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ICANN win leaves door open for plural gTLD rethink

Kevin Murphy, October 12, 2015, Domain Policy

ICANN has fought off an appeal by .webs gTLD applicant Vistaprint, in a case that considered the coexistence of singular and plural gTLDs.

While ICANN definitively won the Independent Review Process case, the IRP panel nevertheless invited its board of directors to consider whether Vistaprint should be given a chance to appeal a decision that ruled .webs too similar to .web.

Vistaprint runs a web site building service called Webs.com. It filed two applications for .webs — one “community” flavored, one vanilla — but then found itself on the losing end of a String Confusion Objection filed by rival Web.com, one of the many .web applicants.

It was one of the few instances where a SCO panel decided that a plural string was too confusingly similar to its singular for the two to coexist.

In many other cases, such as .auto(s), .fan(s) and .gift(s), the two strings have been allowed to be delegated.

Not wanting to have to fight for .webs at auction against eight .web applicants — which would likely cost eight figures to win — Vistaprint filed a Request for Reconsideration (which failed), followed by an last-ditch IRP complaint.

But its three-person IRP panel ruled on Friday (pdf) that ICANN did not violate its bylaws by accepting the SCO decision and subsequently rejecting the RfR.

However, the panel handed Vistaprint a silver lining that may eventually give the company what it wants. Even though ICANN won, Vistaprint may not necessarily have lost.

The panel wrote:

the Panel recommends that ICANN’s Board exercise its judgment on the question of whether an additional review mechanism is appropriate to re-evaluate the Third Expert’s determination in the Vistaprint SCO, in view of ICANN’s Bylaws concerning core values and non-discriminatory treatment, and based on the particular circumstances and developments noted in this Declaration, including (i) the Vistaprint SCO determination involving Vistaprint’s .WEBS applications, (ii) the Board’s (and NGPC’s) resolutions on singular and plural gTLDs, and (iii) the Board’s decisions to delegate numerous other singular/plural versions of the same gTLD strings.

In other words, ICANN has been invited to consider whether Vistaprint should be able to appeal, using a similar mechanism perhaps to that which was offered to other applicants that suffered from inconsistent, adverse SCO decisions.

At time when ICANN’s accountability is under international scrutiny, it’s highly likely that the board will give this recommendation some thought.

The IRP declaration does not reflect well on ICANN’s current level of accountability.

As usual, ICANN tried to wriggle out of accountability by attempting to castrate the panel from the outset, arguing again that IRP panels must be “deferential” to the board — that is, assume that its actions were correct by default — and that its declarations are “advisory” rather than “binding”.

And, as usual, the panel disagreed, saying previous IRP cases show this is now “settled” law. It said that it would evaluate the case “objectively and independently”, not deferentially.

But while it said its declaration was binding “in the sense that ICANN’s Board cannot overrule the Panel’s declaration” it agreed with ICANN that it only had the power to “recommend”, rather than order, remedies.

Acknowledging Vistaprint raised important public interest questions, the panel ordered ICANN to pay 40% of IRP costs.

The Vistaprint IRP was one of the things holding up the .web contention set, so Friday’s declaration moves the fabled gTLD one step closer to reality.

If the company gets the ability to appeal its SCO loss, it would add months to the .web runway. If it does not, it will have to remain in the .web contention set, which would head to auction.

Web.com CEO talks “defensive” .web strategy

Number-three registrar Web.com applied for the new gTLD .web in order to protect a trademark, but it’s open to partnerships to secure and manage the string, according to its CEO.

But the .web contention set will take a “considerable amount of time to be resolved”, David Brown told analysts during the company’s first-quarter earnings conference call last night.

“The way we’ve always thought about .web is that given that we have a trademark on the name Web.com, we really needed to apply for .web in order to protect our trademark,” he said.

“In order to protect our trademark globally, we needed to basically defend ourselves by applying for .web, and we’re certainly interested in getting it, but it’s not our core business,” he added.

Web.com, which also owns Network Solutions and Register.com, is one of seven applicants for .web.

