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ICANN staffer to referee closed generics fight

Kevin Murphy, July 28, 2022, Domain Policy

An ICANN policy staffer seems set to chair discussions between governments and the gTLD community over how to regulate “closed generic” domains in the next round of new gTLD applications.

ICANN has put forward its own conflict resolution specialist Melissa Peters Allgood to facilitate the talks, and the Governmental Advisory Committee and GNSO Council have apparently concurred, according to recent correspondence.

“We are of the view that Ms. Allgood’s experience, qualifications, and neutrality in the matter meets the suggested criteria from the GAC and the GNSO Council,” ICANN chair Maarten Botterman told his GAC and GNSO counterparts.

The talks will attempt to reach a consensus on how closed generics can be permitted, but limited to applications that “serve a public interest goal”.

A closed generic is a dictionary-word gTLD that the applicant hopes to operate as a dot-brand even though it does not own a matching trademark. Think Nike operating .sneakers and excluding Adidas and Reebok from registering names there.

While the GNSO community was unable to come to consensus on whether they should be permitted in subsequent rounds, the nine-year-old “public interest goal” GAC advice is still applicable.

The GAC and GNSO have agreed that the talks will exclude the propositions that closed generics should be unrestricted or banned outright.

Once both parties have formally agreed to Allgood’s appointment, and to the size and makeup of the discussion group, Allgood will prepare more paperwork outlining the problem at hand before talks start to happen, according to Botterman.

The slow crawl to closed generics at ICANN 74

Kevin Murphy, June 20, 2022, Domain Policy

Last Monday saw the 10th anniversary of Reveal Day, the event in London where ICANN officially revealed the 1,930 new gTLD applications submitted earlier in 2012 to a crowd of excited applicants and media.

Dozens of those applications were for closed generics — where the registry operator is the sole registrant, but the string isn’t a trademark — but now, a decade later, the ICANN community still hasn’t decided what to do about that type of gTLD.

At ICANN 74 last week, the Generic Names Supporting Organization and Governmental Advisory Committee inched closer to agreeing the rules of engagement for forthcoming talks on how closed generics should be regulated.

The GNSO’s working group on new gTLDs — known as SubPro — had failed to come to a consensus on whether closed generics should even be allowed, failing even to agree on whether the status quo was the thousand-year-old earlier GNSO policy recommendations that permitted them or the later GAC-influenced ICANN retconning that banned them.

But ever since SubPro delivered its final report, the GAC has been reminding ICANN of its 2013 Beijing communique advice, which stated: “For strings representing generic terms, exclusive registry access should serve a public interest goal.”

At the time, this amounted to an effective ban, but today it’s become an enabler.

ICANN has for the last several months been coaxing the GNSO and the GAC to the negotiating table to help bring the SubPro stalemate into line with the Beijing communique, and the rules of engagement pretty much guarantee that closed generics will be permitted, as least in principle, in the next application round.

GAC chair Manal Ismail told ICANN (pdf) back in April:

discussion should focus on a compromise to allow closed generics only if they serve a public interest goal and that the two “edge outcomes” (i.e. allowing closed generics without restrictions/limitations, and prohibiting closed generics under any circumstance) are unlikely to achieve consensus, and should therefore be considered out of scope for this dialogue.

Remarkably, the GNSO agreed to these terms with little complaint, essentially allowing the GAC to set at least the fundamentals of the policy.

Last week, talks centered on how these bilateral negotiations — or trilateral, as the At-Large Advisory Committee is now also getting a seat at the table — will be proceed.

The rules of engagement were framed by ICANN (pdf) back in March, with the idea that talks would begin before ICANN 74, a deadline that has clearly been missed.

The GNSO convened a small team of members to consider ICANN’s proposals and issued its report (pdf) last week, which now seems to have been agreed upon by the Council.

Both GNSO and GAC are keen that the talks will be facilitated by an independent, non-conflicted, knowledgeable expert, and have conceded that they may have to hire a professional facilitator from outside the community.

That person hasn’t been picked yet, and until he/she has taken their seat no talks are going to happen.

ICANN said a few months ago that it did not expect the closed generics issue to delay the SubPro Operational Design Phase, which is scheduled to wind up in October, but the longer the GAC, GNSO and ICANN dawdle, the more likely that becomes.

