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Governments call for new gTLD auctions ban

Kevin Murphy, June 17, 2024, Domain Policy

Governments have upped the stakes in their opposition to new gTLDs being auctioned off privately, now calling for an outright prohibition on the practice.

ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee today published its formal advice coming out of last week’s public meeting in Kigali, calling for ICANN to “prohibit the use of private auctions in resolving contention sets in the next round of New gTLDs”.

It’s a strengthening of previous language from last year’s Washington DC meeting which called for ICANN to “ban or strongly disincentivize private monetary means of resolution of contention sets, including private auctions”.

Private auctions were the most-common way that contests between new gTLD applicants with matching strings were resolved in the 2012 application round. Many tens of millions of dollars changed hands, with the losing bidders pocketing the winning bids.

But the practice came in for criticism from groups such as the GAC and the At-Large Advisory Committee, partly because it made it harder for non-commercial or less well-financed developing-world applicants to get a foothold in the gTLD space.

“The 2012 round was basically a game for millionaires,” ALAC chair Johnathon Zuck told the GAC at a meeting between the two groups last week. “There were many things that made the last round kind of a joke… but this was the very big thing that made the community look bad.”

Discussions with the ALAC, which wanted to issue joint advice with the GAC, seems to be at least partly responsible for the GAC aligning around advising a full-on ban on private auctions.

ICANN’s board of directors is broadly in favor of “discincentivizing” private auctions, but has stopped short of advocating for a full prohibition, according to directors’ public statements and board resolutions.

The Org commissioned a study from a New York company called NERA Economic Consulting, published shortly before the Kigali meeting, to look into ways to dissuade applicants from private auctions and encourage them towards ICANN’s “last resort” auctions — where ICANN gets all the money — or into joint ventures.

While it did not come up with any recommendations as such, the study did lay out some possible mechanisms — such as forcing applicants into last-resort auctions, or making them pay an extra fee if they want to resolve their contention sets privately.

Separately, ICANN has told the GAC it intends to reject another piece of its advice related to contention sets. The GAC had told ICANN last year:

To take steps to avoid the use of auctions of last resort in contentions between commercial and non-commercial applications; alternative means for the resolution of such contention sets, such as drawing lots, may be explored

But ICANN reckons a lottery might be illegal under California law. That’s pretty much what it said before it came up with “Digital Archery” during the last application round, and it turned out to not be completely correct.

It also disagrees with the GAC that non-commercial applicants in contention sets should be treated preferentially, with the board wary about having to pick winners and losers in the next round.

The board has therefore triggered the part of its bylaws that require it to hold formal negotiations with the GAC to see if they can come to a compromise before the advice is rejected.

More sticker shock as new gTLD fees could top $300,000

Kevin Murphy, June 10, 2024, Domain Policy

The base new gTLD application fee could top $300,000, according to an analysis released by ICANN at its meeting in Kigali, Rwanda, this morning.

The per-gTLD fee will likely range between $208,000 and $293,000, according to the latest estimate, but this does not include mandatory fees that have yet to be figured out that as a whole could amount to “tens of millions”.

ICANN is blaming inflation for most of the increase from the 2012 round, where the fee was $185,000. Staff said that if you take into account a 44% rise due to 14 years of inflation, the 2026 application fee could actually be lower in real-money terms.

The reason for the broad range provided is that ICANN still doesn’t have a good guess as to how many applications it will receive. The program is being run on a cost-recovery basis and ICANN has already budgeted for a spend of $70 million before the application window even opens.

If it only receives 500 applications, it could lose tens of millions of dollars even with a high application fee. With a fee of $242,000, ICANN would need 1,000 applications to make its money back, staff said during an ICANN 80 session today.

There were 1,930 applications in 2012, but demand in 2026 will depend a lot on how many desirable strings remain undelegated, particularly in non-English languages and non-Latin scripts, and how enthusiastic brand owners are about the dot-brand concept (or defensively registering their dot-brands).

The main unknown not included in the latest estimate is the cost of implementing the recommendations of the second Name Collision Analysis Project, which in May called for all gTLDs to be tested live in the DNS before being awarded to the applying registry.

