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.Com RA Extension on ICANN Board's 9/15 Agenda

Philip S. Corwin

The ".COM Registry Agreement Amendment" is on the Main Agenda for this Thursday's Regular Meeting of the ICANN Board.

The proposed extension of the RA was announced and put out for public comment on June 30th. The public comment period closed on August 12th and ICANN staff's Report of Public Comments was due on September 15th, coincident with the Board meeting. The original due date for that staff Report was August 26th, but was pushed back to accommodate the large number of comments and the divergent views they expressed. ICANN staff, however, beat the September 15th deadline and filed their Report on September 10th.

The .Com RA is designed to synchronize the start and end dates of that Agreement with the new Root Zone Management Agreement (RZMA) that will be entered into by ICANN and Verisign and take effect on the day of the IANA transition, currently scheduled for October 1st. If the transition is delayed by Washington political maneuvering that will of course affect the start dates for both the extended .Com RA and the RZMA.

In its announcement of the proposed extension, ICANN explained:

Verisign has been providing "registration services" under its Cooperative Agreement with NTIA, which was broadly defined to include root zone management functions and Top Level Domain registry services. Given the unified nature of the present Cooperative Agreement, much of the root zone infrastructure itself is inextricably intertwined with Verisign's TLD operations for .com as discussed in greater detail in the blog.

The extension of the term of the .com registry agreement is intended to maintain stable, secure, and reliable operations of the root zone not only for direct root zone management service customers (Registry Operators, Registrars and Root Server Operators), but also to maintain the security and stability of the Internet's domain name system.

The referenced blog post was penned by Global Domains Division (GDD) head Akram Atallah and further explained:

Given the unified nature of the present Cooperative Agreement, much of the root zone infrastructure itself is "inextricably intertwined" with Verisign's TLD operations for .com: the servers that provide root services are hosted at every .com resolution site (over 100 locations). These servers share bandwidth, routing and monitoring with the .com operations, and the servers use the same code base as the .com TLD name servers and are operated and maintained by the same operation and engineering group. On the provisioning side, the root zone's provisioning system is derived from the .com Shared Registration System (SRS), using the structure, schema, and software used for .com provisioning operations. Verisign builds and signs the root zone today using the same cryptographic facilities used for .com as well as signing software derived from that used for signing .com. Importantly, Verisign's root zone operations are also within the .com's Denial of Service attack detection and mitigation framework including independent internal and external monitoring and packet filtering at all layers. A key component of ensuring security of the root operations was making sure that those operations continued to benefit from its historic association with the .com operations.

As noted, the volume of public comments was heavy and the views contradictory.

A great many comments were generated by domain registrants under the wholly mistaken impression that the RA extension would somehow lift the current wholesale price freeze on .Com and allow Verisign to immediately double prices or more (a move that would likely attract the immediate attention of the Department of Justice's Antitrust Division as well as the Federal Trade Commission for possible abuse of market power). But those comments were based on a false premise, as the .Com price freeze is contained in an entirely separate document, the Cooperative Agreement between Verisign and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). That agreement runs through the end of November 2018 and, as the Department of Justice recently explained in a letter to Sen. Ted Cruz:

As you may know, Verisign may not extend the .com Registry Agreement without obtaining NTIA's prior written approval. Amendment 30 of the Cooperative Agreement requires such prior approval and provides the standard for NTIA's review. In pertinent part, Amendment 30 provides: "[t]he Department [of Commerce] shall provide such written approval if it concludes that approval will serve the public interest in (a) the continued security and stability of the Internet domain name system and the operation of the .com registry ... , and (b) the provision of Registry Services ... offered at reasonable prices, terms, and conditions." We note that the current extension proposal contemplated by ICANN and Verisign does not change the price cap contained in the 2012 .com Registry Agreement, which will remain in effect through November 30, 2018. Nor does the current extension proposal alter the price cap in Amendment 32 of the Cooperative Agreement. Moreover, if NTIA were to approve an extension of the .com Registry Agreement, it would have the right in its sole discretion to extend the term of the Cooperative Agreement with the current price cap in place until 2024 at any time prior to November 30, 2018, the date on which the Cooperative Agreement is currently scheduled to expire. If this occurs, the $7.85 fee cap would be extended another six years to 2024. (Emphasis added)

The Internet Commerce Association ICA), which represents professional domain investors, took a stance of non-opposition to the proposed RA extension. For one thing, the RA is virtually certain to be extended to 2024 when it comes up for renewal in 2018 under the terms of its presumptive renewal clause, so there's no real harm in effecting that extension two years earlier.

And for domainers there is a net benefit, as an extension — as opposed to a renewal — would deny any negotiating leverage to GDD staff who have shown a propensity to illicitly inject themselves into the policy process by pushing for the general acceptance of certain contract revisions as legacy gTLD agreements come up for renewal, and specifically for the new gTLD Rights Protection Mechanism (RPM) of Uniform Rapid Suspension (URS), that are not Consensus Policy.

