Law & Policy

1
Dec

ICA Tells ICANN That Comprehensive UDRP Review Should Follow RPM Analysis

On November 30th ICA filed its comment letter regarding the “Preliminary Issue Report on a GNSO Policy Development Process to Review All Rights Protection Mechanisms in All gTLDs” that was published for public comment on October 9, 2015. ICA’s complete comment can be viewed at http://forum.icann.org/lists/comments-rpm-prelim-issue-09oct15/msg00021.html, and all 24 filed comments are available at http://forum.icann.org/lists/comments-rpm-prelim-issue-09oct15/index.html.

The principal question raised by the Report was whether the review and possible adjustment of new gTLD RPMs and the review and potential reform of the UDRP should be combined or separated. On that key decision, our comment letter said that the RPMs should be addressed prior to the UDRP review for these reasons:

We believe that the RPM review and the UDRP review each constitutes a highly complex array of interrelated questions and judgments, and that trying to combine the two into a single mega-review will tax any Working Group (WG) inordinately.

In particular, the UDRP review will constitute the first comprehensive inquiry into ICANN’s oldest Consensus Policy. It may address structural issues; such as whether ICANN should enter into uniform contractual agreements with all UDRP providers, whether there should be clear boundaries to prevent individual dispute providers’ Supplementary Rules from influencing decisional outcomes, and whether an internal appeals procedure should provide an avenue for a ‘UDRP Supreme Court’ to address and reconcile disparate decisions by different providers on nearly identical fact patterns.

…Both domain registrants and trademark owner complainants deserve, after nearly two decades of unexamined use, a UDRP review and reform process that is accorded adequate time for comprehensive review and development of subsequent recommendations. This review of necessity must be preceded by the RPM review, as it was the intent of the GNSO Council in 2011 that the UDRP review be informed by that of the RPMs and by any changes made to them. Further, as staff notes at page 8 of the Report, one result of “this approach is the fact that community consideration of the more general overarching issue concerning the comprehensiveness of all the RPMs as a set of aggregate protections for trademark holders in all gTLDs, as well as the issue of whether any of the new RPMs should be considered Consensus Policies like the UDRP, will necessarily be postponed to the second phase of work”. Unlike staff, we do not view that consideration as a drawback but as a far more responsible approach than considering integration of any of the new gTLD RPMs in legacy gTLD without knowing whether or in what manner they may be altered.

We agree with staff that “One benefit of this two-pronged approach is better alignment of the timing of the work on reviewing the new RPMs with the operational reviews of the New gTLD Program (including the CCT Review) and, conceivably, a new PDP on New gTLD Subsequent Procedures”. We fully expect that there will be substantial interest in completing the RPM review prior to the opening of any second round of new gTLDs, and that consideration provides another reason for structural separation. If the RPM and UDRP reviews were addressed together, substantial pressure could arise to truncate the UDRP portion lest it delay the timing and adoption of final RPM recommendations. As a result this first-ever UDRP review could get short shrift and inadequate attention.

Many of the other groups and individuals who filed comments also took the view that the RPM and UDRP reviews should be separate, with the RPMs teed up first.

What did surprise us was the reluctance of the trademark community to even contemplate a review of the UDRP, much less consider any changes based on nearly twenty years of experience with it.

The International Trademark Association (INTA) asserted that it is “is strongly opposed to opening the Uniform Dispute Resolution Policy (UDRP) to review as the UDRP has been functioning efficiently and well for over fifteen years. It is important to maintain this effective mechanism which combats the most blatant instances of cybersquatting within the domain name system. Any review or subsequent modifications could jeopardize the benefits that the UDRP is intended to provide to trademark owners.” Having attended INTA conferences along with thousands of others, and seen the money invested in global branding as well as the sector’s political influence, it strains credulity to believe that trademark owners could be “rolled’ in the course of a UDRP review.

ICANN’s Intellectual Property Constituency (IPC) warned “that the complexity of any review would be immense and the drain on resources considerable, with a risk of creating new problems via an overly complicated review process… the IPC has a serious concern that if a review were to be carried out, there is a risk of a polarization of views into two camps – each with a fear that the other camp would either dilute or overly strengthen the UDRP. Improvements sought by one side would be seen as potentially abusive to registrants, improvements sought by the other as potentially diluting the effectiveness of a mechanism for resolving disputes efficiently… if a review of the UDRP as a policy is to be considered, an “Expert Group” should be assembled to carry out this review.” For ICA’s part, we think that, just like war is too important to just be left to the generals, UDRP review and reform is too important to just be left to “experts” and must include participation by those with broader views of the UDRP’s impact on domain registrants and free expression, among other key considerations.

And UN agency and accredited UDRP provider the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) opined that “the UDRP continues to function as intended. In its harmonized criteria and universal application, this anti-cybersquatting mechanism has come to be recognized as an international policy success… Destabilization of the predictable UDRP framework may have a range of unintended consequences. It would disrupt the body of precedent carefully developed by hundreds of panelists from across jurisdictions in tens of thousands of cases… Each day, the UDRP demonstrates the flexibility to meet the demands of an evolving DNS; it does not need system-wide updates that would imprudently limit this flexibility”. To the contrary, domain investors would respond that this “flexibility” is code for a lack of any binding precedent that makes the UDRP more of a casino game in a world of proliferating UDRP providers.