All that has to happen is for a group of 14-16 community members to agree on what “public interest” means, and that should be easy, right? Right?

More friction over closed generics

Kevin Murphy, April 20, 2022, Domain Policy

ICANN’s Generic Names Supporting Organization and Governmental Advisory Committee seem to be headed to bilateral talks on the thorny issue of whether “closed generic” gTLDs should be allowed, but not without discontent.

The GNSO’s Non-Commercial Stakeholder Group last week opposed these talks, suggesting that the GAC is trying to acquire more policy-making power and take a second bite at the apple on a issue it has already advised on.

The NCSG wrote (pdf) to the GNSO Council last Thursday to oppose GAC talks, which are being encouraged by ICANN management and board.

Closed generics are dictionary-word gTLDs that do not match the registry’s trademarks but which nevertheless act as though they are a dot-brand, where only the registry may register domains.

There aren’t any right now, because ICANN, acting in 2014 in response to 2013 GAC advice, retroactively banned them from the 2012 application round, even though they were initially permitted.

It’s such a divisive issue that the GNSO working group (known as SubPro) that made the policy recommendations for the next round was, I believe uniquely, unable to come up with a even a fudged recommendation.

The GAC is sticking to its view that closed generics are potentially harmful, and since the GNSO couldn’t make its mind up, ICANN has suggested an informal dialogue between the two parties, to encourage a solution both deem acceptable that could then be thrown back at the GNSO for formal ratification.

The NCSG objected to this idea because it appears, NCSG said, that a new policy process is being created that increases the GAC’s powers to intervene in policy-making when it sees something it doesn’t like.

But the constituency appeared to stand alone during a GNSO Council meeting last Thursday, where the prevailing opinion seemed to be that dialogue is always a good thing and it would be bad optics to refuse to talk.

The Council has formed a small team of four to decide whether to talk to the GAC, which is in favor of the move.

Closed generic gTLDs likely to be allowed, as governments clash with ICANN

Kevin Murphy, March 15, 2022, Domain Policy

So-called “closed generics” seem to be on a path to being permitted in the next new gTLD application round.

The issue reconfirmed itself at ICANN 73 last week as a major point of disagreement between governments and ICANN, and a major barrier to the next round of new gTLDs going ahead.

But a way forward was proposed that seems likely to to permit closed generics in some form in the next round, resolving an argument that has lasted the better part of a decade.

It seems ICANN now expects that closed generics WILL be permitted, but restricted in some yet-to-be-decided way.

A closed generic is a gTLD representing a dictionary word that is not also a brand, operated by a registry that declines to sell domains to anyone other than itself and its close affiliates.

Imagine McDonald’s operating .burgers, but no other fast food chain, cow-masher, or burger afficionado is allowed to register a .burgers domain.

ICANN’s 2012 application round implicitly allowed applications for such gTLDs — at least, it did not disallow them — which prompted outrage from the governments.

The GAC’s Beijing communique (pdf), from April 2013, urged ICANN to retroactively ban these applications unless they “serve a public interest goal”.

The GAC identified 186 applications from the 2012 round that appeared to be for closed generics.

ICANN, taking the GAC’s lead, gave these applicants a choice to either convert their application to an open generic, withdraw for a refund, or maintain their closed generic status and defer their applications to the next round.

Most opted to switch to an open model. Some of those hacked their way around the problem by making registrations prohibitively restrictive or expensive, or simply sitting on their unlaunched gTLDs indefinitely.

The GNSO policy for the next round is inconclusive on whether closed generics should be permitted. The working group contained two or three competing camps, and nobody conceded enough ground for a consensus recommendation to be made.

It’s one of those wedge issues that highlights the limitations of the multistakeholder model.

The working group couldn’t even fall back on the status quo since they couldn’t agree, in light of ICANN’s specific request for a clear policy, what the status quo even was.

Policy-makers are often also those who stand to financially benefit from selling shovels to new gTLD applicants in the next round. The fewer restrictions, the wider the pool of potential clients and the more attractive the sales pitch.

The working group ended up recommending (big pdf) further policy work by disinterested economics and competition law experts, which hasn’t happened, and the GNSO Council asked the ICANN board for guidance, which it refused to provide.

