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What the ICANN Brussels Meeting Means for New gTLDs

Antony Van Couvering

ICANN's 38th get-together, in Brussels, may become known as the meeting where the dust finally began to settle. Long-standing issues were settled, compromises were reached, no-one complained too much about the latest version of the Applicant Guidebook, and the Board stood by its project plan dates, even scheduling a Board retreat to solve remaining issues. Finally, there were no surprise "gotcha!" delays that generic Top-Level Domain (gTLD) applicants have been used to seeing at ICANN meeting. With one possible exception…

September Board Retreat – Good News

ICANN's Board of Directors is going to take a special retreat, tentatively scheduled for September 2010, to try to sort out the remaining gTLD issues. This was publicly announced by Chairman Peter Dengate-Thrush and much discussed during the Brussels meeting. It is likely that the Board will hammer out some solutions on issues where opposing camps are insisting on their advantages and refusing to compromise.

The Board seems to be taking their task seriously, putting enormous pressure on various working groups (see my notes on the vertical integration working group, below) to produce proposals prior to their retreat. Applicants should be pleased with the vigor with which the Board has decided to address the remaining logjams.

.XXX Decision – Good News

The Board's decision to green-light .XXX means new gTLD applicants can breathe a sigh of relief. The approval means that the new gTLDs program will not be threatened by .XXX-inspired court interference in the gTLD process. ICM Registry, .XXX's sponsor, would almost certainly have sued ICANN if the decision had gone differently, and very likely they would have asked for an injunction to stop the introduction of new gTLDs — and they might have been successful. The ICANN Board decision to go ahead with .XXX, however heavily hedged with caveats, removes this threat. That's good news for gTLD applicants.

Most of the press I've seen makes it seem as if .XXX is a done deal, and will be inserted into the root in short order. Unfortunately for the 162,000 reported pre-registration applications for .XXX, we are very far from that. One of the more intelligent analyses of the Board's resolution is the Tom Hymes story at AVN. To their credit, ICM's blog has a thorough and fact-filled rundown of the remaining obstacles. My own assessment of .XXX isn't very positive, but it is a good sign that ICANN is letting itself be compelled to following its own rules.

Intellectual Property Issues – Good News

Trademark advocates at ICANN will tell you that they are the reasonable ones, that the people who are unalterably opposed to new gTLDs don't even show up at ICANN meetings. That may be, but members of ICANN's intellectual property constituency have hardly been pushovers. Therefore it was a pleasure to witness hardline opponents to new gTLDs, including sharp critics from the BBC, Nestle, and the American Red Cross talk constructively about how they could benefit from them at a panel called "Brand Management in the Age of New gTLDs."

For instance, Charlotte Walters of Orange (the phone company) had this to say:

I think we're all about building and driving brand value, in which case if you have an asset that could become a mark of value and a mark of quality so that consumers would come to recognize that something that is dot Orange is genuine and that there is no risk of phishing or any other malicious acts underneath it, then that would be the ideal position that we are all aiming to get to. The question is, how long does it take you to get there.

In the meantime, I think that defensive registrations, which we're all used to doing, is going to be an ongoing factor....

So on a longer-term view, yes, it — there is a lot of potential value. And from a marketing perspective, there's a lot of potential value. But it will take a long time, I think, to educate internally and externally as to how to get there.

The intellectual property people fought hard for their position and achieved enormous gains, and now there is a sense that they should take their winnings quietly, which they seem to be doing. There are now several RPMs (rights protection mechanisms) in the Applicant Guidebook, including measures to shut down entire registries if they were found to be knowingly and systematically violating IP rights. The GAC (Government Advisory Committee) is no longer worrying that the sky will fall without more IP protections, and the Board opines quite openly that they see consensus in this area. Strident denunciations will continue, but at the meeting there was overwhelming agreement that we are finally past this hurdle.

Vertical Integration – Good News

The good news — and it is good news — is that the Vertical Integration Policy Development Process (VI PDP) is not going to delay new gTLDs. That doesn't mean the results won't affect new gTLDs, but it's not going to slow things down.

