresspeople have called on ICANN to stop bowing to Governmental Advisory Committee meddling.

Showing characteristic chutzpah, the governmental body advises ICANN that advice from governments should be viewed less deferentially in future, lest the GAC gain too much power.

The members wrote (pdf):

Recent reports indicate that the GAC has sought to increase its power at the expense of the multistakeholder system. Although government engagement in Internet governance is prudent, we are concerned that allowing government interference threatens to undermine the multistakeholder system, increasing the risk of government capture of the ICANN Board.

The letter was signed by 11 members of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property and the Internet, which is one of the House committees that most frequently hauls ICANN to Capitol Hill to explain itself.

Most of the signatories are from the Republican majority, but some are Democrats.

It’s not entirely clear where they draw the line between “engagement” and “interference”.

The letter highlights two specific pieces of GAC input that the signatories seem to believe constitute interference.

First, the GAC’s objection to Amazon’s application for .amazon. The letter says this objection came “without legal basis” and that ICANN “succumbed to political pressure” when it rejected the application.

In reality, the GAC’s advice was consensus advice as envisaged by the Application Guidebook rules. It was the US government that succumbed to political pressure, when it decided to keep its mouth shut and allow the rest of the GAC to reach consensus.

The one thing the GAC did wrong was filing its .amazon objection outside of the window envisaged by the Guidebook, but that’s true of almost every piece of advice it’s given about new gTLD applications.

Second, the Congresspeople are worried that the GAC has seized for its members the right to ban the two-letter code representing their country from any new gTLD of their choosing.

I’ve gone into some depth into how stupid and hypocritical this is before.

The letter says that it has “negative implications for speech and the world economy”, which probably has a grain of truth in it.

But does it cross the line from “engagement” to “interference”?

The Applicant Guidebook explicitly “initially reserved” all two-letter strings at the second level in all new gTLDs.

It goes on to say that they “may be released to the extent that Registry Operator reaches agreement with the government and country-code manager.”

While the rule is pointless and the current implementation convoluted, it comes as a result of the GAC engaging before the new gTLD program kicked off. It was something that all registries were aware of when they applied for their gTLDs.

However, the GAC’s more recent behavior on the two-letter domain subject has been incoherent and looks much more like meddling.

At the ICANN meeting in Los Angeles last October, faced with requests for two-character domains to be released, the GAC issued formal advice saying it was “not in a position to offer consensus advice on the use of two-character second level domain names”.

ICANN’s board of directors accordingly passed a resolution calling for a release mechanism to be developed by ICANN staff.

But by the time February ICANN meeting rolled around, it had emerged that registries’ release requests had been put on hold by ICANN due to letters from the GAC.

The GAC then used its Singapore communique to advise ICANN to “amend the current process… so that relevant governments can be alerted as requests are initiated.” It added that “Comments from relevant governments should be fully considered.”

ICANN interpreted “fully considered” to mean an effective veto, which has led to domains such as it.pizza and fr.domains being banned.

So it does look like thirteenth-hour interference but that’s largely because the GAC is often incapable of making its mind up, rarely talks in specifics, and doesn’t meet frequently enough to work within timelines set by the rest of the community.

However, while there’s undoubtedly harm from registries being messed around by the GAC recently, governments don’t seem to have given themselves any powers that they did not already have in the Applicant Guidebook.

Governments go on a kill-crazy rampage with new two-letter domain veto

Kevin Murphy, March 24, 2015, Domain Registries

ICANN has confirmed to new gTLD registries that governments now get to unilaterally block two-letter domains that match their home ccTLDs.

The organization has essentially given nations a veto — already enthusiastically exercised — over domains including il.army, it.pizza and fr.domains.

I’m not making this up. The Italian government has banned anyone from registering it.pizza.

Governments have already started invoking their new-found right, with dozens of domains already heading to the block-list.

The veto was revealed in a letter from Akram Atallah, president of ICANN’s Global Domains Division, to the Registries Stakeholder Group yesterday.

It has not been published yet, but I’ve had its contents confirmed by a few registries and I understand the RySG mailing list is buzzing about it today.

In it, Atallah says that two-letter strings that do not receive objections from the government with the matching ccTLD will be released within seven to 10 days of comment periods closing.

However, strings that do receive objections will remain blocked.

For labels that receive objections from relevant governments, the labels will remain reserved. Should the registry operator and the objecting government reach an agreement regarding the release of the label, the registry operator shall notify ICANN that it has reached agreement, and ICANN will approve the release request and issue an authorization. The label will no longer be a reserved name.

until there is Consensus Policy or a Board Resolution on this matter, ICANN can only follow the process outlined above. ICANN encourages further community discussions to resolve this matter, and until then, negotiation between the objector and the registry operator as a means to release this class of labels from the reserved names list.

New gTLD registries believe, as they explained in a recent letter (pdf), that neither ccTLD operators nor their governments own these two-character strings. They believe ICANN is creating new rights.

So far, two-character domains have been banned by default in all new gTLDs. It was kind of a placeholder policy in order to get the new gTLD program launched a few years ago.

ICANN did enable the release of letter-number, number-letter and number-number strings in December, but made letter-letter combinations subject to government comments.

Following a GAC outcry last month, the comment periods were extended.

All comments were to be “fully considered”, but it wasn’t clear what that meant until the RySG asked and Atallah replied yesterday.

Some governments are already using the comment period to exercise their new veto.

The European Commission, for example, has objected to eu.credit, eu.creditcard, eu.auction, eu.casino, eu.bingo and eu.law.

The basis for the EU objections is in most of the cases: “The new TLD at hand corresponds to a regulated market in many EU countries. Its release might generate confusion and possible abuses at the end users level.”

It’s a wonder that the EU doesn’t seem to care about those strings in its own .eu ccTLD, where they’re all registered by people that I suspect may lack credentials.

Does credit.eu look to you like the registrant is a credentialed member of a regulated financial services industry? If he was, he may be able to afford a better web site.

The Commission also objects to eu.community, because:

the terms “EU Community” or “European Community” are widely used

That is true, which makes me wonder why the EU is allowing community.eu to languish parked at Sedo. You’d have to ask the Commission.

Israel, meanwhile, objects to il.casino, il.bingo, il.law, il.chat, il.bible, il.country, il.airforce, il.navy and il.army

The Vietnamese ccTLD registry has objected to several vn. domains, but it’s not clear to me whether it has veto authority.

Italy has objected to it.pizza, it.bingo and it.casino. Really, Italy? You’re objecting to “it.pizza”?

Côte d’Ivoire objects to all ci. domains.

Spain objects to es.casino, es.bingo and es.abogado.

Again, I invite you to check out bingo.es and casino.es and make a judgement as to whether the registrants are licensed gambling establishments.

Taiwan has vetoed the release of .tw in all city gTLDs (such as tw.london, tw.berlin etc) over a “concern that the release of above-mentioned domain names may cause the degradation of statehood”.

France has objected to “fr” in .archi, .army, .airforce, .bank, .bet, .bio, .casino, .cloud, .dentist, .doctor, .domains, .finance, .lawyer, .navy and .sarl.

Again again, several of these domains are just parked if you flip the words to the other side of the dot.

As a reminder, ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade said recently:

Come on guys, do not apply rules that you’re not using today to these new folks simply because it’s easy, because you can come and raise flags here at ICANN. Let’s be fair.

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