But the company did not file any Legal Rights Objections against its competitors, as its trademark may have permitted, reflecting a slightly relaxed attitude to the string that also came across in the yesterday’s call.

Brown said, according to the Seeking Alpha transcript:

We’ll be perfectly content if anyone gets .web because they’re going to distribute it through us, and it’s our name, and we’re advertising and building a brand in the marketplace, and we’re going to be a great deliverer of .web extensions, whoever gets it, whether it’s us or someone else.

He indicated that the ultimate winner of .web is likely to be some kind of cooperative arrangement between applicants. He said:

Our strategy has always been to cooperate. And so we’ve looked at the people who have applied, and we certainly are talking to all of them about who would benefit from this and which team would be the best team to provide services, and so that would be our strategy… We won’t bear the full load of the economics of acquisition ourselves likely. It’ll likely be shared.

To me, this screams “joint venture”, which has always been the way I’ve seen .web pan out. If you recall, when Afilias was formed to apply for .web in 2000, it was a joint venture of many leading registrars of the time.

Brown also said on the call that he expects to see the first new gTLDs get approved in the fourth quarter, but they’ll be the uncontested ones and therefore not particularly lucrative.

Web.com could also be the beneficiary of marketing dollars spent by new gTLDs to secure shelf space, he said.

Senior Demand Media exec “fired for suing ICANN”

Kevin Murphy, December 3, 2012, Domain Registrars

Long-time Demand Media software architect Chris Ambler claims he was fired when his own company, Image Online Design, sued ICANN over the .web gTLD.

Ambler says he was canned by Demand October 26, eight days after IOD sued ICANN over its unsuccessful 2000-round application for .web.

He told DI on Friday that he believes he was fired unfairly and illegally and, after negotiations with Demand Media broke down last week, has retained a lawyer to explore his options for redress.

“You can’t say you’re firing somebody because they’re suing somebody,” he said. “There are legal options open to me and I am pursuing them.”

Ambler says he was hired by eNom’s then-CEO Paul Stahura in 2003 as its chief software strategist, a role in which he took a lead role in creating NameJet’s proprietary domain name drop-catching software.

When the company was acquired by Demand Media, he took the role of senior software architect.

But in the 1990s, as founder of IOD, he ran .web in an alternative DNS root system. His application to move the gTLD into the official ICANN root in 2000 was not approved.

In October he sued ICANN claiming it was “improper, unlawful and inequitable” for ICANN to solicit more applications for .web while IOD’s bid was still “pending” and unrejected.

While Demand Media is not directly applying for .web, it has an extremely tight relationship with Donuts — the portfolio gTLD applicant founded by Stahura and other former Demand executives — which is.

Demand is Donuts’ back-end registry provider and is believed to have an interest in Covered TLD LLC, the parent company of about 100 of Donuts’ new gTLD applicants, including .web.

Ambler’s contract with Demand Media acknowledged his IOD work and allowed him to pursue it, he claims.

“They’ve known for the past ten years that I was working on this,” he said.

A Demand Media spokesperson said the company does not comment on legal matters.

Original .web gTLD applicant sues ICANN

Kevin Murphy, October 18, 2012, Domain Registries

Image Online Design, which unsuccessfully applied for the .web gTLD all the way back in 2000, has sued ICANN, alleging trademark infringement and breach of contract.

IOD, which says it has over 20,000 .web domains under management in an alternate root, says ICANN never officially rejected its .web bid, and that it should not have allowed other companies to apply for it.

It’s looking for an injunction preventing ICANN awarding .web to any other company, as well as seeking ICANN’s “profits” resulting from the alleged infringement of its mark.

There are seven .web applicants in the current round, but IOD is not among them.

The company paid $50,000 for its application in 2000, but it’s not happy with the $86,000 discount ICANN offered 2000-round applicants on their $185,000 fees if they wanted to resubmit their applications.

The IOD complaint claims:

Allowing other entities to file applications for a .web TLD while IOD’s .WEB TLD application was still pending is improper, unlawful and inequitable.

