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Karklins beats LaHatte to chair ICANN’s Whois privacy team

Kevin Murphy, April 25, 2019, Domain Policy

Latvian diplomat and former senior WIPO member Janis Karklins has been appointed chair of the ICANN working group that will decide whether to start making private Whois records available to trademark owners.

Karklins’ appointment was approved by the GNSO Council last week. He beat a single rival applicant, New Zealand’s Chris LaHatte, the former ICANN Ombudsman.

He replaces Kurt Pritz, the former ICANN Org number two, who quit the chair after it finished its “phase one” work earlier this year.

Karklins has a varied resume, including a four-year stint as chair of ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee.

He’s currently Latvia’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, as well as president of the Arms Trade Treaty.

Apparently fighting for Latvia’s interests at the UN and overseeing the international conventional weapons trade still gives him enough free time to now also chair the notoriously intense and tiring Expedited Policy Development Process on Whois, which has suffered significant burnout-related volunteer churn.

But it was Karklins’ one-year term as chair of the general assembly of WIPO, the World Intellectual Property Organization, that gave some GNSO Council members pause.

The EPDP is basically a big bloodless ruck between intellectual property lawyers and privacy advocates, so having a former WIPO bigwig in the neutral hot seat could be seen as a conflict.

This issue was raised by the pro-privacy Non-Commercial Stakeholders Group during GNSO Council discussions last week, who asked whether LaHatte could not also be brought on as a co-chair.

But it was pointed out that it would be difficult to find a qualified chair without some connection to some interested party, and that Karklins is replacing Pritz, who at the time worked for a new gTLD registry and could have had similar perception-of-conflict issues.

In the end, the vote to confirm Karklins was unanimous, NCSG and all.

The EPDP, having decided how to bring ICANN’s Whois policy into compliance with the General Data Protection Regulation, is now turning its attention to the far trickier issue of a “unified access model” for private Whois data.

It will basically decide who should be able to request access to this data and how such a system should be administered.

It will not be smooth sailing. If Karklins thinks international arms dealers are tricky customers, he ain’t seen nothing yet.

UN ruling may put .io domains at risk

Kevin Murphy, February 25, 2019, Domain Policy

The future of .io domains may have been cast into doubt, following a ruling from the UN’s highest court.

The International Court of Justice this afternoon ruled (pdf) by a 13-1 majority that “the United Kingdom is under an obligation to bring to an end its administration of the Chagos Archipelago as rapidly as possible”.

The Chagos Archipelago is a cluster of islands that the UK calls the British Indian Ocean Territory.

It was originally part of Mauritius, but was retained by the UK shortly before Mauritius gained independence in 1968, so a strategic US military base could be built on Diego Garcia, one of the islands.

The native Chagossians were all forcibly relocated to Mauritius and the Seychelles over the next several years. Today, most everyone who lives there are British or American military.

But the ICJ ruled today, after decades of Mauritian outrage, that “the process of decolonization of Mauritius was not lawfully completed when that country acceded to independence in 1968, following the separation of the Chagos Archipelago”.

So BIOT, if the UK government follows the ruling, may cease to exist in the not-too-distant future.

BIOT’s ccTLD is .io, which has become popular with tech startups over the last few years and has over 270,000 domains.

It’s run by London-based Internet Computer Bureau Ltd, which Afilias bought for $70 million almost two years ago.

Could it soon become a ccTLD without a territory, leaving it open to retirement and removal from the DNS root?

It’s not impossible, but I’ll freely admit that I’m getting into heavy, early speculation here.

There are a lot of moving parts to consider, and at time of writing the UK government has not even stated how it will respond to the non-binding ICJ ruling.

Should the UK abide by the ruling and wind down BIOT, its IO reservation on the ISO 3166-1 alpha-2 list could then be removed by the International Standards Organisation.

That would mean .io no longer fits the ICANN criteria for being a ccTLD, leaving it subject to forced retirement.

Retired TLDs are removed from the DNS root, meaning all the second-level domains under them stop working, obviously.

It’s not entirely clear how this would happen. ICANN’s Country Code Names Supporting Organization has not finished work on its policy for the retirement of ccTLDs.

TLDs are certainly not retired overnight, without the chance of an orderly winding-down.

