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ICANN bans closed generics for the foreseeable

Kevin Murphy, January 23, 2024, Domain Policy

There will be no applications for closed generic gTLDs in the 2026 application round, ICANN has confirmed.

While the Org has yet to publish the results of last weekend’s board meeting, chair Tripti Sinha has written to community leaders to let them know that companies won’t be able to apply for exclusive-use, non-trademark strings for the foreseeable future.

The ban follows years of talks that failed to find a consensus on whether closed generics should be permitted, and subsequent advice from the Governmental Advisory Committee, backed up by the At-Large Advisory Committee, that they should not.

Apparently quoting board output from its January 21 meeting, Sinha wrote (pdf):

the Board has considered the GAC Advice and has determined that closed generic gTLD applications will not be permitted until such time as there is an approved methodology and criteria to evaluate whether or not a proposed closed domain is in the public interest.

Closed generics were permitted — or at least not explicitly outlawed — in the 2012 application round, but were retroactively banned by ICANN following GAC advice in 2013, stymying the plans of dozens of applicants.

Ironically, it was the clumsy wording of the 2013 advice that saw the debate re-open a few years ago, with the initiation of a closed-doors, Chatham House Rules “facilitated dialogue” between the pro- and anti- camps, which also failed to reach a consensus.

By drawing a line under the issue now, ICANN has finally officially removed closed generics as a potential delaying factor on the next gTLD application round, which is already 13 years late.

ICANN accused of power grab over $271 million auction fund

Kevin Murphy, November 28, 2023, Domain Policy

ICANN has acted outside of its powers by ignoring community policy recommendations and leaving its $271 million gTLD auction windfall open to being frittered away on lawyers, according to community members.

The Intellectual Property Constituency of the GNSO has filed a formal Request for Reconsideration over a board resolution passed at ICANN 78 last month in Hamburg, and other constituencies may add their names to it shortly.

The row concerns the huge cash pile ICANN was left sitting on following the auction of 17 new gTLD contracts between 2014 and 2016, which raised $240 million (as of July, around $271 million after investment returns and ICANN helping itself to a portion to fund its operations reserve).

It was decided that the money should be used to fund a grant program for worthy causes, with organizations able to apply for up to $500,000 during discrete rounds, the first of which is due to open next year with a $10 million pot. Around $220 million is believed to be earmarked for the grant program over its lifetime.

But the Cross Community Working Group for Auction Proceeds (CCWG-AP) that came up with the rules of the program was concerned that unsuccessful applicants, or others chagrined by ICANN’s grant allocations, might challenge decisions using ICANN’s accountability mechanisms.

This would cause money earmarked for worthy causes to be spaffed away on lawyers, which the CCWG-AP wanted to avoid, so it recommended that ICANN modify its fundamental bylaws to exclude the grant program from mechanisms such as the Independent Review Process, which usually incurs high six-figure or seven-figure legal fees.

ICANN seemed to accept this recommendation — formally approving it in June last year — until ICANN 78, when the board approved a surprise U-turn on this so-called Recommendation 7.

The board said it was changing its mind because it had found “alternative ways” to achieve the same objective, “including ways that do not require modification to ICANN’s core Bylaws on accountability”. The resolution stated:

As a result, the Board is updating its action on Recommendation 7 to reflect that ICANN org should implement this Recommendation 7 directly through the use of applicant terms and conditions rather than through a change to ICANN’s Fundamental Bylaws.

This left some community members — and at least one ICANN director — scratching their heads. Sure, you might be able to ban grant applicants from using the IRP in the program’s terms and conditions, but that wouldn’t stop third parties such as an applicant’s competitors from filing an IRP and causing legal spaffery.

The board was well aware of these concerns when it passed the resolution last month. Directors pointed out in Hamburg that ICANN is still pursuing the bylaws amendment route, but has removed it as a dependency for the first grant round going ahead.

This left some community members nonplussed — it wasn’t clear whether ICANN planned to go ahead with the program ignoring community recommendations, or not. The reassuring words of directors didn’t seem to tally with the language of the resolution.