There is currently a GNSO Council-authorized working group, which I Co-Chair, that is specifically tasked under its Charter to review the efficacy of the new gTLD RPMs, recommend any adjustments, and only then consider the question of whether they should become Consensus Policy and thereby be applicable to legacy gTLDs like .Com. That standard GNSO Policy Development Process (PDP) is the proper and established route for deciding the applicability of the new RPMs to legacy gTLDs, which is clearly identified as a policy decision .

Specifically, ICA stated on this point:

Further, changing the end date of the .Com RA through an extension now rather than a renewal in two years will have the salutary effect of depriving ICANN Global Domain Division (GDD) staff of any opportunity to seek the imposition of Uniform Rapid Suspension (URS) or any other new gTLD Rights protection Mechanisms (RPMs) through contractual imposition as they did in 2105 in regard to the RAs for .Cat, .Pro, and .Travel. While the Board later stated, in approving the amended RAs, that "the Board's approval of the Renewal Registry Agreement is not a move to make the URS mandatory for any legacy TLDs, and it would be inappropriate to do so", we have no assurance that GDD staff does not still hold its previously stated position that, "With a view to increase the consistency of registry agreements across all gTLDs, ICANN has proposed that the renewal agreement be based on the approved new gTLD Registry Agreement as updated on 9 January 2014." Further, notwithstanding Reconsideration Requests filed with the Board Governance Committee (BGC) by ICA, the Business Constituency (BC), and the Non-Commercial Users Constituency (NCUC), the BGC let the imposition of URS by ICANN staff via contract renegotiation stand.

Extending the .Com RA through 2024 through the proposed extension, rather than via a negotiated renewal, will preserve the question of whether the URS and other new gTLD RPMs should become Consensus Policies applicable to legacy gTLDs for decision by the Working Group established to review all RPMs at all gTLDs — which is precisely where this key policy question should be fully and objectively considered and decided by the ICANN community. (Emphasis in original)

ICA's comment letter also suggested that the presumptive renewal clauses of all gTLDs should be reviewed and revised to constrain potential future pricing abuses, stating:

While we have no general objection to ICANN's practice of non-interference with the pricing policies of gTLD registries, we do believe that any registry's abuse of pricing power should weigh against its right of presumptive renewal. We therefore believe that ICANN should amend all registry contracts to make clear that, at a minimum, a registry operator subject to successful government action for violations of antitrust or competition laws should face competitive rebid of its contract. Such amendment would further discourage all gTLD registries from engaging in abusive and anticompetitive market conduct.

Trademark interests, for their part, saw the proposed extension as a means of bypassing the bottom-up, multistakeholder consensus policy process and imposing the new RPMs by ICANN staff fiat. The comments of the International Trademark Association (INTA) opposed the extension on these grounds:

INTA was hopeful that ICANN and Verisign would fill this gap and level the playing field by bilaterally negotiating the inclusion of the Relevant Terms when the .COM Registry Agreement was to be renewed in 2018.5 Yet in the proposed amendment to the .COM Registry Agreement that is the subject of the current public comment period, ICANN has proposed to mechanically extend that agreement until 2024, without any effort to update Verisign's terms at all. Instead, the proposed amendment merely requires ICANN and Verisign to cooperate and negotiate in good faith sometime in the next two years to amend the agreement to preserve and enhance the security and stability of the Internet and of the .COM gTLD. That is not enough. ICANN should acknowledge that the Relevant Terms are essential to preserve and enhance the security and stability of the Internet and of the .COM gTLD, such that the requirement that ICANN and Verisign negotiate in good faith to add further amendments within a two-year time period includes a requirement to implement the Relevant Terms at that time. Given the importance of the Relevant Terms, that requirement should be explicit — not implicit.

The comments of ICANN's Intellectual Property Constituency (IPC) took the same tack:

The proposed 6-year extension should be accompanied by steps to promptly bring the .com registry agreement into closer harmonization with ICANN's other registry agreements, including those entered into with new gTLDs and many legacy gTLDs since 2013 in accordance with the multi-stakeholder process in furtherance of ICANN's mission… IPC urges ICANN and Verisign to publicly commit to making these changes within the next two years as part of the "future amendments" provision of the .com registry agreement extension.

Sadly, neither the INTA nor IPC comments even notes the existence of the Working Group to Review all RPMs in all gTLDs, even though both entities and many of their members are actively participating in it (indeed, INTA's immediate Past President is another of the WG's Co-Chairs). In 2015, when GDD staff successfully pushed for the incorporation of the URS in the renewal agreements for the legacy registries of .Cat, .Travel and .Pro, both organizations justified that result on the thin grounds that the registries' acquiescence was "voluntary". Now even that fictional fig leaf has been abandoned, with both organizations now on record that the .Com extension should be approved only if Verisign involuntarily commits now to take that step within the next two years — regardless of the recommendations of the WG regarding the adoption of the new RPMs as Consensus Policy.

