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The end of “do-nothing” ICANN?

Kevin Murphy, March 23, 2023, Domain Policy

ICANN’s new gTLD program hit a remarkable milestone earlier this month. Measured from the 2012 application window, on March 6 it officially overtook NASA’s Apollo Program, which put a dozen humans on the moon, in terms of duration.

But some in the community coming out of ICANN 76 last week appear to be cautiously optimistic that the days of the “do-nothing” ICANN, entirely too wrapped up in pointless bureaucracy and navel-gazing, may be coming to a close under its new leadership.

As I reported in January 2022, at that point ICANN hadn’t implemented a policy in over five years and didn’t seem to be close to actually getting stuff done.

That sentiment was reflected at a Cancun open-mic session last week, when 20-year community member Jordyn Buchanan, who works for Google and said he’d taken a five-year break from the ICANN process, spoke up.

“It’s not so great when I look at the substantive progress that has been made — or rather that hasn’t been made — in the past few years, or really over the past decade or so,” he told the board.

He gave several examples, not least the new gTLD program, where ICANN has been procrastinating for years.

“Consistently across the board, I think we see examples of where we’re just not living up to the vision of ICANN as being an entity that could be more responsive and more rapid looking at technological changes,” he said.

The only area where progress has been made is Whois, and that’s only because ICANN’s hand was forced by European Union legislation, he said.

Board member Chris Chapman, at his first full ICANN meeting in the role, responded positively to the feedback, stating: “There’s a real realization internally within the board that there have got to be more efficient, effective, and timely deliverables.”

Directors including interim CEO Sally Costerton and chair Tripti Sinha, made similar noises throughout the week, repeatedly invoking the idea of an “inflection point” for the institution, which faces increasing pressures from governments and other external forces.

The noises were encouraging to some.

The GNSO Council decided as the Cancun meeting closed to send a letter to Sinha and Costerton, both relatively recent appointments, observing “there seems to be a noticeable change, maybe even a cultural change, towards ‘getting things done’.”

The Council will express its support for “this spirit of pragmatism and delivery” and encourage ICANN to continue along the same lines.

Council’s spirits appear to have been raised by the ICANN’s board’s touring stakeholder bilaterals last week with questions about how ICANN can be more “agile”, particularly through the use of “small teams” to answer narrow policy problems.

Such a practice has been used in areas such as DNS abuse, and its arguably in use today answering the closed generics question.

Community members also used these sessions to express dissatisfaction with the lumbering Operational Design Assessments that have delayed Whois reform and the new gTLD program, suggesting that ODA work in future could run in parallel with the Policy Development Processes they seek to assess.

So, it seems pretty clear that ICANN’s new leadership used ICANN 76 send the signals they needed to send to get the community on board with their program.

Whether this honeymoon-period energy will lead to real change or gradually wither away under 25 years of accumulated labyrinthine bureaucracy, institutional lethargy, and personal beefs remains to be seen.

But this isn’t rocket science.

Governments backtracking on closed generics ban

Kevin Murphy, March 21, 2023, Domain Policy

ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee appears to be backpedaling on its commitment to permitting so-called “closed generic” gTLDs in the next application round.

The GAC’s output from ICANN 76, which took place in Cancun last week, contains a paragraph that suggests that governments are reverting to their decade-old position that maybe closed generics are not a good idea.

The GAC, GNSO and At-Large have been engaging in a “facilitated dialogue” for the past few months in an attempt to figure out whether closed generics should be allowed and under what terms.

The GAC is now saying “no policy option, including the prohibition of Closed Generics, should be excluded if no satisfactory solution is found”. It had agreed to the dialogue on the condition that prohibition would not be an outcome.

A closed generic is a single-registrant gTLD matching a dictionary word that is not a trademark. Think McDonald’s controlling all the names in .burger or Jack Daniels controlling the whole .whiskey zone.

These types of TLDs had not been banned in the 2012 application round, resulting over 180 gTLD applications, including the likes of L’Oreal applying for .makeup and Symantec’s .antivirus.

But the GAC took a disliking to these applications, issuing advice in 2013 that stated: “For strings representing generic terms, exclusive registry access should serve a public interest goal.”

This caused ICANN to implement what amounted to a retroactive ban on closed generics. Many applicants withdrew their bids; other tried to fudge their way around the issue or simply sat on their gTLDs defensively.

