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ICANN splits $9 million new gTLD ODP into nine tracks

Kevin Murphy, January 20, 2022, Domain Policy

ICANN has added a little more detail to its plans for the Operational Design Phase for the next round of the new gTLD program.

VP and ODP manager Karen Lentz last night blogged that the project is being split into nine work tracks, each addressing a different aspect of the work.

She also clarified that the ODP officially kicked off January 3, meaning the deadline for completion, barring unforeseen issues, is November 3. The specific dates hadn’t been clear in previous communications.

The nine work tracks are “Project Governance”, “Policy Development and Implementation Materials”, “Operational Readiness”, “Systems and Tools”, “Vendors”, “Communications and Outreach”, “Resources, Staffing, and Logistics”, “Finance”, and “Overarching”.

Thankfully, ICANN has not created nine new acronyms to keep track of. Yet.

Pro-new-gTLD community members observing how ICANN’s first ODP, which addressed Whois reform, seemed to result in ICANN attempting to kill off community recommendations may be worried by how Lenzt described the new ODP:

The purpose of this ODP, which began on 3 January, is to inform the ICANN Board’s determination on whether the recommendations are in the best interests of ICANN and the community.

I’d be hesitant to read too much into this, but it’s one of the clearest public indications yet that subsequent application rounds are not necessarily a fait accompli — the ICANN board could still decide force the community to go back to the drawing board if it decides the current recommendations are harmful or too expensive.

I don’t think that’s a likely outcome, but the thought that it was a possibility hadn’t seriously crossed my mind until quite recently.

Lentz also refers to “the work required to prepare for the next round and subsequent rounds”, which implies ICANN is still working on the assumption that the new gTLD program will go ahead.

The ICANN board has give Org 10 months and a $9 million budget, paid out of 2012-round application fee leftovers, to complete the ODP. The output will be an Operational Design Assessment, likely to be an enormous document, that the board will consider, probably in the first half of next year, before implementation begins.

A decade after the last new gTLD round, Marby starts the clock on the next one

Kevin Murphy, January 12, 2022, Domain Policy

The next new gTLD application is moving a step closer this month, with ICANN chief Göran Marby promising the launch of its Operational Design Phase.

But it’s still unclear whether the ODP has officially started, and many community members are angry and frustrated that the process is taking too long, some 10 years after the last application window opened.

Marby published a blog post December 20 stating “the org has advised the Board that it is beginning the ODP”, but he linked to a December 17 letter (pdf) that told the board “the org is now transitioning to launch the ODP formally as of January”.

We’re well into January now, so does that mean the ODP has officially started? It’s not clear from what ICANN has published.

It seems either ICANN doesn’t yet want to pin down an exact date for the ODP being initiated, which starts the clock on its deadline for completion, or it’s just really bad at communications.

In September, the board gave Marby $9 million and 10 months for the ODP to come up with its final output, an Operational Design Assessment.

The project is being funded from the remaining application fees from the 2012 application round, rather than ICANN’s regular operations budget.

The text of the resolution gives the deadline as “within ten months from the date of initiation, provided that there are no unforeseen matters that could affect the timeline”.

Assuming the “date of initiation” is some point this month, the ODA would be therefore due to be delivered before the end of November this year, barring “unforeseen matters”.

The document would then be considered by the ICANN board, a process likely to be measured in a handful of months, rather than weeks or days, pushing a final decision on the next round out into the first quarter of 2023.

For avoidance of doubt, that’s the decision about whether or not to even have another new gTLD round.

As a reminder, the 2012 round Applicant Guidebook envisaged a second application round beginning about a year after the first.

Naturally, many would-be applicants are incredibly frustrated that this stuff is taking so long, none more so than the Brand Registry Group, which represents companies that want to apply for dot-brand gTLDs and the consultants that want to help them do so.

Overlapping with ICANN’s December 17 letter to the board, BRG president Karen Day wrote to ICANN (pdf) to complain about the lack of progress and the constant extensions of the runway, saying:

The constant delay and lack of commitment to commencing the next round of new gTLDs is unreasonable and disrespectful to the community that has worked diligently… these delays and lack of commitments to deliver the community’s work is an increasing pattern which risks disincentivizing the volunteer community and threatens the multistakeholder model

Day asked the board to provide more clarity about the ODP’s internal milestones and possible delaying factors, and called for future work to begin in parallel with the ODP in order to shorten the overall roadmap.

It’s worth noting that the ODP may wind up raising more questions than it answers, delaying the next round still further.

