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ICANN to be told to stop pussyfooting on new gTLDs

Kevin Murphy, January 18, 2023, Domain Policy

The GNSO Council is expected to tell ICANN’s board of directors that it needs to stop lollygagging and set the wheels in motion for the next round of new gTLDs.

The Council plans to send a letter to the board ahead of its retreat this weekend, urging it to approve the GNSO’s new gTLD policy recommendations — the so-called SubPro Final Report — which turn two years old today.

There may also be some harsh critique of ICANN’s Operational Design Assessment for the program, which put an unexpectedly enormous price tag and years-long runway on the next round.

An early draft of the letter urges the board to approve the SubPro report “as soon as practicable” and “quickly” form an Implementation Review Team, which is the next stage of turning policy recommendations into systems and processes.

The ODA had provided two options for the next round. One would take five years and cost $125 million before a single application fee is collected. The second would cost about half as much and take 18 months.

The key differences were that Option 1 would see a lot of automation, with ICANN scratch-building systems for handling applications, objections, contention resolution and such, whereas Option 2 would cut some corners and rely more on manual processing.

But the GNSO, at least judging by the early draft of its letter, seems to regard this as a false dichotomy, instead proposing a third way, leaning on configurable third-party software and existing ICANN systems.

Option 1 is “overly aggressive… overly complex, time and resource intensive, and much more expensive than is necessary”, the draft letter says.

There wasn’t enough information in the ODA for the Council to figure out exactly how the two options differ, it says.

The letter is expected to tell the board that it doesn’t need to pick between the two options. Rather, it should just approve the SubPro’s recommendations and leave it to the ICANN staff and community members on the IRT to work out the details.

While the letter doesn’t come out and say it outright, the subtext I infer is that the ODA, which took a year and cost $9 million, was a waste of time and money. If the Council can’t figure out what it means, how is the board (its intended audience) supposed to?

The Council also expresses bafflement that the proposed Registry Services Providers Pre-Evaluation program, which was meant to streamline the program by accrediting RSPs in advance of the application window opening, is predicted by the ODA to be incredibly expensive and time-consuming, the exact opposite of its intended purpose.

The letter was composed by a “small team” subset of the Council and is likely to be edited over the next few days as other members weigh in. The Council is expected to discuss it at its monthly meeting tomorrow and send it to the board before it discusses the ODA on Sunday.

New ICANN boss makes encouraging noises on new gTLDs

Kevin Murphy, January 16, 2023, Domain Policy

ICANN’s new interim CEO Sally Costerton addressed the community in her new role for what I believe was the first time last Thursday, in a call with the GNSO Council.

The hour-long call was meant to discuss the outcomes of the Council’s Strategic Planning Session a month ago, but it also served as a Q&A between councilors and Costerton.

The last 15 minutes are of particular interest, especially if you’re one of the people concerned about ICANN’s devolution into a “do-nothing” organization over the last several years.

At that mark, Thomas Rickert of the trade group eco addressed the issue in a lengthy comment in which he pointed out that ICANN has been moving so slowly of late that even lumbering governmental institutions such as the European Union have come to realize that it’s faster to legislate on issues such as Whois than to wait for ICANN to sort it out.

He also pointed to the community’s pain of waiting a year for the recent Operational Design Assessment for the next round of new gTLDs, and its shock that the ODA pointed to an even more-expensive round that could take five years or more to come to fruition.

“I’ve heard many in the community say that the operational design reports come up with a level of complexity and diligence that stands in the way of being efficient,” he said. “So maybe the perfect is the enemy of the good.”

ICANN should be brave, dig its heels in, and get stuff done, he remarked.

Costerton seemed to enjoy the critique, suggesting that the recording of Rickert’s comments should be circulated to other ICANN staff.

She described herself as a “pragmatist rather than an ideologue”.

“I so want to say you’re absolutely right, Thomas, I completely agree with you 100%, we should just get it done,” she said. “Good is good enough. Perfect is the enemy of the good — I like that expression, I think it very often is.”