The complaint cites the November 2000 ICANN meeting in Marina Del Rey, during which the first proof-of-concept gTLDs were approved by ICANN’s board of directors.

It notes that then-chair Vint Cerf steered the board away from approving .web applications filed by Afilias and others because IOD was already operating .web in an alternate root at the time.

You can watch a video of that meeting here.

The complaint also alleges tenuous conflicts of interest between two .web applicants (Afilias and Google) and members of ICANN’s board of directors (current chair and vice-chair Steve Crocker and Bruce Tonkin in the case of Afilias, and long-gone chair Vint Cerf in the case of Google).

The suit comes just a few days after IOD’s fellow 2000 applicant and alternate root player, Name.Space, sued ICANN on similar grounds, trying to prevent 189 gTLDs being approved.

Here’s the IOD complaint.

Schilling applies for “scores” of new gTLDs

Domaining icon Frank Schilling’s new venture, Uniregistry, has applied for “scores” of new generic top-level domains, “most” of which he expects to be contested.

Schilling won’t say exactly how many or which strings Uniregistry is pursuing, but he did reveal that while he is not going for .web, he will be in contention with Google for .lol.

“It’s closer to TLDH than Donuts,” Schilling told DI in an interview this evening, referring to the announcements of Top Level Domain Holdings’ 68 and Donuts’ 307 applications.

I’m guessing it’s around the 40 to 50 mark.

Despite the portfolio and Schilling’s history in domain investing, Uniregistry isn’t what you might call a “domainer” play.

The company doesn’t plan on keeping whole swathes of premium real estate for itself or for auction, Schilling said. Nor does it intend to rip off trademark owners.

“We’ve seen good TLDs fail with bad business plans,” he said, pointing to premium-priced .tv as an example. “You need to allow other people to profit, to evangelize your space.”

“I’m not going to get as rich from this as some of our registrants,” he said.

Uniregistry only plans to hold back a “handful” of premium names, Schilling said. The rest will be available on a first-come, first-served basis.

To avoid creating wastelands of parked domains, the company plans to deploy technical countermeasures to prevent too many domains falling into too few hands.

“The way we’re going stage the landrush it will be very difficult to game it,” he said. “There’ll be significant rate limiting, so you can’t come and take 500 domains in ten milliseconds.”

“What we want to avoid is someone going in and getting 100,000 of the best ones on day one. It’s not fair, and it’s unhealthy for the space.”

Schilling is one of the industry’s most successful domainers. His company, Name Administration, is one of the largest single owners of second-level domain names.

Now Schilling says he’s brought his considerable experience as a domain name registrant Uniregistry’s business model and policies.

The company’s message is that it’s “registrant-centered”.

While that sounds like an easy, glib marketing statement, Schilling is backing it up with some interesting policies.

He’s thinking about a much closer relationship between the registry and the registrant that you’d see in the .com space.

When a second-level domain in a Uniregistry gTLD expires, registrants will get 180 days to claim it back from the registry, possibly even circumventing the registrar.

Uniregistry will even directly alert the registrant that their name is going to expire, a policy that Schilling said has been modeled in part on what Nominet does in the .uk space.

“Registrants have the ability to go to the registry to manage their .co.uk, to transfer the domain, to change certain pieces of information,” he said.

The 180-day policy is designed in part to prevent registrars harvesting their customers most valuable domains when they forget to renew them.

Rogue registrars and registrars competing against their own customers are things that evidently irk Schilling.

“I prefer a system that protects registrants,” he said.

But existing registrars are still the company’s proposed primary channel to market, he said. Uniregistry plans to price its domains in such a way as to give registrars a 50% margin.

“I think there’s enough margin in these strings for registrars to make a great living,” Schilling said.

Schilling hasn’t ruled out an in-house pocket registrar, but said it wouldn’t be created to undercut the regular channel.

The company has hired Internet Systems Consortium, maker of BIND and operator of the F-Root, as its back-end registry provider.