So the IPC took the initiative and unironically invoked an accountability mechanism — the RfR — to get ICANN to change its mind again. I gather the request was filed as a precaution within the 30-day filing window due to the lack of clarity on ICANN’s direction.

The RfR states:

the impetus behind the Bylaws change was to prevent anyone from challenging grant decisions, including challenges from parties not in contractual privity with ICANN. The Board’s hasty solution would only prevent contracting grant applicants from challenging decisions; it would not in any way affect challenges by anyone else – including anyone who wished to challenge the award of a grant. The grant program could be tied in knots by disgruntled parties, competitive organizations or anyone else who wished to delay or prevent ICANN from carrying out any decision to grant funds. This is exactly what the CCWG-AP sought to prevent

The IPC says that by bypassing the bylaws amendment process, which involves community consent, the ICANN board is basically giving itself the unilateral right to turn off its bylaws-mandated accountability mechanisms when it sees fit. A power grab.

It wants the Hamburg resolution reversed.

Discussing the RfR a few days before it was filed, other members of the GNSO Council suggested that their constituencies might sign on as fellow complainants if and when it is amended.

RfRs are handled by ICANN’s Board Accountability Mechanisms Committee, which does not currently have a publicly scheduled upcoming meeting.

ICANN rejects a whole bunch of new gTLD policy stuff

Kevin Murphy, September 14, 2023, Domain Policy

ICANN has delivered some bad news for dot-brands, applicants from poorer countries, and others, at the weekend rejecting several items of new gTLD policy advice that the community spent years cooking up.

The board of directors on Sunday approved a scorecard of determinations, including the rejection (or non-adoption) of seven GNSO recommendations that it deems “would not be in the best interests of the ICANN community or ICANN”.

In reality, it’s the latter that seems to have been foremost in the board’s mind; most of the rejections appear to be geared toward reducing ICANN Org’s legal or financial exposure.

Notably, dot-brands are denied some of the relief from cumbersome or expensive requirements that the GNSO had wanted rid of.

The board rejected a recommendation that would exempt them from the Continued Operations Instrument — a financial bond used to pay an Emergency Back-End Registry Operator should the applicant go out of business.

“[T]he Board is concerned that an exemption from an COI for Spec 9 applications would have financial impact on ICANN since there would be no fund to draw from if such a registry went into EBERO,” the board wrote.

It also rejected a request to exempt dot-brands from rules requiring them to contractually ban and monitor abuse in their TLDs. The GNSO had argued that single-registrant TLDs do not suffer abuse, but the board said this could lead to abuse from compromised domains going unaddressed.

“The Board concludes that Recommendation 9.2, if implemented, could lead to DNS abuse for second-level registrations in a single-registrant TLD going unaddressed, unobserved, and unmitigated,” it said.

Applicants hoping to benefit from the Applicant Support Program — which in 2012 offered heavily discounted application fees to poorer applicants — also got some bad news.

The GNSO wants the support to extend to other costs such as application-writing services and lawyers, which naturally enough put the frighteners on the board, which noted “such expansion of support could raise the possibility of inappropriate use of resources (e.g. inflated expenses, private benefit concerns, and other legal or regulatory concerns)”.

The board also rejected a couple of recommendations that could be seen as weakening its role as ultimate authority over all things gTLD.

It rejected a proposal to remove the controversial covenant not to sue (CNTS) from the application process unless other recommendations related to appeals processes are implemented.

ICANN said that because it has not yet approved these other recommendations, it has rejected this recommendation.

The board also rejected a recommendation that would have limited its ability to reject a gTLD application to only when permitted to do so by the rules set out in the Applicant Guidebook.

The idea was to prevent applications being arbitrarily rejected, but the board said this “may unduly limit ICANN’s discretion to reject an application in yet-to-be-identified future circumstance(s)”.