When the GNSO came around to developing policy in 2020 for the next new gTLD round, it failed to come to a consensus on whether closed generics should be allowed. It couldn’t even agree on what the default, status quo position was — the 2012 round by policy permitted them, but in practice did not. The matter was punted to ICANN.

A year ago, ICANN said the GAC and GNSO should get their heads together in a small group, the “facilitated dialogue”, to resolve the matter, but the framing paper outlining the rules of engagement for the talks explicitly ruled out two “edge outcomes” that, ICANN said, were “unlikely to achieve consensus”.

Those outcomes were:

1. allowing closed generics without restrictions or limitations OR

2. prohibiting closed generics under any circumstance.

The GAC explicitly agreed to these terms, with then-chair Manal Ismail (who vacated the seat last week) writing (pdf):

The GAC generally agrees with the proposed parameters for dialogue, noting that 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.

Now, after days of closed-door facilitated dialogue have so far failed to reach a consensus on stuff like what the “public interest” is, the GAC has evidently had a change of heart.

Its new Cancun communique states:

In view of the initial outputs from the facilitated dialogue group on closed generics, involving representatives from the GAC, GNSO and At-Large, the GAC acknowledges the importance of this work, which needs to address multiple challenges. While the GAC continues to be committed to the facilitated dialogue, no policy option, including the prohibition of Closed Generics, should be excluded if no satisfactory solution is found. In any event, any potential solution would be subject to the GAC’s consensus agreement.

In other words, the GAC is going back on its word and explicitly ruling-in one of the two edge outcomes it less than a year ago had explicitly ruled out.

It’s noteworthy — and was noted by several governments during the drafting of the communique — that the other edge outcome, allowing closed generics without restriction, is not mentioned.

It’s tempting to read this as a negotiating tactic — the GAC publicly indicating that a failure to reach a deal with the GNSO will mean a closed generics ban by default, but since the facilitated dialogue is being held entirely in secret it’s impossible to know for sure.

Brands want new gTLD fast track

Kevin Murphy, March 9, 2023, Domain Policy

The Brand Registry Group is to propose a set of principles for the next round of ICANN’s new gTLD program that it thinks would see the initial application fee slashed by more than half and some evaluations starting as early as this October.

Under the proposals, TLD-curious applicants could get into the system for as little as $100,000 per string, about $150,000 lower than ICANN’s current estimate, and could see ICANN accepting applications as early as April 2025.

The recommendations, drafted by GoDaddy’s Tony Kirsch and Pharos Global’s Michael Palage, will be presented at a session on Saturday, the first day of ICANN’s 76th public meeting, in Cancun, Mexico.

They’re calling the proposals “Option 2a”, a reference to the two options laid out in ICANN’s Operational Design Assessment of the next round, which was completed in December.

The plan would allow applicants to pay $100,000 to submit a bare-bones application and test the waters in terms of contention, objections and similarity. They could then choose to withdraw before submitting the financial and technical portions of their bid.

Applicants with straightforward applications (presumably including most dot-brands) would have a lower overall cost than those who need additional reviews, contention resolution and objection processing.

The paper also criticizes the “astonishing” estimate of a $400 million program development cost, suggesting instead that ICANN repurpose its existing tools such as Salesforce to roll out the application submission system.

It reckons ICANN could start its Registry Service Provider Pre-Evaluation Program, based on the process it already uses when registries switch back-ends, in October this year.

If ICANN adopts the proposals, the BRG reckons a final Applicant Guidebook could be approved in October 2024, with applications accepted from April 2025.

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.

No masks required at ICANN Cancun

Kevin Murphy, January 25, 2023, Domain Policy

ICANN is considerably loosening up its Covid-19 restrictions for its next meeting, due to take place in Cancun, Mexico, in March.

The Org said last night that face masks will no longer be compulsory inside the venue, though they will still be provided for free and are “strongly recommended”. Testing kits will also be handed out.

It also won’t need to see your vaccination papers any more. You’ll merely need to check a box confirming that you’re fully up-to-date on your shots at time of registration.

Also gone are proof-of-vaccination wrist-bands, though the color-coded lanyard system, which allows people to indicate their comfort level with social proximity, will remain in place.

The meeting will take place from March 10 at the Cancun Center, but you have to register online before March 8. You can’t just rock up on the day and register on the door like you could pre-pandemic.