Judging by Uniregistry’s web site, which carries photos of many ISC staff, it’s an unusually close relationship.

I’ll have more on Uniregistry’s plans for Whois and trademark protection in a post later.

Directi expects all 31 of its gTLDs to be contested

Directi has applied for 31 new top-level domains and expects all 31 of them to be contested, according to CEO Bhavin Turakhia.

The company has budgeted $30 million for its unashamedly mainstream portfolio of applications – which includes the likes of .web – but that’s not including what it expects to spend at auction.

“I expect there to be contention in all of them,” he said. “Whether they will end up going to auction… we’re completely open to strategic partnerships with other industry players who we believe can add value and join hands with us, based on merit. We’ll be evaluating this on a case by case basis.”

“Something like a .web, there’ll be enough competitors out there that it will certainly go to auction, no matter what,” he said, adding that he expects at least 10 rivals for .web.

Directi has applied for: .web, .shop, .bank, .law, .music, .news, .blog, .movie, .baby, .store, .doctor, .hotel, .play, .home .site, .website, .click, .online, .one, .ping, .space, .world, .press, .chat, .city, .deals, .insurance .loans, .app, .host, and .hosting.

The company is applying via its new business unit, Radix, using ARI Registry Services as its back-end registry provider.

Turakhia said he expects to use a traditional registry-registrar model for most of the domains, assuming Directi wins its contention sets.

“The strings that we have gone for are strings that are relevant to all registrars so we expect there to be significant adoption,” he said.

“If eNom were to apply for .web and .shop – and they probably will – and if they were to win those TLDs, then our registrar businesses would definitely carry them irrespective of the fact that we have our own TLDs,” he said. “There are only so many good viable strings out there.”

Most of Directi’s gTLDs, if approved, will be completely unrestricted.

For .movie, .law, .doctor and .bank there will be some tight restrictions, Turakhia said. (UPDATE: he later added that .insurance and .loans will also be restricted).

Some will also have additional rights protection mechanisms that go above and beyond what ICANN mandates in its standard registry contracts.

But none of its applications are “community” applications, the special category of application defined by ICANN.

Turakhia said he doesn’t think some of the applicants trying to “sneak through” as community applications will be successful.

“We’re treating these as all generic strings for anyone to register domains in,” he said. “.music for me does not represent a community. I could be a bathroom singer and want a .music domain name.”

“If you treat music lovers as a community then 100% of the world is part of that community.”

As new gTLDs enter a new phase, the first wave of announcements crashes

Go Daddy, Web.com and the Public Interest Registry were among the first to reveal their new generic top-level domain plans as ICANN’s new gTLD program enters the “reveal” phase.

Announcements from several companies were timed to closely coincide with the closure of ICANN’s TLD Application System at a minute before midnight UTC last night.

After a false start (false end?) on April 12, and weeks of subsequent procrastination, the end of the new gTLD application window seems to have gone off without a hitch.

We’re now entering a new phase of the program, one which is expected to hold far fewer secrets.

Between now and the official Big Reveal, currently targeted for June 13, I’m expecting a deluge of announcements from new gTLD applicants, no longer scared of encouraging competitive bids.

Any company with any hope of standing out from the crowd of almost 2,000 applications needs to make its presence felt as loudly and as early as possible.

.web

The first to do so was number-three registrar Web.com, owner of Network Solutions and Register.com, which confirmed its long-expected bid for .web shortly before midnight.

It’s one of many companies with a claim to the gTLD, in what is certain to be a fiercely fought contention set.

The firm reckons, dubiously, that it has rights due to its trademark on Web.com, which I predict will be anything but a slam dunk argument when it comes to a Legal Rights Objection.

“We believe we possess the natural platform from which to successfully market the new .WEB top level domain since we are the sole owner of the Web.com trademark as issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark office,” CEO David Brown said.

I wonder what the other 300 or so owners of web.[tld] domain names think about that.

.bank and .insurance

The Association of National Bankers and the Financial Services Roundtable, both US trade groups for the banking industry, provided the first post-TAS announcement to hit my inbox, at 0006 UTC.