Each of the NCAP2 recommendations could cost between “thousands” and “tens of millions” in total, which would be divided between all the applicants, staffers said. Scrawling on the back of an envelope, it looks to me like this could easily push the top end of the range well over $300,000.

The good news is that if ICANN gets a lot of applications and recovers its costs, it already anticipates giving applicants some of their money back. As an example, it said that if the fee is $220,000 and there are 2,000 applications, applicants could each get $35,000 back.

But that ray of sunlight was not enough to temper the concerns of community members in the room in Kigali today, several of whom sparred with CFO Xavier Calvez and new gTLD program lead Marika Konings over their calculations.

Registry services providers are already angry about the large increase in evaluation fees for the RSP program announced last month.

One thing that doesn’t seem to be under any dispute is that high fees will scare off some applicants, meaning the cost burden will be borne by fewer shoulders, meaning the fees did in fact need to be high; a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Outrage over ICANN’s new gTLD fees

Kevin Murphy, May 29, 2024, Domain Policy

Is ICANN stifling competition and pricing out the Global South by setting its new gTLD evaluation fees too high? A great many community volunteers seem to think so, judging by recent conversations.

The Org last week revealed that it plans to charge registry service providers that want to participate in the next application round $92,000 for their technical evaluation, on top of the estimated $250,000 fee that it will charge for each applied-for string.

Critics have pointed out that a roughly equivalent evaluation, used when a 2012-round gTLD switches to an unknown back-end, currently costs about $14,300, and they’re baffled as to why ICANN plans to up its fees so much.

The Registry Service Provider Evaluation Program was intended to cut a lot of waste and duplication from the new gTLD program. Instead of doing a technical evaluation on an RSP for each gTLD application, the RSP is evaluated once and each applicant simply selects an RSP from a list of approved companies.

ICANN says the program will cost $4.1 million overall, with $2 million of that already mostly spent on the design and implementation phase. It’s expecting all of the existing 40-ish back-end providers to submit to evaluation, along with an unknown number of newcomers.

Assuming fewer than 50 participating RSPs, ICANN will charge $92,000 per RSP. The program is designed to be run on a cost-recovery basis. ICANN says it will lower the price and issue refunds if there are significantly more participants.

Despite that caveat, ICANN staffers running the new gTLD program have faced a barrage of criticism over the last week from members of the SubPro Implementation Review Team, the community volunteers tasked with making sure staff implementation sticks to community policy.

The high-end of the fee scale is high enough that it will essentially “kill off” the RSP market in the Global South, according to Rubens Kuhl of Brazilian ccTLD registry Nic.br, which currently runs the back-end for a handful of 2012-round strings.

The term “Global South” refers to less-wealthy countries largely in the southern hemisphere, mainly in Africa, Asia and Latin America, where $92,000 goes a lot further than it does in North America or Europe.

“What ICANN is suggesting right now simply kills off all Global South RSPs,” Kuhl said during a call yesterday. “Those RSPs could have the technical capability to run gTLDs, and they run very large ccTLDs… It simply seems like a system designed to keep the Global South out.”

Gustavo Lozano Ibarra, director of technical services projects at ICANN and former NIC Mexico employee, responded first by saying that gTLD applicants in the next round from the Global South do necessarily have to chose an RSP from their own region.

“I completely understand that there could be some RSPs in the Global South with capabilities for which the fee could be an issue,” he said. “I think that we get that, and I think that maybe the lack of an Applicant Support Program for the RSPs is something that we need to take into consideration for the next round.”

“So, this round, no Global South. Okay, thank you,” said Kuhl.

“I don’t think this proposed US$92,000 RSP pre-evaluation fee is going to encourage diverse participation in the next nTLD round, especially from developing regions,” Neil Dundas of South African RSP DNS Africa said on the IRT’s mailing list.

“It’s a new financial barrier to entry that previously was not there and it will almost certainly hamper participation from developing regions,” he said.