Vertical Integration is another way of saying cross-ownership or control, and in this case the question is whether (and to what extent) a registry can own or control a registrar, or vice-versa. The Working Group (which I participate in) has a wide variety of entrenched positions, ranging from protectionist limitations on cross-ownership to a registrar-pleasing complete lack of barriers. The arguments are arcane, and because the limitations concern a future marketplace that no-one can really grasp, the proceedings are an anxious pandemonium of fears and doubts. But the Board has insisted on getting some kind of report in time for its retreat, and so the Working Group is likely to produce a very thin document that representing whatever consensus the group can achieve. The Board doesn't want to decide this question on its own, but if it must, it will.

You can access the Working Group's online resource page, or for a long slog you can read the Working Group's email archives. A few weeks ago, I took the trouble to articulate the Minds + Machines position, which remains the same.

MOPO – Theoretical Knot with a Real-World Solution

MOPO, also called MAPO, stands for "Morality and Public Order," which is the last big sticking point. Most did not consider it that big of an issue until this Brussels meeting, when the GAC first declared that ICANN's whole approach to ferreting out immorality (having jurists decide if a TLD is immoral) was not acceptable and must be changed. They subsequently declared it was not their job to suggest anything in its place. Predictably, ICANN board members and staffers were annoyed, but must realize that ultimately they have to produce something that the GAC can live with. Watching the meetings, I didn't sense that the GAC was using this as an issue to slow down new gTLDs; on the contrary, they seemed not to want to be seen as the reason for delay.

On the one hand, the GAC is right: the morality and public order module is a mess, bulked up with portentous phrases but basically passing the buck to some highly paid lawyers. On the other hand, the module fails precisely because it's impossible to determine what's immoral or not on a global basis — this is a circle that will not be squared. The debate is reminiscent of the struggles of the U.S. courts to define pornography, and the solution that was reached — local community standards — will serve here too.

A practical fix is needed, even if it doesn't address the underlying (insoluble) problem. My guess is that, despite its overtones of censorship, ICANN will have to set up some kind of morality panel in judgment of names, and people it with diverse enough stakeholders to deflect claims of conspiracy. And the vast majority of TLDs will pass without a whisper of dissent. This panel will be just another objection chokepoint, joining the Independent Objector, the Geographic Names Panel, Community Objection and other procedures as a gateway that gTLD applications will have to pass through. Meanwhile, out in the real world, local jurisdictions may block some gTLDs locally if they find them offensive — just as they now block certain second-level domain names in .com.

Although MOPO is the most concerning of the remaining obstacles to opening the new gTLD process, and does have a chance of slowing down the process, there are a lot of committed people working on a solution. The real difficulty will be to shoehorn the practical solution into a theoretical framework that's consistent with the principles everyone is keen to display.

The Bottom Line

The final shape of the applicant guidebook is becoming clear. With the possible exception of the MOPO issue, solutions to the remaining problems are visible in outline and in many cases in great detail. There are several efforts underway, including the Board retreat and various hurry-up working groups, to get the new gTLD program to the finish line. There's always a chance that the timing will slip, but I would say not by much — we're sticking to our timeline: most indications are that ICANN's next meeting, in early December 2010 in Cartagena, Colombia, will finally produce a starting date for new gTLDs.

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Charlotte Walters was also asked Paul Tattersfield  –  Jul 06, 2010 10:05 AM PST

Antony that is very selective quoting of Charlotte Walters.

For example Charlotte Walters response to John McCormac's question.

John McCormac's - "Will new gTLDs be too dependent on brand protection registrations for a major part of the revenue and how will the brand owners feel about this?"

Charlotte Walters' response - "Two words.  Yes and Bitter"

@Paul - yes, it is a selective Antony Van Couvering  –  Jul 06, 2010 11:02 AM PST

@Paul - yes, it is a selective quotation; I don't think Circle ID would have published the entire transcript.  Nonetheless, despite the bitterness (which is everywhere in ICANN, by no means limited to brand owners), I see a new willingness to admit that there some actual positive aspects of new gTLDs for brands.  This is the sense I got from many of the panelists, and I used Charlotte's quote as an examplar.  I could have cut the quote down to make it sound as if it was entirely positive, which wouldn't have been true to her sentiment, so I left in her caveats. With them, I think it's a fair summary of the attitude of the panel as a whole, and I stand by it.

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