It’s only the second ODP ICANN has conducted. The first, related to Whois privacy reform, ended in December (after delays) with a report that essentially shat all over the community’s policy work, predicting that it would take several years and cost tens of millions of dollars to implement for potentially very little benefit.

The board is expected to receive that first ODP’s report in February and there’s no telling what conclusions it will reach.

While Marby has publicly indicated that he’s working on the assumption that there will be another new gTLD round, the ODP gives ICANN a deal of power to frustrate and delay that eventuality, if Org is so inclined.

ICANN budget: staff bloat making a comeback

Kevin Murphy, December 8, 2021, Domain Policy

ICANN plans to ramp up its headcount starting next year to support the development of the new gTLD program.

Newly published budgeting documents show that average headcount is expected to rise to 406 for the year ending June 30, 2022, from 395 at the end of this June, with an even steeper increase to 448 a year later.

That’s after several years in which staffing levels have been fairly stable, even sometimes declining a little.

The main culprit is the Operational Design Phase for the next new gTLD round(s), which is expected to kick off soon.

ICANN expects to hire or assign nine people to manage the ODP before the end of June 2022, ramping that up to an average of 22 over the following year. The amount of non-ODP operational staff is expected to rise by 28 over the same period.

ICANN currently advertises 31 open positions on its web site, having added eight listings just this week.

This chart shows the expected growth:

ICANN headcount chart

At the time of the last new gTLD application round, in 2012, ICANN had 152 staffers, nine of whom were assigned to new gTLD project — and that was after the programs rules had already been developed, implemented and the application window opened and closed.

ICANN budget: no more new gTLDs before 2028

Kevin Murphy, December 8, 2021, Domain Policy

ICANN is not accounting for any revenue from a future round of new gTLDs in its just-published budget, which plots out the Org’s finances all the way through 2028.

The budget, which I gave a high-level summary of here, even predicts that dozens of 2012-round new gTLDs will disappear over the next six years.

The Org is predicting that there will be 1,091 gTLDs on the internet by the end of its fiscal 2027 (that is, June 30, 2028) down by 58 or 5% from July 2022.

Given that it’s only expecting to lose four gTLDs in FY23, this projection implies a speeding up of the rate at which gTLDs start cancelling their contracts or going out of business in the later part of the five-year budget.

The forecast comes with a big asterisk, however. A footnote reads:

These scenarios do not assume any further TLD delegations arising from the resumption of the New gTLD Program. While there is ongoing work and an intent to launch a subsequent round, the timing of its release remains unclear and potential impact(s) on funding indeterminate. Given this, ICANN org has deemed it prudent not to assume any prospective impacts from a subsequent round across the described scenarios.

In other words, ICANN is not yet ready to commit to a runway for the next application round, subsequent delegations and eventual revenue.

As I reported Monday, the next round is unlikely to be approved until the fourth quarter of next year at the earliest, and my view is that 2024 is the soonest the next application window could open.

I don’t think we can read too much into the fact that ICANN isn’t budgeting for any next-round impact on funding until after 2027.

If you’re pessimistic, you could infer that ICANN believes it’s at least a possibility that the next round could take that long, or not be approved at all, but the safer bet is probably that it merely lacks visibility and is acting in its usual risk-averse manner.

ICANN says ODP will speed up new gTLDs in the long run

Kevin Murphy, December 6, 2021, Domain Policy

A time-consuming process to spec-out the next new gTLD application round before it is even formally approved will actually speed up the program over the long run, an ICANN veep has said.

The so-called Operational Design Phase is a bunch of planning, or issues such as cost and feasibility, that ICANN says it needs to do before the community’s policy recommendations can be put before the board of directors.

The board approved the ODP in September, giving the Org a $9 million budget and a 10-month deadline to complete the project, but the clock doesn’t start ticking until CEO Göran Marby formally starts the process.

Three months later, that still hasn’t happened. ICANN is still “organizing the resources needed and developing the roadmap for the work ahead”, according to a blog post from Karen Lentz, VP of policy research and stakeholder programs.

The Org is doing the preparation for the preparation for the preparation for the next round, in other words.

But Lentz says this will speed up the new gTLD program over the longer term.

We believe the ODP will actually streamline future work. It will have a positive impact on the duration of the implementation process by making the assumptions explicit, answering key questions, and considering how the recommendations on different topics work together in addition to providing a detailed timeline and visibility to the timing of implementation activities. If the Board approves the recommendations, the org and the Implementation Review team would be able to leverage a good amount of work already completed during the ODP. Future rounds would not be possible without the foundational work of an ODP. It’s important to note that without an ODP, this work would still be taking place, but without the structure and transparency that the ODP provides.