Mailing list chatter suggests that this potential barrier to entry is something that ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee may take a dim view of when the community convenes in Rwanda for ICANN 80 next month.

ICANN is also taking flak for how it is calculating the total cost of the RSP program. Consultant and registry operator Jeff Neuman accused the Org of “double-dipping” by charging for staffers’ work on the program, which he said should already be covered by the fees registries, registrars and ultimately registrants pay into ICANN’s budget.

Responding to criticism that ICANN has over-spent, Ibarra pointed out on yesterday’s call that $4.1 million is a fraction of the $22 million he said ICANN spent on technical evaluations in the 2012 application round.

In addition, RSPs that are attached to potentially dozens of gTLD applications will save a lot of money by only paying to be evaluated once, he said.

ICANN preparing for ONE HUNDRED registry back-ends

The number of gTLD registry back-end providers could more than double during the next new gTLD application round, ICANN’s board of directors has been told.

There are currently about 40 registry services providers serving the gTLD industry, but ICANN is preparing for this to leap to as many as 100 when it launches its Registry Service Provider Evaluation Program for the 2026 application round.

“We’re preparing, I think, for roughly a hundred or so applications which will include the 40 existing providers that we’re aware of, and another 60 or so is sort of our rough market sizing,” Russ Weinstein, a VP at ICANN’s Global Domains Division, told the board during a meeting in Paris last week.

The number is based on what ICANN is preparing to be able to handle, rather than confirmed applicants to the RSP program, it seems.

“We are hoping to see some diversification and new entrants into the space,” Weinstein said.

Board member Edmon Chung elaborated that he expects most of the new entrants to be ccTLD registries hoping to break into the gTLD market.

“We can expect a few more ccTLD registries that might be be interested,” he said. “We’re probably not expecting a completely new startup that just comes in and becomes a registry, but beyond the 40, probably a few more ccTLDs.”

ccTLD registries already active in the gTLD market following the 2012 application round include Nominet, Nic.at and AFNIC, which tend to serve clients that are based in the same timezone and use the same native language.

Unstoppable to apply for Women in Tech gTLD

Unstoppable Domains and Women in Tech Global have announced that they plan to apply for a new gTLD when ICANN opens the next application round.

They want .witg, which Unstoppable has already launched on its blockchain-based naming system. They cost $10 a pop.

Unstoppable says the names come with some social networking features, as well as the usual ability to address cryptocurrency wallets.

The company has also recently announced gTLD application partnerships with POG Digital for .pog, Clay Nation for .clay and Pudgy Penguin for .pudgy.

Unstoppable is mainly competing here with D3 Global, which is also recruiting blockchain businesses that want to embrace the DNS when the next round opens.

ICANN content policing power grab may be dead

Kevin Murphy, April 3, 2024, Domain Policy

A move by ICANN to grant itself more formal “content policing” powers may be dead, after the community was split on the issue and governments failed to back the move.

The Governmental Advisory Committee yesterday sent comments essentially opposing, for now at least, the idea of ICANN reforming its bylaws to give it more powers over internet content, making it very unlikely that ICANN would be able to get such amendments approved by its community overseers.

The comments came a few days after ICANN extended the deadline for responses to a December 2023 consultation on whether applicants in the next new gTLD round should be able to sign up to so-called Registry Voluntary Commitments that regulate content in their zones.

RVCs would be an appendix to ICANN Registry Agreements which would commit a registry to, for example, ban certain types of registrant or certain types of content from domains in their gTLDs.

They’re basically a rebadged version of the Public Interest Commitments found in RAs from the 2012 round, in which the likes of .sucks agreed to ban cyberbullying and .music agreed to ban piracy.

But they’ve got ICANN’s board and lawyers worried, because the Org’s bylaws specifically ban it from restricting or regulating internet content. They’re worried that the RVCs might not be enforceable and that ICANN may wind up in litigation as a result.

ICANN has therefore proposed a framework (pdf) in which RVCs would be enforced by ICANN only after an agreed-upon third-party auditor or monitor found that a registry was out of compliance.