The rejections invoke part of the ICANN bylaws that now requires the GNSO Council to convene and either affirm or amend its recommendations before discussing them with the board. Presumably this could happen at ICANN 78 next month.

The bylaws process essentially gives the board the ultimately authority to throw out the GNSO recommendations if it can muster up a two-thirds supermajority vote, something it rarely has a problem achieving.

Buckridge to replace Shears on ICANN board

Kevin Murphy, September 4, 2023, Domain Policy

Chris Buckridge will replace Matthew Shears on ICANN’s board of directors next month.

The Non-Contracted Parties House of ICANN, their arses burned by an August 18 finger-wagging from ICANN chair Tripti Sinha, somehow managed to narrow down a slate of four candidates to just one by Sinha’s end-of-month deadline, despite seeming to be at a very early stage of the election process just last week.

Buckridge will fill seat 14, reserved for a member of the NCPH and one of two GNSO-picked seats.

He was one of the preferred candidates of the Non-Commercial Stakeholders Group, which along with the Commercial Stakeholders Group makes up the NCPH.

The CSG had rejected the NCSG’s original preference to reappoint Shears, who joined the board in 2017, for a third and final term.

Buckridge comes from the Regional Internet Registry world. He was with RIPE NCC from 2006 until this June in a variety of external relations roles, dealing with European governments and regulators, which seems like a pretty good qualification for an ICANN directorship.

Sinha had written to the NCPH leaders last month to complain that they had failed to pick a director, missing an April deadline, and demanded they name a name before the end of August.

Closed generics ban likely to remain after another policy group failure

Kevin Murphy, August 15, 2023, Domain Policy

Closed generic gTLDs are likely off the table for ICANN’s next application round, after a secretive policy development working group failed to reach a consensus on how they could be permitted.

The chairs of the ALAC-GAC-GNSO Facilitated Dialogue on Closed Generic gTLDs have put their names to a draft letter that essentially throws in the towel and recommends ICANN sticks to the status quo in which closed generics are not permitted.

The chairs of the three committees write that they “believe that it is not necessary to resolve the question of closed generic gTLDs as a dependency for the next round of new gTLDs, and we plan to inform the ICANN Board accordingly.”

In other words, whatever latency related to needing a closed generics policy that was built in to ICANN’s recent April 2026 target for opening the next application round could be eliminated from the timeline.

The three chairs added (emphasis in original PDF):

We agree with the ICANN Board (in its original invitation to the GAC and the GNSO to engage in a facilitated dialogue) that this topic is one for community policy work, rather than a decision for the Board. As such and based on our collective belief that there is neither the need nor the community bandwidth to conduct additional work at this stage, we also plan to ask that, for the next round, the Board maintain the position that, unless and until there is a community-developed consensus policy in place, any applications seeking to impose exclusive registry access for “generic strings” to a single person or entity and/or that person’s or entity’s Affiliates (as defined in Section 2.9(c) of the Registry Agreement) should not proceed. Finally, we also plan to inform the Board that any future community policy work on this topic should be based on the good work that has been done to date in this facilitated dialogue.

But that position — still a draft — is already facing some push-back from community members who disagree about what the current status quo actually is.

The 2012 application round opened up with the assumption that closed generics were A-okay, and it received hundreds of such applications.

But the governments of the GAC, no doubt stirred by competition concerns, balked when they saw big companies had applied for gTLD strings that could enable them to dominate their markets.

The GAC demanded that closed generics must service the public interest if they were to be permitted, so ICANN Org — in what would turn out to be an Original Sin injected into the destiny of future rounds — retroactively changed the rules, essentially banning closed generics but allowing applicants to withdraw for a refund or open up their proposed registration policies.

The third option was to defer their applications to a future application round, by which point it was assumed the community would have established a closed generics policy. No applicant took that option.

But making that policy was the job of a committee called SubPro, but when turned its attention to the issue, entrenched positions among volunteers took hold and no consensus could be found. It couldn’t even agree what the status quo was. The group wound up punting the issue to the ICANN board.