But.

Costerton said she has to balance getting stuff done with threats from governments and the risk of being “overwhelmed by aggressive litigation”. She said that ICANN needs “a framework around us that protects us”.

Getting that balance right is the tricky bit, she indicated.

Costerton, who took her new role at the end of last year following Göran Marby’s unexpected resignation, did not tip her hand on whether she plans to apply to have the “interim” removed from her job title. It is known that she has applied at least once before.

ICANN bloat to continue as new gTLD program begins

Kevin Murphy, December 13, 2022, Domain Policy

ICANN expects to hire so many new staffers over the next few years that it’ll need to rent a second office in Los Angeles to store them all in, according to a newly published new gTLD program planning document.

We’re looking at about 100 more people on the payroll, about 25% above the current level, judging by ICANN figures.

The Org said in the Operational Design Assessment published last night that the next new gTLD round will need it to hire another 25 to 30 dedicated staff during implementation of the program, along with 10 to 15 contractors, and then an additional 50 to 60 permanent staff to help manage the program going forward.

The number could be even higher if the board of directors and community encourage ICANN to speed up the roll-out of the round by reducing automation and relying more on the manual processing of applications.

The ODA says that ICANN has already identified an option to lease more office space close to its LA headquarters, to house the newcomers.

The budget for ICANN’s current fiscal year expects the Org to average 423 operational staff and another 25 employees dedicated to the new gTLD program.

ICANN reckons that the next round will require 125 full-time equivalents (FTE) during the implementation phase, reduced to 114 after the application phase kicks off.

For comparison, in May 2012, shortly after ICANN closed the application window for the last round, the whole organization comprised just 143 people. A year later, it had grown to 239.

The ODA does not break down how many additional staffers it will need to hire if the community plumps for the low-automation “Option 2”.

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).

New gTLD applications to cost about $250,000

Kevin Murphy, December 8, 2022, Domain Policy

Getting hold of a new gTLD could cost applicants well north of a quarter million dollars in base application fees alone in the next round, according to ICANN.

Presenting the results of its year-long Operational Design Phase to the GNSO Council via Zoom last night, staffers said application fees are likely to be either around $240,600 or $270,000 next time, higher than the $185,000 it charged in 2012.

Those would be the base fees, not including any additional evaluations or contention-related fees.

The Org next week is set to present its board and the community with a stark choice — one big expensive round along the lines of 2012, with a potential five-year wait for the next application window to open, or a cheaper, staggered four-stage round with maybe only 18 months of development time.

The Operational Design Assessment — a 400-page tome the Org has spent the last 14 months developing — is set to be published early next week, outlining two options for how ICANN should proceed on the next round.

One option is to build a highly automated system that fully implements all of the GNSO’s policy recommendations but costs up to $125 million up-front to build and roll out over five years. Application fees would be about $270,000.

The other would cut some bells and whistles and require more human intervention, but would be cheaper at up to $67 million up-front and could be rolled out within 18 months. Application fees would be about $240,600.

ICANN CFO Xavier Calvez, responding to exclamations of surprise via Zoom chat, said that a decade of inflation alone would lead to a 28% price increase to $237,000 if the next round were opened today, but in two or three years the price could be even higher if current economic trends continue.

While many expected the fact that technical evaluations will be conducted on a registry service provider basis rather than a per-application basis would wipe tens of thousands from the application fee, ICANN pointed out that building and executing this RSP pre-evaluation process will also cost it money.

ICANN wants to operate the program on a “cost-recovery basis”, so it neither makes a profit nor has to dig into its operational budget. It expects “more than three dozen vendors will be required” to help run the round.

It seems that the portion of the fee set aside to deal with “risks” — basically, anticipated litigation — is expected to be around a fifth of the total, compared to about a third in the 2012 round.

ICANN is asking its board and the community to decide between what it calls “Option 1 — One Big Round” and “Option 2 — Four Annual Cycles”.