The GAC has continued to press ICANN on the issue, reinforcing its Beijing advice, for the last year or so. It seems to see the disagreement on closed generics as a problem that highlights the ambiguity of its role within the multistakeholder process.

So ICANN, refusing to create policy in a top-down fashion, is forcing the GAC and the GNSO to the table in bilateral talks in an attempt to create community consensus, but the way the Org is framing the issue may prove instructive.

A framework for these discussions (pdf) prepared by ICANN last week suggests that, when it comes to closed generics, an outright-ban policy and an open-door policy would both be ruled out from the outset.

The paper says:

It is evident from the PDP deliberations and the community’s discussions and feedback that either of the two “edge outcomes” are unlikely to achieve consensus; i.e.:

  • 1. allowing closed generics without restrictions or limitations OR
  • 2. prohibiting closed generics under any circumstance.

As such, the goal could be to focus the dialogue on how to achieve a balanced outcome that does not represent either of these two scenarios. The space to be explored in this dialogue is identifying circumstances where closed generics could be allowed (e.g., when they serve the public interest, as noted by the GAC Advice). This will likely require discussions as to the types of possible safeguards that could apply to closed generics, identifiable public interest goals for that gTLD and how that goal is to be served, with potential consequences if this turns out not to be the case.

It sounds quite prescriptive, but does it amount to top-down policy making? Insert shrugging emoji here. It seems there’s still scope for the GAC and GNSO to set their own ground rules, even if that does mean relitigating entrenched positions.

The GAC, in its ICANN 73 communique (pdf) said yesterday that it welcomes these talks, and the GNSO Council has already started to put together a small team of councillors (so far also former PDP WG members) to review ICANN’s proposal.

ICANN expects the GNSO-GAC group to begin its work, under an ICANN-supplied facilitator, on one or more Zoom calls before ICANN 74 in June.

ICANN playing ping-pong on closed generics controversy

Kevin Murphy, October 1, 2020, Domain Policy

ICANN’s board of directors has refused to comment on the issue of “closed generic” gTLDs, bouncing the thorny issue back to the community.

In its response to the SubPro working group’s draft final report this week, the board declined to be drawn on whether it thinks closed generics should be allowed in future application rounds, and urged the GNSO to figure it out, writing:

the Board is not in a position to request policy outcomes… we will base our decision on whether we reasonably believe that the policy proposal is or is not in the best interests of the ICANN community or ICANN

A closed generic is a gTLD representing a non-trademark dictionary word, where the registry is the only eligible registrant. Dozens of companies tried to snap up such TLDs in 2012

ICANN changed the rules to disallow them, based largely on government advice, before punting the issue to the community, in the form of the GNSO, back in 2015.

But despite five years of thinking, the GNSO’s SubPro working group was unable to reach a consensus on whether closed generics should be allowed or not, or whether they should be allowed, but only when there’s a “public interest” purpose.

As I noted last month, it presented three possible ways closed generics could be permitted, none of which have consensus support.

So it asked the board for guidance, and the board’s response is basically “not our problem, figure it out yourselves”.

It would be churlish to criticize the board for refusing to make policy from the top-down, of course.

Much better to wait for the next time it does make policy from the top-down, and criticize it then.

Fight over closed generics ends in stalemate

Kevin Murphy, August 27, 2020, Domain Policy

Closed generic gTLDs could be a thing in the next application round. Or they might not. Even after four years, ICANN’s greatest policy-making minds can’t agree.

The New gTLDs Subsequent Procedures working group (SubPro) delivered its draft final policy recommendations last week, and the most glaring lack of consensus concerned closed generics.

A closed generic is a dictionary-word gTLD, not matching the applicant’s trademark, that is nevertheless treated as if it were a dot-brand, where the registry is the only eligible registrant.

It’s basically a way for companies to vacuum up the strings most relevant to their businesses, keeping them out of the hands of competitors.

There were 186 attempts to apply for closed generics in 2012 — L’Oreal applied for TLDs such as .beauty, .makeup and .hair with the clear expectation of registry-exclusive registrations, for example

But ICANN moved the goalposts in 2013 following advice from its Governmental Advisory Committee, asking these applicants to either withdraw or amend their applications. It finally banned the concept in 2015, and punted the policy question to SubPro.