The board sent out several pages of questions to all of its Supporting Organizations and Advisory Committees in December, asking among other things whether the bylaws needed to be amended to clarify ICANN’s role, but the responses were split along traditional lines.

Registries and registrars were aligned: there’s no need for a bylaws change, because ICANN should not allow RVCs that regulate content into its contracts at all.

“ICANN should maintain its existing bylaws which exclude content from its mission, and allowing any changes to this could be a slippery slope opening ICANN to becoming a broader ‘content police’,” the Registrars Stakeholder Group said in its response, giving this amusing example:

An example of a content restriction is provided in the proposed implementation framework for .backyardchickens (e.g. no rooster-related content). Restricting rooster-related content would require a significant amount of policing, and could even prohibit valuable content that would benefit such a TLD. For example, a backyard hen farmer might want to promote the pedigree lineage of the roosters that helped sire the hens, show pictures of the roosters that were the fathers, etc. All of this could in theory be prohibited,but would also require review and subjective analysis. This would be a very slippery slope for ICANN, and a substantial departure from its mission. Restricting rooster content would then put ICANN in the place of enforcing laws that prohibit backyard roosters, rather than relying upon the competent government authorities charged with overseeing residential animal husbandry.

The Non-Commercial Stakeholders Group was more strident in its tone, even raising the possibility of legal action if ICANN went down the content policing route, saying “the best way for the Board to address content-related PICs and RVCs is to make it clear that it will reject them categorically.” It added:

The prohibition on content regulation in ICANN’s mission is extremely important and very clear. Mission limitations were a critical part of the accountability reforms that were required before ICANN would be released from US government control in 2016… NCSG will mount a legal challenge to any attempt to dilute this part of the mission.

The opposing view was held by the Business Constituency, the Intellectual Property Constituency, and the At-Large Advisory Committee, which is tasked with representing the interests of ordinary internet users.

They all said that ICANN should be able to allow content-related RVCs in registry contracts, but the IPC and BC said that no bylaws amendment is needed because the bylaws already have a carve-out that enables the Org to enforce PICs in its agreements. The ALAC said a bylaws amendment is needed.

“There is a distinction between ICANN regulating, i.e imposing ‘rules and restrictions on’ services and content, versus the registry operator voluntarily proposing and submitting to such rules and restrictions,” the IPC wrote.

“There is also a distinction between ICANN directly enforcing such rules and restrictions on third parties, i.e. registrants, versus ICANN holding a registry operator to compliance with the specifics of a contractual commitment,” it added.

The last community group to submit a response, fashionably late, was the GAC, which filed its response yesterday having reviewed all the other responses submitted so far. The GAC arguably has the loudest voice at ICANN, but its comments were probably the least committed.

The GAC said that ICANN should only go ahead with a bylaws amendment if it has community backing, but that the community currently lacks consensus. It said, “at this stage there are not sufficient elements to justify commencing a fundamental bylaws amendment to explicitly enable the enforcement of content-related restrictions”.

However, the GAC still thinks that RVCs “will continue to serve as tools for addressing GAC concerns pertaining to new gTLD applications during the next round” and that it wants them to be enforceable by ICANN, with consequences for registries found in breach.

The GAC said that it “will continue to explore options to address this important question”.

This all means that ICANN is a long way from getting the community support it would need to push through a bylaws amendment related to content policing. That’s considered one of the “Fundamental Bylaws” and can only be changed with substantial community support.

Such amendments require the backing of the Empowered Community. That’s the entity created in 2016 to oversee ICANN after it severed ties with the US government. It comprises individuals from five groups — the GAC, the GNSO, the ccNSO, the ALAC and the Address Supporting Organization.

For a fundamental bylaws amendment to get over the line, at least three of these groups must approve it and no more than one must object.

With the GNSO, given its divisions, almost certainly unable to gather enough affirmative votes, the GAC seemingly on the fence, and the ASO and ccNSO recusing themselves so far, only the ALAC looks like a clear-cut yes vote on a possible future bylaws amendment.