Judging by the current state of ccNSO discussions, it appears that ccTLDs could in future be retired with or without the consent of their registry, with a five-to-10-year clock starting from the string’s removal from the ISO 3166-1 list.

Under existing ICANN procedures, I’m aware of at least two ccTLDs that have been retired in recent years.

Timor-Leste was given .tl a few years after it rebranded from Portuguese Timor, and .tp was removed from the DNS a decade later. It took five years for .an to be retired after the Netherlands Antilles’ split into several distinct territories in 2010.

But there are also weird hangers-on, such as the Soviet Union’s .su, which has an “exceptional reservation” on the ISO list and is still active (and inexplicably popular) as a ccTLD.

As I say, I’m in heavy speculative territory when it comes to .io, but it strikes me that not many registrants will consider when buying their names that the territory their TLD represents may one day simple poof out of existence at the stroke of a pen.

Afilias declined to comment for this article.

ICANN faces first post-transition test of UN power (for real this time)

Kevin Murphy, October 7, 2016, Domain Policy

The ICANN community and United Nations agencies are heading for a clash, with governments accused this morning of trying to bypass the ICANN policy-making process.

According to the leader of an ICANN volunteer working group, governments and UN-affilated intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) have circumvented the usual ICANN consensus-building process in order to extract the policies they want directly from the ICANN board of directors and staff.

It’s the first time since the IANA transition, which happened less than a week ago, that governments have been accused of exploiting their special access to the board, and it may become a hot topic at next month’s ICANN 57 meeting in India.

Governments and UN agencies now stand accused of “bypassing the ICANN community” in order to achieve their policy goals.

But the policy being debated is not directly linked to the IANA transition, nor to the thoroughly debunked notion that the UN has taken over ICANN.

Indeed, the issue in question — the permanent protection of IGO acronyms in gTLDs — is almost embarrassingly narrow and predates the announcement of the IANA transition by at least three years, going back to at least 2011.

Basically, the policy questions that look set to cause even more conflict between governments and others are: should IGO acronyms be protected, and if so, how?

IGO acronyms are strings such as WIPO, UNESCO and OECD.

The ICANN board punted this question in May 2014, when it received conflicting advice from the Governmental Advisory Committee and Generic Names Supporting Organization.

Since then, a GNSO Policy Development Process working group has been working on recommendations. It has not yet issued its initial findings, but is close.

Simultaneously and separately, members of ICANN’s board and staff have been quietly talking to a handful of GAC members and IGOs about the same issue in what has become known as the “small group”.

Because it’s small. And a group.

Yesterday, ICANN divulged the consensus of the small group in a letter (pdf) to the leaders of the GNSO Council.

Its recommendations conflict in almost every respect with what the GNSO working group intends to recommend.

The small group wants ICANN to create IGOs-acronyms-only versions of the Trademark Clearinghouse database, Trademark Claims service and UDRP and URS dispute resolution mechanisms — basically “functionally equivalent” mirrors of almost all of the rights protection mechanisms currently only available to trademark owners.

They would be administered at least partially by the GAC and at no cost to the IGOs themselves (presumably meaning ICANN would pick up the tab).

It seems like a disproportionate amount of faff considering the problem ICANN is trying to solve is the vanishingly small possibility that somebody attempts to cybersquat the United Nations Entity For Gender Equality And The Empowerment Of Women (UNWOMEN) or the Postal Union Of The Americas Spain And Portugal (PUASP).

A lot of it is also in direct opposition to what the GNSO WG plans to recommend, according to chair Phil Corwin and the current draft of the WG’s recommendations.

The WG currently plans to recommend that IGOs should be allowed to use the existing URS and UDRP mechanisms to take down or take over domains that use their acronyms in bad faith. It does not currently seem to recommend anything related to Trademark Claims.

A foundational disagreement relates to the status of IGOs under the law. While IGOs in the small group seem to think they are in a special category of entity that is not subject to regular trademark law, the WG hired expert legal counsel that determined the contrary.

Corwin, in his initial response to the small group letter, said that the implications of the debate go beyond how IGO acronyms should be protected.

IGOs carried out a “near boycott” of the GNSO PDP discussions, he wrote, preferring instead to talk to the small group “behind closed doors”. He wrote:

we continually urged members of the GAC, and IGOs, to participate in our WG. That participation was so sporadic that it amounted to a near-boycott, and when IGO representatives did provide any input they stressed that they were speaking solely as individuals and were not providing the official views of the organizations that employed them.