But SubPro, made up of a diverse spectrum of volunteers, was unable to reach a consensus on whether closed generics should be allowed and under what circumstances. It’s the one glaring hole in its final report.

The working group does appear to have taken on board the same GAC advice as ICANN did seven years ago, however, which presents its own set of problems. Back in 2013, GAC advice was often written in such a way as to be deliberately vague and borderline unimplementable.

In this case, the GAC had told ICANN to ban closed generics unless there was a “a public interest goal”. What to make of this advice appears to have been a stumbling block for SubPro. What the hell is the “public interest” anyway?

Working group members were split into three camps: those that believed closed generics should be banned outright, those who believed that should be permitted without limitation, and those who said they should be allowed but tightly regulated.

Three different groups from SubPro submitted proposals for how closed generics should be handled.

The most straightforward, penned by consultant Kurt Pritz and industry lawyers Marc Trachtenberg and Mike Rodenbaugh, and entitled The Case for Delegating Closed Generics (pdf) basically says that closed generics encourage innovation and should be permitted without limitation.

This trio argues that there are no adequate, workable definitions of either “generic” or “public interest”, and that closed generics are likely to cause more good than harm.

They raise the example of .book, which was applied for by Amazon as a closed generic and eventually contracted as an open gTLD.

Many of us were thrilled when Amazon applied for .book. Participation by Amazon validated the whole program and the world’s largest book seller was well disposed to use the platform for innovation. Yet, we decided to get in the way of that. What harm was avoided by cancelling the incalculable benefit staring us right in the face?

Coincidentally, Amazon signed its .book registry agreement exactly five years ago today and has done precisely nothing with it. There’s not even a launch plan. It looks, to all intents and purposes, warehoused.

It goes without saying that if closed generics are allowed by ICANN, it will substantially increase the number of potential new gTLD applicants in the next round and therefore the amount of work available for consultants and lawyers.

The second proposal (pdf), submitted by recently independent policy consultant Jeff Neuman of JJN Solutions, envisages allowing closed generics, but with only with heavy end-user (not registrant) involvement.

This idea would see a few layers of oversight, including a “governance council” of end users for each closed generic, and seems to be designed to avoid big companies harming competition in their industries.

The third proposal (pdf), written by Alan Greenberg, Kathy Kleiman, George Sadowsky and Greg Shatan, would create a new class of gTLDs called “Public Interest Closed Generic gTLDs” or “PICGS”.

This is basically the non-profit option.

PICGS would be very similar to the “Community” gTLDs present since the 2012 round. In this case, the applicant would have to be a non-profit entity and it would have to have a “critical mass” of support from others in the area of interest represented by the string.

The model would basically rule out the likes of L’Oreal’s .makeup and Amazon’s .book, but would allow, off the top of my head, something like .relief being run by the likes of the Red Cross, Oxfam and UNICEF.

Because the working group could not coalesce behind any of these proposals, it’s perhaps an area where public comment could have the most impact.

The SubPro draft final report is out for public comment now until September 30.

After it’s given final approval, it will go to the GNSO Council and then the ICANN board before finally becoming policy.

L’Oreal is using “closed generic” .makeup in an interesting way

Kevin Murphy, September 18, 2017, Domain Registries

What do you call a registry that defensively registers names on behalf of the very people that would be its most likely customers if the TLD weren’t so hideously overpriced?
L’Oreal, apparently.
About half of its .makeup new gTLD comprises the names or nicknames of social media “influencers” in the make-up scene, and they all seem to belong to the registry.
Ironically, these are precisely the kind of people you’d expect to actually go out and register .makeup domains, if they didn’t cost close to $7,000 a pop.
L’Oreal put a $5,500 wholesale price-tag on .makeup domains, evidently as a Plan B to avoid actually having to sell names to people, after its original plan to keep the string as a “closed generic” failed due to ICANN politicking.
As you might expect, uptake has been minimal. The zone file currently has about 266 domains in it.
Beyond L’Oreal itself, there are defensive registrations by companies not remotely related to the make-up industry, such as BMW and Intuit, and registrations by competing companies in the cosmetics industry, such as Christian Dior and Estee Lauder.
But there are also something like 150 .makeup domains that were all registered at the same time, this April, representing the names and social media handles of young women who post YouTube videos about makeup for their often thousands of subscribers.
It turns out these women are all participants (willing, it seems) in WeLove.Makeup, a web site created by L’Oreal to promote its products.
The site is basically a social media aggregator. Each “influencer” has their own page, populated by their posts from YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, and such. It’s maintained by Findie, which specializes in that kind of thing.
The domains matching the participants names do not resolve to the site, however. They’re all registered to L’Oreal’s registry management partner Fairwinds and resolve to ad-free registrar parking pages.
The names were registered via 101Domain, which prices .makeup names at $6,999, but I’ve no idea what payment arrangement Fairwinds/L’Oreal has for this kind of thing.
This is what a wannabe closed generic can look like, it seems — the registry pricing its customers out of the market then registering their names on their behalf anyway.
Is this “innovation”?