The discussion moved on last year when ICANN decided to launch the “Facilitated Dialogue”, forcing the GAC and the GNSO to the negotiating table in last-ditch attempt to put the issue to bed for good.

Ironically, it was the 2013 GAC advice — made at time when the governments drafted their advice in secret and were deliberately ambiguous in their output — that killed off closed generics for a decade that ICANN used to reopen the issue. The GAC hadn’t wanted a blanket ban, after all, it just wanted to mandate a “public interest” benefit.

The assumption was that the Facilitated Dialogue would come up with something in-between a ban and a free-for-all, but what it actually seems to have come up with is a return to the status quo and disagreement about what the status quo even is.

It really is one of those situations where ICANN, in its broadest definition, can’t see to find its ass with two hands and a flashlight (and — if you’ll indulge me — a map, GPS coordinates, and a Sherpa).

ICANN to approve next new gTLD round next month (kinda)

Kevin Murphy, February 14, 2023, Domain Policy

ICANN’s board of directors is sending mixed signals about the new gTLD program, but it seems it is ready to start approving the next round when the community meets for its 76th public meeting in Mexico next month.

It seems the board will approve the GNSO’s policy recommendations in a piecemeal fashion. There are some undisclosed sticking points that will have to be approved at a later date.

Chair Tripti Sinha wrote this week that the board “anticipates making incremental decisions leading up to the final decision on opening a new application window for new gTLDs”.

While “many” recommendations will be approved at ICANN 76, the board “will defer a small, but important, subset of the recommendations for future consideration”.

The good news is that the board is erring towards the so-called “Option 2” sketched out in Org’s Operational Design Assessment, which would be much quicker and cheaper than the five-year slog the ODA primarily envisaged.

Sinha wrote:

the Board has asked ICANN Org to provide more detail on the financing of the steps envisioned in the ODA, and to develop a variation of the proposed Option 2 that ensures adequate time and resources to reduce the need for manual processing and takes into account the need to resolve critical policy issues, such as closed generics.

The closed generics issue — where companies can keep all the domains in a generic-term gTLD all to themselves — did not have a community consensus recommendation, and the GNSO Council and Governmental Advisory Committee have been holding bilateral talks to resolve the impasse.

There’s been an informal agreement that some closed generics should be allowed, but only if they serve the global public interest.

A recent two-day GAC-GNSO discussion failed to find agreement on what “generic” and “global public interest” actually mean, so the talks could be slow going. The group intends to file an update before ICANN 76.

ICANN spunks a year, $9 million, on new gTLD plans destined for trashcan

Kevin Murphy, December 13, 2022, Domain Policy

ICANN has published the Operational Design Assessment for the next round of the new gTLD program, a weighty tome of 400 pages, most of which are likely destined to be torn up, burned, or used as toilet paper.

The ODA is the document, prepared by staff for board consideration, that lays out how the Org could implement the community’s policy recommendations for the next application round, how much it would cost, and how long it would take.

As I wrote last week, the paper outlines two options, the more expensive of which would take five years and cost $125 million before a single application fee is collected.

This option “reflects the goal of delivering on all outputs of the SubPro Final Report [the community’s 300-odd policy recommendations] to the maximum extent possible”.

This would see the clock ticking the moment ICANN gets the board’s nod and begins the implementation work — best case scenario, probably the first half of next year — and the first applications accepted at least five years later.

So, no new gTLD applications would be received until the first half of 2028 at the earliest. The first registry go-live would not happen until the 2030s, three decades after the first application window closed.

The second option, which was discussed on a webinar last week, would take about 18 months to roll out and cost half as much in up-front costs, but would not necessarily give the community every last thing it has asked for.

In this scenario, the next application window could open as early as 2025, followed by windows in 2026, 2027 and 2028. There’d be no per-window limit on applications, but ICANN would only start to process 450 each year, with the lucky applications selected by lottery.

What’s surprising about the ODA is how little airtime is given to the second option — known as the “cyclical” or “batching” option — which doesn’t really get a serious look-in until page 354.