ICANN's Business Constituency (BC), for its part, also favored application of the new RPMs to .Com, but recognized that this must be accomplished via proper policy channels. The BC comment stated:

The BC believes that .COM should embrace the standardized new gTLD registry agreement at this time, instead of deferring that decision until 2024 when the proposed agreement will expire; or earlier than 2024, if any or all of these aspects of the standard new gTLD registry contract should become Consensus Policy as a result of WG recommendations that are subsequently adopted by ICANN's Board. The BC acknowledges that there is an open legal question whether any of these aspects can be enforced against .Com registrants unless they become Consensus Policies or are adopted through a further amendment of the .COM registry agreement made subsequent to the one we are addressing in this comment letter. (Note: ICA is a BC member and the author contributed to, but was not the lead drafter of, the BC comment)

New gTLD competitors of .Com also used the comment window as an opportunity to inject that market rivalry into the policy process. Portfolio new gTLD operator Donuts stated:

Donuts is opposed to the extension of ICANN's agreement with Verisign in its proposed form. By simply renewing the .COM agreement under its current terms, ICANN and Verisign will have missed a significant opportunity to fulfill ICANN's self-defined mandate to increase competition in the DNS marketplace and preserve the security, stability and resiliency of the DNS by bringing provisions of the .COM agreement more in harmony with the contracts governing new gTLDs and many other legacy gTLDs that recently have been renewed.

Likewise, new gTLD .XYZ took a similar position, adding to it the claim that it could reduce .Com wholesale pricing by more than eighty percent yet still operate the most important gTLD in a fully reliable, stable, and secure manner:

XYZ is firmly opposed to this early extension. ICANN should not passively go along with Verisign's selfish goal of extending its unfair monopoly over the internet's most popular top-level domain name. Instead, ICANN should act in the spirit of its Bylaws and work with the NTIA and United State Department of Commerce to put the rights to operate the .COM top-level domain to a competitive public auction among capable internet registry operators for the benefit of the public… Currently, Verisign is able to charge $7.85 per annual registration of .com domain names. However, this price is grossly out of line with the actual cost per registration to a registry operator for each incremental registration. If the right to operate .COM were put to a competitive public tender, the market would show that the .COM registration fees to registrars could be below $2.00 per registration. In fact, if XYZ were allowed to take part in such a competitive public tender, XYZ would be prepared to offer registration fees to registrars in the range of $1.00 per registration. This is in line with the market rate for registry services, which XYZ is very familiar with. XYZ would not only be able to operate .COM charging only $1.00 per registration, but it would be able to do so with a healthy, but reasonable, profit margin and with no impact on the operational stability, reliability, security, and global interoperability of the internet.

The .Com price freeze was imposed by the NTIA in 2012 following a full competition review by DOJ's Antitrust Division, making it difficult to conceive that government regulators would have allowed a wholesale price at least four times greater than what was required for sound registry operation. (In 2012 ICA urged NTIA to lower .Com wholesale prices to the then lower level in place for .Net, and then index future price increases to the CPI, but NTIA declined to go that far.)
As for putting the RA out for competitive rebid, NTIA approved the then controversial presumptive renewal clause of the .Com RA ten years ago, in 2006, and since then essentially identical language has been incorporated into the standard new gTLD registry agreement. Absent a material and subsequently uncured breach of its registry agreement, both Verisign and every new gTLD operator would have grounds to immediately sue ICANN if it attempted to open their RAs to competitive rebid — and that situation will stand until either the Registry Stakeholder Group volunteers to rewrite that clause (a doubtful proposition), or antitrust regulators find the near-guarantee of perpetual renewal to undermine market competition.

Summing up, if the technical intertwining of the operation of the .Com registry and the management of the root zone functions justify aligning their contractual start and renewal dates then the ICANN Board should approve the RA extension on those merits alone and leave other issues to be settled in their proper forums.

That means that:

  • The imposition of new gTLD RPMs on legacy gTLDs should await the recommendations of the GNSO WG that is currently charged with addressing that issue — a major policy issue that should not be settled by GDD staff via contract negotiations.
  • .Com wholesale pricing should be reviewed by NTIA in consultation with the DOJ as the renewal date for the Cooperative Agreement approaches in November 2018.
  • Competition between .Com and "not com" new gTLDs should take place in the marketplace, where new gTLDs have already achieved millions of collective registrations.
  • Any adjustments of the presumptive renewal clauses in all gTLD agreements, including changes that address anticompetitive pricing behavior, should be addressed by ICANN through an open and transparent process that considers all relevant interests and objectives, and is not just a closed door negotiation between ICANN and registries.
By Philip S. Corwin, Founding Principal of Virtualaw LLC, a Washington, DC Law and Public Policy Firm He also serves as Of Counsel to the IP-centric law firm of Greenberg & Lieberman. Views expressed in this article are solely his own. Visit Page
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