Another important consideration to note here is that we are not simply organizing only the next round. We are building a foundational structure for all of the work that the org, the community, and the Board will do over the coming years to continue to evolve the namespace along with the necessary procedures and tools. So the work from this ODP is not only for a single round — this is targeting a long-term plan and for multiple rounds.

If Marby were to start the ODP tomorrow, and ICANN managed to hit its deadline, October 2022 would be the absolute earliest the ICANN board would get the chance to approve the next round.

It’s possible, though not very likely given how intrinsic to ICANN’s mission the opening up of gTLD competition is, that the board could instead decide not to approve the next round.

After the next round gets the thumbs-up, there’s still a whole lot of extra work to do — the aforementioned Implementation Review, hiring contractors, a months-long marketing campaign — before companies would actually get to file their applications.

We’re still looking at 2024 at the earliest for that, in my view, but if there’s one thing we can rely on from ICANN, it’d delay.

ICANN won’t vote on new gTLDs for another year

Kevin Murphy, September 24, 2021, Domain Policy

Those of you champing at the bit for an opportunity to apply for some more new gTLDs have a longer wait ahead of you than you might have hoped, following a vote of the ICANN board of directors last week.

The board has asked ICANN staff to kick off the latest — but not last — stage of the long-running runway to the next application window, but it will take around 10 months and cost millions.

On September 12, the board gave CEO Göran Marby $9 million from the 2012 round’s war chest and told him to kick off the so-called Operational Design Phase of the New Generic Top-Level Domain Subsequent Procedures Policy Development Process (SubPro).

What this means is that ICANN will take the community-created policy recommendations approved by the GNSO Council in January and try to figure how they specifically could be implemented, before the board decides whether they should be implemented.

The ODP will “assess the potential risks, anticipated costs, resource requirements, timelines, and other matters related to implementation” the board resolution states.

For example, while the SubPro final report calls for an outreach campaign prior to opening the application window, the ODP scoping document (pdf) asks what materials would be needed to be produced and how much they would cost.

The scoping paper comprises dozens and dozens of questions like this, over 15 pages. I started counting them but got bored.

ICANN chair Maarten Botterman said the ODP will provide the board “with relevant materials to facilitate the Board’s determination whether the recommendations are in the best interest of the ICANN community or ICANN”.

While the resolution says the ODP should be completed “within 10 months”, that clock starts ticking when the Marby “initiates” the process, and that does not appear to have happened.

Given that, and ICANN’s habitual tardiness, I’d guess we’re looking at closer to a year before the Org has a document ready to put before the board for consideration.

With all the other stuff that needs to happen following the board’s approval, we’re probably talking about a 2024 application window. That would be 12 years after the last round and 11 years later than the next round was originally promised.

ICANN chair reins in new gTLD timeline hopes

Kevin Murphy, May 24, 2021, Domain Policy

Don’t get excited about the next round of new gTLDs launching any time soon.

That’s my takeaway from recent correspondence between ICANN’s chair and brand-owners who are apparently champing at the bit to get their teeth into some serious dot-brand action.

Maarten Botterman warned Brand Registry Group chair Cole Quinn that “significant work lies ahead” before the org can start accepting applications once more.

Quinn had urged ICANN to get a move on last month, saying in a letter that there was “significant demand” from trademark owners.

The last three-month application window ended in March 2012, governed by an Applicant Guidebook that said: “The goal is for the next application round to begin within one year of the close of the application submission period for the initial round.”

That plainly never happened, as ICANN proceeded to tie itself in bureaucratic knots and recursive cycles of review and analysis.

Any company that missed the boat or was founded in the meantime has been unable to to even get a sniff of operating its own dot-brand, or indeed any other type of gTLD.

Spelling out some of the steps that need to be accomplished before the next window opens, Botterman wrote:

the 2012 Applicant Guidebook must be updated with more than 100 outputs from the SubPro PDP WG; we will need to apply lessons learned from the previous round, many of which are documented in the 2016 Program Implementation Review, and appropriate resources for implementing and conducting subsequent rounds must be put in place. At present it appears that WG recommendations will benefit from an Operational Design Phase (ODP) to provide the Board with information on the operational implications of implementing the recommendations. As part of such an ODP, the Board may also task ICANN org to provide an assessment of some of the issues of concern that the Board raised in its comments on the Draft Final Report, as well as those topics that did not reach consensus and were thus not adopted by the GNSO Council. The outcome of such an assessment could also add to the work that would be required before launching subsequent rounds.