Perhaps that’s why ICANN chair Tripti Sinha has written to the ASO and ccNSO in the last few days to ask them whether they’d like to think again about ducking out of the consultation, giving them an extra two weeks to submit comments after the original March 31 deadline.

The ccNSO handles policy for country-code domains and the ASO for IP addresses. Both have previously told ICANN that gTLD policy is none of their business, but Sinha has urged them both to chip in anyway, because “the ICANN Bylaws govern us all”.

Governments back down on new gTLD next round delay

Kevin Murphy, March 13, 2024, Domain Policy

ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee has decided not to force the Org to pay for a independent cost/benefit analysis of the new gTLD program, removing the potential for timeline friction ahead of the planned 2026 next-round launch.

In its latest communique, published following the ICANN 79 meeting in Puerto Rico last week, the GAC has essentially told ICANN that it broke its bylaws by not following eight-year-old GAC advice, but meh, whatever, just don’t do it again.

As I reported last week, governments had grown concerned that ICANN had not delivered the “objective and independent analysis of costs and benefits” of the new gTLD program that the GAC had asked for in 2016. Such an analysis was supposed to be a prerequisite for the next round going ahead.

What ICANN had delivered instead was a relatively hastily prepared summary of the next round’s policy recommendations, Org’s analysis of these recommendations, and the community-led review of competition, consumer protection and trust issues, the CCT review.

The Puerto Rico communique says that this response “cannot be considered to constitute a cost-benefit analysis, nor to be objective and independent” but that the GAC does not wish to throw up a road-block to the next round going ahead on schedule. It reads:

The GAC recognizes that the Community (with involvement of the GAC) is taking forward the next round of new gTLDs and has set a corresponding timeline. The GAC, therefore, believes that conducting further analysis at this stage would not serve the intended purpose.

The GAC encourages the Board to ensure that GAC advice, which the Board has accepted, is effectively implemented and its implementation is communicated to the GAC.

GAC chair Nicolas Caballero of Paraguay summarized it as the committee telling the ICANN board “we’re not aiming by no means at stopping the next round or anything like that, but that we want to be taken seriously”.

The original draft of the communique, drafted by Denmark, the US, the UK and Switzerland delegations, also contained text noting that the analysis ICANN provided was written by staff or community stakeholders, who were neither independent nor objective, but this was removed during a drafting session last week after objections from Iran, whose rep said it sounded too critical of the multistakeholder process.

It seems ICANN, and others who stand to make a lot of money from the new gTLD program, have dodged a bullet here, with the GAC essentially backing away and backing down from its potentially delay-causing previous demands.

GAC spinning up new gTLD curveball at ICANN 79?

Kevin Murphy, March 3, 2024, Domain Policy

ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee had a habit of throwing delaying curveballs before and during the 2012 new gTLD application round, and it might be planning a repeat performance before the upcoming 2026 round.

The GAC today assembled at ICANN 79 in Puerto Rico to discuss the latest developments in planning for the next round, and a major concern emerged around ICANN’s response to its request for a cost/benefit analysis.

The GAC had first asked for such an analysis at the Helsinki meeting in 2016, but after the ICANN 78 Hamburg meeting last October noted that it had still not received one.

At ICANN 56, the GAC had asked that an “objective and independent analysis of costs and benefits… drawing on experience with and outcomes from the recent round” should be a prerequisite for a next round going ahead.

After its Hamburg reminder, ICANN threw together a summary (pdf) of three existing documents that it presumably hoped would check that box and shush the GAC or give the GAC an excuse to shush itself.

The documents were the report of the Competition and Consumer Trust Review Team, the Subsequent Procedures PDP Working Group Final Report (which created the policy recommendations for the next round) and ICANN’s Operational Design Assessment of SubPro (which talked about how ICANN would implement those recommendations).

It was a pretty flimsy response, and GACers weren’t buying it, pointing out today that the three documents in question were all produced by the ICANN community or ICANN staff and couldn’t really be said to be “objective and independent”. Nor could they be said to amount to an “analysis of costs and benefits”.