The groups have confirmed their joint bids for .bank and .insurance, having wisely decided against the less SEO-friendly, less intuitive .banking, .invest, .investment, and .insure.

These proposed gTLDs will be secured and restricted, but they still face the substantial risk of objections from European banking regulators.

There’s also one other unconfirmed .bank applicant.

.home and .casa

Go Daddy has also revealed its two applications, giving the scoop to Domain Name Wire. It’s applied for .home and the Spanish translation, .casa, in addition to the previously announced .godaddy.

While they look benign on the face of it, I’m expecting .home to face opposition on technical grounds.

It’s on DI PRO’s list of frequently requested invalid TLDs, due to the amount of traffic it already gets from misconfigured routers.

Go Daddy may also face competition scrutiny if it wants to act as a registry and registrar, given its overwhelming dominance of the registrar market.

Both applications are also likely to find themselves in contention sets.

.ngo and .ong

The Public Interest Registry cleverly got its .ngo and .ong bids some big-readership attention a few hours ago by letting Mashable think it was getting a scoop. Ahem.

To be fair, the .ong application – a translation of .ngo for Spanish, French and Italian markets – was news. Both will target non-governmental organizations, of which there are millions.

The .ong bid stands a reasonable chance of being challenged due to its visual similarity with .org – which PIR already manages – but ICANN’s similarity tool only gives it a score of 63%.

.cloud and .global

Finally this morning, CloudNames announced applications for .cloud and .global, two unrestricted gTLDs being pitched explicitly as alternatives to .com, .biz and .info.

“A .cloud domain will allow businesses and individuals to have their own cloud on the Internet. Likewise, a .global domain will allow businesses to secure a position on an international level,” CEO Rolf Larsen said in a statement.

They’re the first examples of both strings to be announced, but CloudNames expects them both to be contested. I suspect the buzzy .cloud will be the harder to obtain.

Company claims ownership of 482 new gTLDs

Kevin Murphy, March 22, 2012, Domain Registries

A small New York company has warned new gTLD applicants that it owns 482 top-level domain strings and that ICANN has “no authority” to award them to anybody else.

Name.Space claims it has ownership rights to potentially valuable gTLDs including several likely to be applied for by others, such as .shop, .nyc, .sex, .hotel and .green.

It’s been operating hundreds of “gTLDs” in a lightly-used alternate DNS root system since 1996.

Now the company has filed for trademark protection for several of these strings and has said that it will apply for several through the ICANN new gTLD program.

But Name.Space, which says it has just “tens of thousands” of domain registrations in its alternate root, is also claiming that it already owns all 482 strings in the ICANN root too.

“What we did is put them on notice that they cannot give any of these 482 names to anyone else,” CEO Alex Mashinsky told DomainIncite. “These names predate ICANN. They don’t have authority under US law to issue these gTLDs to third parties.”

“We’re putting out there the 482 names to make sure other people don’t risk their money applying for things ICANN cannot legally give them,” he added.

I could not find a comprehensive list of all 482 strings, but Name.Space publishes a subset here. Read the company’s full list here (pdf).

It’s a slightly ridiculous position. Anyone can set up an alternative DNS root, fill it with dictionary words and start selling names – the question is whether anyone actually uses it.

However, putting that aside, Name.Space may have a legitimate quarrel with ICANN anyway.

It applied for a whopping 118 gTLDs in ICANN’s initial “test-bed” round in 2000, which produced the likes of .biz, .info, .name and .museum.

While ICANN did not select any of Name.Space’s proposed names for delegation, it did not “reject” its application outright either.

This is going to cause problems. Name.Space is not the only unsuccessful 2000 applicant that remains pissed off 12 years later that ICANN has not closed the book on its application.

Image Online Design, an alternate root provider and 2000 applicant, has a claim to .web that is likely to emerge as an issue for other applicants after the May 2 reveal date.

These unsuccessful candidates are unhappy that they’ve been repeatedly told that their old applications were not rejected, and with the privileges ICANN has given them in the current Applicant Guidebook.