The Board notes your views regarding SAC114. We are aware of discussions that took place during ICANN70 and the Board is in communication with the Security and Stability Committee (SSAC) and its leadership, as per the ‘Understand’ phase of the Board Advice Process. As with all advice items received, the Board will treat SAC114 in accordance with that process.

Breaking that down for your convenience…

The reference to “more than 100 outputs from the SubPro PDP WG” refers to the now six-year old Policy Development Process for New gTLD Subsequent Procedures working group of the GNSO.

SubPro delivered its final report in January and it was adopted by the GNSO Council in February.

ICANN asked the Governmental Advisory Committee for its formal input a few weeks ago, has opened the report for a public comment period that ends June 1, and will accept or reject the report at some point in the future.

SubPro’s more significant recommendations include the creation of a new accreditation mechanism for registry back-end service providers and a gaming-preventing overhaul of the contention resolution process.

The “the 2016 Program Implementation Review” is a reference to a self-assessment of the 2012 round that the ICANN staff carried out six years ago, producing a 215-page report (pdf).

That report contains about 50 recommendations covering areas where staff thought the system of actually processing new gTLD applications could possibly be improved or streamlined in subsequent rounds.

The Operational Design Phase (ODP) Botterman refers to is a brand-new phase of ICANN bureaucracy that is currently untested. It fits between GNSO Council approval of recommendations and ICANN board consideration.

The ODP is basically a way for ICANN staff to insert itself into the process, between community policy-making and community policy-approval, to make sure the GNSO’s tenuous consensus-building exercise has not produced something too crazily complicated, ineffective or expensive to implement.

Staff denies this is a power-grab.

The ODP is currently being deployed to assess proposed changes to Whois privacy policy, and ICANN has already stated multiple times that it will also be used to vet SubPro’s work.

Botterman’s reference to “issues of concern that the Board raised in its comments on the Draft Final Report” seems to mean this September 2020 letter (pdf) to SubPro’s chairs, in which the ICANN board outlined some of its initial concerns with SubPro’s proposed policies.

One fairly important concern was whether ICANN has the power under its bylaws (which have changed since 2012) to enforce Public Interest Commitments (now called Registry Voluntary Commitments) that SubPro thinks could be used to make some sensitive gTLDs more trustworthy.

The reference to SAC144 may turn out to be a big stumbling block too.

SAC114 is the bombshell document (pdf) submitted by the Security and Stability Advisory Committee in February, in which ICANN’s top security community members openly questioned whether allowing more new gTLDs is consistent with ICANN’s commitment to keep the internet secure.

While SAC114 seems to reluctantly acknowledge that the program will likely go ahead regardless, it asks that ICANN do more to address so-called “DNS abuse” before proceeding.

Given that the various factions within the ICANN community can’t even agree on what “DNS abuse” is, how ICANN chooses to “understand” SAC114 will have a serious impact on how much further the runway to the next round gets extended.

In short, Botterman is warning brand owners not to hold their breath anticipating the next application window. I think I even detect some serious skepticism as to whether demand is really as high as Quinn claims.

And quite beyond the stuff Botterman outlines in his letter, there’s presumably going to be at least one round of review and revision on the next Applicant Guidebook, as well as the time needed for ICANN to build or upgrade the systems it needs to process the applications, to hire evaluators and resolution providers, and to make sure it conducts a sufficiently long and broad global marketing program so that potential applicants in the developing world don’t feel left out. And that’s a non-exhaustive list.

Introducing competition into the registry space is of course one of ICANN’s foundational raisons d’être.

After the org was founded in September 1998, it took less than two years before it opened up the first new gTLD application round.

It was another three years before the second round launched.

It then took eight and a half years for the 2012 window to open.

It will be well over a decade from then before anyone next gets the opportunity to apply for a new gTLD. It’s entirely feasible that we’ll see an applicant in the next round headed by somebody who wasn’t even born when the first window opened.

Rules for the next new gTLD round near the final straight

Kevin Murphy, January 7, 2021, Domain Policy

The ICANN working group tasked with creating policies for the next round of new gTLDs is wrapping up its work this week, setting up the battle lines for the next phase of the program’s development.

Members of the cross-constituency Subsequent Procedures for new gTLDs group, known as SubPro, have until a minute before midnight UTC Friday night to declare whether they’re not happy with any parts of the 373-page document (pdf).