“I had the pleasure to read through the report, and see whether it’s a cost/benefit analysis, and whether it’s an objective and independent analysis,” the GAC rep from Denmark said. “And I must say that my answer or reply to those questions would be no, and a big no.”

Other GAC members in Europe and North America seemed to agree that either the cost/benefit analysis they had asked for still hadn’t been delivered and that perhaps it wouldn’t be great for the GAC’s credibility if it didn’t press the issue.

The UK rep, who was chairing the session, observed that GAC members’ higher-uppers in government, such as ministers, sometimes ask what economic impact gTLD expansion might have and that an answer might be useful.

The contrarian opinion came, as it so often does, from Iran, whose rep suggested that a cost/benefit analysis might be pointless and maybe the GAC should just put the issue to bed.

What happens if the analysis shows the costs outweigh the benefits, he asked, should ICANN just scrap the next application round and 13 years of policy work?

It seems a request for ICANN to pay for an independent cost/benefit analysis of the new gTLD program could make its way into the GAC’s formal advice-delivering communique later in the week, potentially throwing friction into the roll-out of the next round.

In my opinion, there is no real answer to the question of whether the new gTLD program is a net benefit.

Beyond the billions of dollars of economic activity that will be created, whether it’s beneficial is purely a subjective opinion, and paying a bunch of overpriced consultants to wave their hands in the air for a year before spitting out the 300-page PDF equivalent of a Gallic Shrug probably won’t provide any meaningful clarity.

Registry service provider evaluation handbook published

Kevin Murphy, February 12, 2024, Domain Registries

ICANN has released the first draft of its RSP Handbook, the guidelines and questionnaire for registry service providers that want to get pre-approved by the Org ahead of the next new gTLD application round.

The Handbook is aimed at the few dozen companies that offer back-end services to gTLD registries — companies such as GoDaddy, Identity Digital and CentralNic — to guide them through the process of getting approved under the new Registry Service Provider Evaluation Program.

The program was called for by the GNSO community in order to minimize the amount of time-consuming, expensive evaluation work required for each new gTLD application. If a gTLD applicant’s selected RSP has been pre-approved by ICANN, it’s an automatic pass on the technical part of the application.

The new Handbook 1.0 envisages four types of RSP. A “Main RSP” is a full-service provider that looks after all technical aspects of a registry back-end. There are also categories for companies that provide DNS resolution only and DNSSEC services.

A fourth type, the “Proxy RSP”, is aimed primarily at companies that provide secondary registry services in countries that have very restrictive domain licensing rules. That basically means China, and proxies such as ZDNS.

Incumbent gTLD RSPs have a distinct advantage in the Handbook process. If they’re in good standing with ICANN and have complied with their service level agreements for the last six months, they can skip the second, technical part of the evaluation.

Incumbents also get a streamlined process for additional registry services — stuff like name-blocking and registry locks — they wish to offer. If they already offer them in an existing gTLD, they get to skip the full Registry Services Evaluation Process.

The Handbook is a first draft and does not currently include things like fees and dates. It’s not yet open for public comment but you can read the 108-page PDF here.

ICANN expects to launch the pre-evaluation program 18 months before it starts accepting new gTLD applications, so applicants have a list of approved RSPs to choose from. With a Q2 2026 target date for the next application window, that means the RSP program could launch later this year.

First chunks of new gTLD Applicant Guidebook drop

Kevin Murphy, February 1, 2024, Domain Policy

ICANN has released for comment the first public drafts of seven sections of the new gTLD program’s Applicant Guidebook, the first of what are expected to be quarterly comment periods for the next 18 months or so.

As I previewed last week, the documents cover topics including geographic names, blocked strings, Universal Acceptance, conflicts of interest and freedom of expression.

The documents were prepared by the ICANN staff/community Subsequent Procedures Implementation Review Team, based on the recommendations of a working group reporting to the Generic Names Supporting Organization a few years ago.

ICANN says it wants to know whether everyone thinks the AGB text it has come up with is consistent with those recommendations.

The comment period is open until March 19. ICANN hopes to have the full AGB ready by May 2025, with the next application round opening April 2026.