Of course, why should they participate in the GNSO policy processes when they are permitted to pursue their goals in extended closed door discussions with the Board, and when the Board seeks no input from the GNSO in the course of those talks?

He directly linked the timing of the small group report to the expiration last Friday of ICANN’s IANA functions contract with the US Department of Commerce, and suggested that the IGO acronym issue could be a litmus test for how ICANN and governments function together under the new oversight regime.

I note that transmission of the letter has been delayed until after the completion of the IANA transition, and that the post-transition role of governments within ICANN was a central controversy surrounding the transition.

What is at stake in this matter goes far beyond the relatively rare instance in which a domain registrant infringes upon the name or acronym of an IGO and the IGO seeks relief through a CRP [Curative Rights Protection mechanism]. The larger issue is whether, in a post-transition ICANN, the GAC and the UN agencies that comprise a large portion of IGOs, will participate meaningfully in GNSO policy activities, or will seek their policy aims by bypassing the ICANN community and engaging in direct, closed door discussions with the Board.

The financial effects of this seemingly interminable debate on the gTLD industry are probably pretty minor.

Currently, all new gTLDs have temporarily blocked, from launch, all of the IGO acronyms in question. That’s roughly 200 domains per gTLD that could otherwise be sold.

Many of the strings are three, four and five-letter acronyms that could fetch “premium” prices in the open market (though, in my judgement, not much more than a couple hundreds bucks in most cases).

A small number of the acronyms, such as WHO and IDEA, are potentially more valuable.

Off the top of my head and the back of an envelope, I’d put the cost to the industry as a whole of the IGO acronym blocks probably somewhere in the very low millions.

The harms being prevented are also very minor, in my view. With a small handful of exceptions, the IGOs in question are not attractive cybersquatting targets.

But, as is so often the case in ICANN matters, the arguments in this case boil down to matters of law, principle and process much more than practical impact.

IGOs plead for special new gTLD protections

Kevin Murphy, December 15, 2011, Domain Policy

Twenty-eight intergovernmental organizations, including the UN, ITU and WIPO, have asked ICANN for special protection for their acronyms in the new top-level domains program.

A letter sent to ICANN earlier this week and obtained by DI, reads:

we formally request ICANN to make provision for a targeted exclusion of third party registrations of the names and acronyms of IGOs both at the top and second level, at least during ICANN’s first application round and until further appropriate policy could be developed.

It goes on to claim that fighting abusive domain registrations and enforcing rights diverts funds from causes such as famine relief, scientific research and children’s rights.

For the sake of brevity, this is the list of the letter’s signatories in acronym form only: AfDB, EBRD, ESO, CERN, ESA, IADB, IAEA, IFAD, ILO, IMO, IMF, IOM, ITU, NIB, NATO, OECD, OPCW, UN, UNESCO, UNIDO, UPU, WB, WHO, WIPO, WMO, UNWTO, and WTO.

The letter justifies its request by citing the rights given to IGO names under the Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property.

It’s a pretty flimsy argument. The Paris convention does not give IGOs exclusive rights to strings. It may protect the World Bank abbreviation WB, for example, but not to the extent that Warner Brothers can’t also use it to market movies.

The letter also cites ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee, which called for IGOs to be protected in its March 2007 GAC Principles regarding New gTLDs advice.

The Principles, however, talk about IGOs in the same breath as regular trademark owners, which is exactly how the new gTLD Applicant Guidebook treats them today.

There is some ICANN precedent for giving in to this kind of special pleading, however.

The latest Guidebook makes several dozen trademarks relating to the Red Cross, Red Crescent and Olympic movements “ineligible for delegation” as gTLDs, but offers them no second-level protection.

It was noted at the time the decision was made – at the behest of the GAC – that giving the Olympics special treatment would create a slippery slope to a full-blown Globally Protected Marks List, a concept ICANN has already rejected.

The UN et al only really have a shot at getting what they want if they can get the GAC on side, and several influential GAC members have already stated that the Olympic/Red Cross case was unique.

I think the response from ICANN will be a letter from president Rod Beckstrom politely declining the request and inviting its signatories to participate in the ICANN community.