Option 1 would essentially be a replay of 2012, where there’s a single unlimited application window, maybe a couple thousand applications, and then ICANN processes them all in a highly automated fashion using custom-built software.

Option 2 would allow unlimited applications once a year for four years, but it would cap the number processed per year at 450 and there’d be a greater degree of manual processing, which ICANN, apparently unfamiliar with its own history of software development, thinks poses additional risk.

My hot take is that the Org is presenting a false choice here, much like it did in January with its ODA on Whois reform, where one option was so unpalatably time-consuming and expensive that it had most of the community retching into their soy-based lattes.

There’s also an implicit criticism in both ODAs that the community-driven policy-making process has a tendency to make big asks without adequately considering the resources required to actually get them done.

I might be wrong, but I can’t at this early stage see much support emerging for the “One Big Round” option, except perhaps from the most ardent opponents of the new gTLD program.

ICANN expects to deliver the ODA — 100 pages with 300 pages of appendices — to its board on Monday, with wider publication not long after that. It will hold two webinars for the community to discuss the document on Wednesday.

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 gTLD prep work delayed until December

Kevin Murphy, July 15, 2022, Domain Policy

ICANN has confirmed that the current phase of preparation for the next round of new gTLDs will last six weeks longer than previously expected.

The new deadline for the delivery of the Operational Design Assessment for the project is December 12, almost certainly pushing out board consideration of the document out into 2023.

The extension follows the GNSO’s approval of a new Whois Disclosure System, which will suck Org resources from the new gTLDs ODP as work on both continues in parallel.

ICANN chair Maarten Botterman confirmed the delay yesterday, and the precise length was disclosed by staff in a blog post today. It says in part:

While we’re sharing our best estimate of the impact that the WHOIS Disclosure System design paper work could have on the SubPro ODA in the interest of transparency, rest assured that we are simultaneously moving forward on the ODA and actively seeking ways to streamline and minimize the impact as much as possible.

The updated timetable has been published here.

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.

Community tells ICANN to walk and chew gum at the same time

Kevin Murphy, July 13, 2022, Domain Policy

Whois or new gTLDs? Whois or new gTLDs? Whois or new gTLDs?

It’s the question ICANN has been pestering the community with since early May. ICANN can’t work on developing the proposed Whois Disclosure System (formerly known as SSAD) without delaying work on the next round of new gTLDs, Org said, so the community was given a Sophie’s Choice of which of its babies to sacrifice on the altar of failed resource planning.

And now it has its answer: why the heck can’t you do both, and why the heck are you asking us anyway?

GNSO Council chair Philippe Fouquart has written to Maarten Botterman, his counterpart on the ICANN board of directors, to request that Org figure out how to do both Whois and new gTLDs at the same time, and to existing deadlines:

While Council members might differ on which project should take precedence, there is unanimous agreement that the Subsequent Procedures ODP and SSAD development are among the most important tasks before ICANN. Therefore, we urge that every effort should be undertaken by ICANN Org to complete the work in parallel and to meet currently published milestones.

Fouquart goes on (pdf) to puzzle as to why ICANN decided to “inappropriately include the broad community in the minutiae of ICANN operations planning”.

ICANN had told the GNSO that if it wanted the Whois work to kick off, it would add “at least” six weeks of delay to the new gTLDs Operational Design Phase, which is scheduled to wrap up in October.

Naturally enough, folks such as IP lawyers were very keen that ICANN start to do something — anything — to roll back the damage caused by GDPR, while domain-selling companies are anxious that they get more inventory for their virtual shelves.

The public record has always been a bit sketchy on where the resource bottleneck actually is, in an organization with half a billion bucks in the bank, a $140 million operating budget, and around 400 staff.

Maintaining Whois and the expansion of the root zone are, after all, two of the main things ICANN was founded to do, being unable to do both at once could be seen as embarrassing.

But now it has its answer, as unhelpful as it is.

And it only took two months.

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?