The large majority of the document is devoted to the single-round, long-runway, more-expensive option, which Org surely knows will prove repellent to most community members and would, if approved, surely confirm that ICANN is mortally unfit for purpose.

Yet ICANN has nevertheless spunked over a year and $9 million of domain buyers’ money assessing an operational design it surely knows has no chance of ever going operational. It’s pure, maddening, bureaucratic wheel-spinning.

ICANN will hold two webinars tomorrow to discuss the document, so if you’re interested in the debate, best settle in for a night of tedious and rather frustrating reading.

The ODA itself is here (pdf).

Is ICANN toothless in the face of DNS abuse?

Kevin Murphy, October 12, 2022, Domain Policy

Concerns have been raised that ICANN may lack the tools to tackle DNS abuse using its contracts with registries and registrars.

The new report from the GNSO’s “small team” on abuse has highlighted two “gaps” in the current Compliance regime that may be allowing registrars to get away with turning a blind eye to abusive customers.

The current version of the standard Registrar Accreditation Agreement calls for registrars to maintain an abuse contact email and to “take reasonable and prompt steps to investigate and respond appropriately to any reports of abuse.”

The problem, the small team report finds, is that ICANN Compliance doesn’t seem to have a standard definition of “reasonable”, “prompt”, and “appropriately”. The contract doesn’t require any specific remediations from the registrar.

“Members of the small team are concerned that this interpretation may allow DNS abuse to remain unmitigated, depending upon the registrar’s specific domain name use and abuse policies,” the report states.

Judging by conversations at ICANN 75 last month, it’s apparently the first time Compliance has gone on the record about how it enforces this part of the contract.

It’s quite rare for ICANN to issue a public breach notice to a registrar over its failure to respond to abuse reports and when it does, it tends to relate to the registrar’s failure to keep records showing how it responded.

I can’t find any instances where Compliance has canned a registrar for allowing abusive domains — typically defined as those hosting malware, phishing, botnets, pharming and some spam — to remain active after an abuse report.

The small team’s report also thinks there’s a blind spot in ICANN’s standard Registry Agreement, which in turn requires registries to include, in their Registry-Registrar Agreements, provisions requiring anti-abuse terms in the registrars’ Registration Agreements.

This complex chain of contractual provisions doesn’t seem to be enforced, the small team notes, saying “further consideration may need to be given to what Registries are doing to ensure the text is indeed included in the Registration Agreement (ie Registries enforcing their own Registry-Registrar Agreements”.

The small team recommends that contracted parties talk further with ICANN about possible contract changes or best practices documents before going ahead with policy-making. The GNSO Council will address the recommendations later this month.

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.

New gTLDs WILL be delayed by Whois work

Kevin Murphy, July 14, 2022, Domain Policy

The next round of new gTLD applications will be delayed by ICANN’s work on Whois reform, ICANN chair Maarten Botterman confirmed today.

In a letter to his GNSO Council counterpart Philippe Fouquart, Botterman states that the new gTLDs Operational Design Phase, which was due to wrap up in October, will have to proceed with an “extended timeline”.

This is because the GNSO has pushed the concept of a Whois Disclosure System, previously known as SSAD Light and meant to provide the foundations of a system for access private Whois data, and ICANN needs time to design it.

Botterman wrote (pdf):

there is an overlap in org resources with the relevant expertise needed to complete these efforts. As a result, work on the [Whois] design paper will impact existing projects. While SubPro [new gTLDs] ODP work will not stop during this period, we anticipate that an extended timeline will be required to account for the temporary unavailability of resources allocated to the design paper work.

Botterman did not put a length of time to these delays, but previous ICANN estimates have talked about six weeks. GNSO members had worried that this estimate might be a low-ball that could be extended.

ICANN had given the GNSO the option to choose to delay Whois work to complete the SubPro ODP, but it could not come to an agreement on which project was more important, and seemed to resent even being asked.