.food goes live, and it’s a closed generic

Kevin Murphy, November 15, 2016, Domain Registries

The new gTLD .food went live in the DNS on Friday, but nobody except the registry will be able to register domains there.
In what I would argue is one of the new gTLD program’s biggest failures, .food will be a dot-brand, closed to all except the “brand” owner.
The registry is Lifestyle Domain Holdings, a subsidiary of US media company Scripps Networks.
Scripps runs the Food Network TV station in the States and the site Food.com. It has a trademark on the word “Food”.
Its registry agreement for .food, signed back in April, includes Specification 13, which allows registries to restrict all the second-level domains to themselves and their affiliates.
So food producers, restaurants, chefs and the like will never be able to use .food for their web sites.
ICANN signed the contract with Scripps despite objections from several entities including the Australian government, which warned “restricting common generic strings, such as .food, for the exclusive use of a single entity could have a negative impact on competition”.
Under ICANN rules hastily cobbled together after outrage over so-called “closed generics”, a registry cannot run as a dot-brand a gTLD that is:

a string consisting of a word or term that denominates or describes a general class of goods, services, groups, organizations or things, as opposed to distinguishing a specific brand of goods, services, groups, organizations or things from those of others.

Almost all applications flagged as closed generics were subsequently amended to make them restricted but not brand-exclusive. Scripps was the major hold-out.
The loophole that allowed .food to stay in exclusive hands appears to be that Scripps’ trademark on “Food” covers television, rather than food.
If .food winds up publishing content about food, such as recipes and healthy eating advice, I’d argue that it would go against the spirit of the rules on closed generics.
It would be a bit like Apple getting .apple as a Spec 13 dot-brand and then using the gTLD to publish content about the fruit rather than computers.
No sites are currently live in .food.

Registrars say Amazon is “closing” open gTLD

Kevin Murphy, April 25, 2016, Domain Registries

A group comprising some of the largest domain registrars has claimed Amazon is attempting to close off a new gTLD that it previously indicated would be unrestricted.
The 12-strong group, which includes Go Daddy, Network Solutions and Tucows, also claims that the company’s proposal for a “Registration Authentication Platform” is anti-competitive.
The complaints follow Amazon’s filing of a Registry Services Evaluation Process request with ICANN in March.
The RSEP speaks in broad terms about rejigging the conventional domain registration path so that all .moi sales are funneled through Amazon’s registry site, where registrants will have their eligibility verified and then be offered a set of add-on “technology tools” before being bounced back to their chosen registrar.
Amazon hasn’t said who will be eligible to register .moi domains, nor has it explained what technology tools it plans to offer. I expect the tools will include things such as hosting and security, where many registrars currently make money.
Unsurprisingly, many registrars are not happy about these vague proposals.
In a comment (pdf) to the RSEP filed yesterday, they said:

Ultimately, the use of pre-registration verification and “optional” value added services will negatively impact competition. By tying both practices in a TLD, a TLD Operator can create a “captive audience” via the pre-registration verification and then offering optional services. This will effectively bypass the existing registration and purchase process, putting TLD Operator in a privileged position. The TLD is set up to capture customers earned via the Registrars marketing efforts to promote its own tools and services.

It’s not unusual for “sponsored” or “restricted” gTLDs to implement registry-side verification, they admitted, but said that .moi is meant to be “open”.
They wrote:

While this practice is not explicitly prohibited under gTLDs, we believe that post-delegation inclusion of these practices should only be allowed in compelling circumstances because they are, in effect, retroactively “closing” what was applied for and approved to be operated as an open, generic TLD.