It’s expected that some groups and individuals will have beef with some of the SubPro recommendations, which will be included in the Final Report as dissenting minority statements before it is sent off to the GNSO Council later this month.

The report, the product of five years of discussions, will largely affirm that the next new gTLD round will proceed along roughly the same lines as the 2012 round, with some of ICANN staff’s historical ad-libs being codified and a few new big concepts introduced.

New additions include the idea of a pre-evaluation process for registry service providers, enabling applicants to pick from a menu of pre-approved back-ends and avoid the cost of having their technical prowess evaluated for every string they apply for.

The price of applying could be kept artificially high, however, to discourage gTLD stockpiling, and the report will also recommend banning the coexistence of single/plural variants of the same word.

One area where there was definitely no consensus was the issue of “closed generics” — a non-brand string reserved for the sole use of the registry — it’s going to be up to the GNSO Council and ICANN to muddle through this one.

While the consensus call marks the end of the working group phase of new gTLD policy development, there are still many substantial hurdles to leap before the next application round opens.

In the last round, the policy was approved by the GNSO Council in 2007, and ICANN didn’t start accepting applications until the start of 2012.

it may not take five years between policy and launch this time, if only because many of the new recommendations are merely affirmations of the status quo, but there are new mechanisms ICANN will have to implement before the next round opens, and we should probably expect more than one comment period on iterations of the next Applicant Guidebook.

The road between now and the next round is still likely measured in years.

ICANN playing ping-pong on closed generics controversy

Kevin Murphy, October 1, 2020, Domain Policy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Has ICANN cut off its regulatory hands?

Kevin Murphy, October 1, 2020, Domain Policy

ICANN may have voluntarily cut off its power to enforce bans on things like cyberbullying, pornography and copyright infringement in future new gTLDs.

Its board of directors yesterday informed the chairs of SubPro, the community group working on new gTLD policy for the next round, that its ability to enforce so-called Public Interest Commitments may be curtailed in future.

A PIC is a contractual promise to act in the public interest, enforceable by ICANN through a PIC Dispute Resolution Process. All 2012 new gTLDs have them, but some have additional PICs due to the gTLD’s sensitive nature.

They were created because ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee didn’t like the look of some applications for gTLD strings it considered potentially problematic.

.sucks is a good example — registry Vox Populi has specific commitments to ban cyberbullying, porn, and parking in its registry agreement.

Should ICANN receive complaints about bullying in .sucks, it would be able to invoke the PICDRP and, at least in theory, terminate Vox Pop’s registry contract.

But these are all restrictions on content, and ICANN is singularly focused on not being a content regulator.

It’s so focused on staying away from content that four years ago, during the IANA transition, it amended its bylaws to specifically handcuff itself. The bylaws now state, front and center:

ICANN shall not regulate (i.e., impose rules and restrictions on) services that use the Internet’s unique identifiers or the content that such services carry or provide… For the avoidance of doubt, ICANN does not hold any governmentally authorized regulatory authority.

There’s a specific carve-out grandfathering contracts inked before October 1, 2016, so PICs agreed to by 2012-round applicants are still enforceable.

But it’s doubtful that any PICs not related to the security and stability of the DNS will be enforceable in future, the board told SubPro.

The issue is being raised now because SubPro is proposing a continuation of the PICs program, baking it into policy in what it calls Registry Voluntary Commitments.

Its draft final report acknowledges that ICANN’s not in the content regulation business, but most of the group were in favor of maintaining the status quo.

But the board evidently is more concerned. It told SubPro’s chairs:

The language of the Bylaws, however, could preclude ICANN from entering into future registry agreements (that materially differ in form from the 2012 round version currently in force) that include PICs that reach outside of ICANN’s technical mission as stated in the Bylaws. The language of the Bylaws specifically limits ICANN’s negotiating and contracting power to PICs that are “in service of its Mission.” The Board is concerned, therefore, that the current Bylaws language would create issues for ICANN to enter and enforce any content-related issue regarding PICs or Registry Voluntary Commitments (RVCs)

There’s a possibility that it could now be more difficult for future applicants to get their applications past GAC concerns or other complaints, particularly if their chosen string addresses a “highly sensitive or regulated industry”.

There was a “chuck it in the PICs” attitude to many controversies in the 2012 round, but with that option perhaps not available in future, it may lead to an increase in withdrawn applications.

Could .sucks get approved in future, without a cast-iron, enforceable commitment to ban bullying?