ICANN will give any unsuccessful bidder from the 2000 round an $86,000 discount on its application fees, provided they apply for the same string they applied for the first time.

However, like any other applicant this time around, they also have to sign away their rights to sue.

And the $86,000 discount is only redeemable against one gTLD application, not 118.

“We applied for 118 and we would like to get the whole 118,” said Mashinsky.

ICANN is not going to give Name.Space what it wants, of course, so it’s not clear how this is going to play out.

The company could file Legal Rights Objections against applications for strings it thinks it owns, or it could take matters further.

While the company is not yet making legal threats, any applicants for gTLDs on Name.Space’s list should be aware that they do have an additional risk factor to take into account.

“We hope we can resolve all of this amicably,” said Mashinsky. “We’re not trying to throw a monkey wrench into the process.”

Happy 10th birthday new TLDs!

Kevin Murphy, November 15, 2010, Domain Registries

With all the excitement about ICANN’s weekend publication of the new top-level domain Applicant Guidebook, it’s easy to forget that “new” TLDs have been around for a decade.

Tomorrow, November 16, is the 10th anniversary of the ICANN meeting at which the first wave of new gTLDs, seven in total, were approved.

The recording of the 2000 Marina Del Rey meeting may look a little odd to any relative newcomers to ICANN.

The open board meeting at which the successful new registries were selected took well over six hours, with the directors essentially making up their selection policies on the spot, in the spotlight.

It was a far cry from the public rubber-stamping exercises you’re more likely to witness nowadays.

Take this exchange from the November 2000 meeting, which seems particularly relevant in light of last week’s news about registry/registrar vertical integration.

About an hour into the meeting, chairman Esther Dyson tackled the VI idea head on, embracing it:

the notion of a registry with a single registrar might be offensive on its own, but in a competitive world I don’t see any problem with it and I certainly wouldn’t dismiss it out of hand

To which director Vint Cerf, Dyson’s eventual successor, responded, “not wishing to be combative”:

The choices that we make do set some precedents. One of the things I’m concerned about is the protection of users who register in these various top-level domains… If you have exactly one registrar per registry, the failure of either the registrar or the registry is a serious matter those who people who registered there. Having the ability to support multiple registrars, the demonstrated ability to support multiple registrars, gives some protection for those who are registering in that domain.

Odd to think that this ad-hoc decision took ten years to reverse.

It was a rather tense event.

The audience, packed with TLD applicants, had already pitched their bids earlier in the week, but during the board meeting itself they were obliged to remain silent, unable to even correct or clarify the misapprehensions of the directors and staff.

As a rookie reporter in the audience, the big news for me that day was the competition between the three registries that had applied to run “.web” as a generic TLD.

Afilias and NeuStar both had bids in, but they were competing with Image Online Design, a company that had been running .web in an alternate root for a number of years.

Cerf looked like he was going to back the IOD bid for a while, due to his “sympathy for pioneers”, but other board members were not as enthusiastic.

I was sitting immediately behind company CEO Christopher Ambler at the time, and the tension was palpable. It got more tense when the discussion turned to whether to grant .web to Afilias instead.

Afilias was ultimately granted .info, largely due to IOD’s existing claim on .web. NeuStar’s application was not approved, but its joint-venture bid for .biz was of course successful.

This was the meat of the resolution:

RESOLVED [00.89], the Board selects the following proposals for negotiations toward appropriate agreements between ICANN and the registry operator or sponsoring organization, or both: JVTeam (.biz), Afilias (.info), Global Name Registry (.name), RegistryPro (.pro), Museum Domain Management Association (.museum), Société Internationale de Télécommunications Aéronautiques (.aero), Cooperative League of the USA dba National Cooperative Business Association (.coop);

If any of this nostalgia sounds interesting, and you want to watch seven hours of heavily pixelated wonks talking about “putting TLDs into nested baskets”, you can find the video (.rm format, that’s how old it is) of the MDR board meeting buried in an open directory here.