Amazon’s application for .moi, like all of its new gTLD applications, is not entirely clear on what the company’s plans are. There’s vague talk about eligibility, but no details and nothing substantial to suggest a tightly restricted zone.
The signatories to the registrar comment represent the majority of registered domain names. They are: Astutium, Blacknight Internet Solutions, Domain.com, EuroDNS, GoDaddy.com, OpenproviderNetEarth One, Key-Systems, Netistrar, Network Solutions, Nordreg, Realtime Register, Tucows Domains.
One registrar, Com Laude, whose sister company Valideus handles Amazon’s gTLD applications, wrote a comment (pdf) expressing the opposite view.
Com Laude says that it’s not unusual for registries to require registry-side verification. It points to .bank, .pharmacy and .travel as examples.
The company also claims that the 12 registrars are in essence complaining about the idea of vertical integration — where registries and registrars are under common ownership — which is already in place at companies such as Uniregistry and Rightside.
Com Laude’s Jeff Neuman wrote:

We do not believe that it is unacceptable for a company like Amazon to do what these other companies have been doing for some time. To apply different standards to Amazon Registry than it does for each of the other vertically integrated entities would single them out for disparate treatment – especially when there is no factual basis to believe that Amazon Registry has not adhered to its vertical integration-related obligations under the Registry Agreement.

What’s going on here, I suspect, is a bit of a proxy war.
Neither Amazon nor the registrars care a great deal about .moi, I think. The gTLD is merely a canary for Amazon’s 30-odd yet-to-be-launched gTLDs. The company has the rights to potentially more attractive strings, including .book, .song and .tunes.
Amazon originally wanted to make these strings “closed generics”, or what ICANN calls “exclusive access” gTLDs, where only Amazon could register names.
It has since disavowed such plans, but still hasn’t said who will be able to register names in its portfolio or how they will prove eligibility.
.moi was not originally identified as a closed generic by ICANN, but it could represent a model for what Amazon plans to do with the rest of its stable.

.phone will be restricted after Dish gTLD auction win

Kevin Murphy, December 21, 2015, Domain Registries

The new gTLD .phone is going to be tightly restricted, after Dish DBS won the contested string at auction.
The American satellite communications firm beat Donuts to the gTLD, judging by Donuts’ withdrawal from the two-horse on Friday.
This means that if you’re not a licensed telecoms or voice-over-IP service provider, you won’t be able to register a .phone domain, at least at first.
Dish originally applied for .phone as what became known as a “closed generic” — a non-trademark, dictionary word that would nevertheless be operated as a dot-brand, with a single eligible registrant.
Due to Governmental Advisory Committee advice against such business models, Dish changed its application this September to describe .phone instead as a “controlled” gTLD.
Its application states that only Dish, its affiliates and “Qualified Applicants” will at first be able to register .phone domains.
“Qualified Applicants” basically means any company licensed to run a telecommunications service anywhere in the world. The eligibility gate appears to be the “license”.
The application says Dish will reserve the right to open up the gTLD to further classes of registrants at a later date.
While it also says that Dish will not give itself or friendly registrars any “undue preference”, the telecoms industry is suspicious.
USTelecom, the industry body representing large and small US-based telecoms companies, wrote to ICANN in November to say Dish’s volte face was “unconvincing” and its proposals “simply fail to satisfy” ICANN’s rules banning closed generics.
It said in its letter (pdf):

While Dish purports in its amended application that the .phone gTLD will be operated as a “controlled gTLD,” it is in reality an exclusive generic TLD, prone to discriminatory and subjective determinations on which entities are “Qualified Applicants,” and a discretionary reservation “to open this TLD to additional classes of registrants in the future,” who “will not be considered members.”

USTelecom says it negotiated with Dish, in an attempt to resolve its earlier formal objection against the bid, to have Dish include some reassuring Public Interest Commitments in its application, but Dish refused.
ICANN, responding to USTelecom, said that any Registry Agreement Dish signs for .phone will include the clauses that prevent it operating as a closed generic.
Now that the contention set has been settled, Dish’s next step is to proceed to contract negotiations with ICANN.