We are pleased that ICANN’s Business Constituency, of which ICA is a member, took a more balanced approach, stating, “While the BC believes that the UDRP is working well overall, it now seems timely to engage in a review of its performance with an eye toward considering possible improvements, so long as that UDRP review commences after completion of the RPM review.”

In response to the trademark community’s message of opposition and excessive caution, ICA added this final point to our comment’s Executive Summary, to wit:

Finally, we have strong disagreement with the view expressed by a minority of commenters that the UDRP review anticipated by the GNSO Council’s Resolution of December 15, 2011 should not proceed at all, and that any such undertaking would be unduly arduous and dangerous. The UDRP is the only ICANN Consensus Policy that has never been reviewed. Like any human undertaking, it is not perfect and was drafted by individuals who could not have known how it would be implemented in practice. Any UDRP review should of course be fully informed by the actual record of UDRP practice and experience of participants, and should proceed carefully. But we are confident that a good faith UDRP review that considers the legitimate rights and interests of both registrants and complainants, as well as related public policy issues, can produce a more balanced and consistent system that preserves the fundamental virtues of the UDRP while yielding modifications that benefit all affected parties.

ICA looks forward to participating in both the RPM and UDRP reviews. ICANN staff is scheduled to deliver a Report summarizing comments and suggesting next steps by December 10th. Following receipt of that report, the GNSO Council will decide on a way forward and, if ICA’s and other commenters’ proposed procedure is followed, will consider a draft Charter for an RPM review working group in the initial months of 2016.

Throughout the coming review processes, ICA will be an active participant seeking to protect the legitimate rights and interests of domain investors and developers and to bring greater balance between trademark and domain rights.

Here’s the rest of our comment letter’s Executive Summary:

Executive Summary

  • ICA prefers a separate and sequential approach for the reviews and subsequent reports and recommendations, with the RPM review preceding and thereby informing the UDRP review.
  • ICA reiterates all of the points made and views expressed in our prior RPM comment letter of April 30, 2015.
  • ICA believes that the URS has been largely effective in achieving its intended goals. We would strongly oppose any alterations that could make it a substitute for, rather than a narrow supplement to, the UDRP. In addition, the initiation of a PDP to determine whether the URS and other new gTLD RPMs should become Consensus Policies for all gTLDs, and the full consideration of the multiple transitional issues accompanying any such decision, illustrates again that the decision of GDD staff to seek imposition of the URS in contract renewal negotiations with legacy gTLDs was a direct and impermissible intrusion into the policy realm reserved to GNSO Council by ICANN’s Bylaws. ICANN’s Board should therefore instruct GDD staff to cease and desist from any such attempts during the time that these PDPs are open and active, and should refuse to approve any legacy gTLD renewal contract that contains any provision of new gTLD RPMs.
  • The language of Trademark Claims notices may deter legitimate noninfringing domain registrations at new gTLDs. This situation can be partly but not completely addressed by providing more comprehensive information in the notice to the prospective registrant, and also clarifying under what circumstances the post-notice registration of a domain will be considered to constitute “bad faith” for UDRP and URS purposes.
  • Labels that generate a Trademark Claims notice should not be expanded beyond the present system of exact matches of the trademark, plus domain labels recovered in UDRP or court actions under the ‘Trademark-plus-fifty’ implementation measure.
  • The right of first refusal for a premium domain name during or after the sunrise period should be conditioned on whether the trademark is unique or a dictionary word, and if a dictionary word whether the gTLD label is related to the goods and services for which it is registered.
  • Our responses to the report’s UDRP questions emphasize the need for a mechanism, perhaps via an optional internal appeal, to establish greater predictability and consistency in decisions dealing with similar facts; better protection for free speech, especially legitimate noncommercial criticism; more equitable time periods for respondents to choose counsel and draft answers; a fairer means of allocating cases among UDRP providers and their panelists; and establishment of a uniform laches policy barring complaints in defined circumstances.
  • Our additional comments on the UDRP address the need for clear guidelines and meaningful penalties to determine and deter attempted Reverse Domain Name Hijacking; greater transparency requirements for UDRP providers; and establishment of an ICANN-maintained centralized database of UDRP decisions and other relevant information.

 

9
Nov

The TPP and the DNS

On November 5, 2015 the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) released the official text of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). That text consists of 30 separate Chapters totaling more than 2,000 pages, and is accompanied by four additional Annexes and dozens of Related Instruments. Only those who negotiated it are likely to have a detailed understanding of all its provisions, and even that probably overstates reality.

The TPP’s intellectual property (IP) provisions are contained in Chapter 18, which runs for a mere 74 pages. While the majority of these provisions address patents, copyrights, and trademarks, Article 18.28 deals with Domain Names (its full text is reproduced at the end of this article). While of direct relevance to the domain name industry as well as the trademark sector, these provisions were not deemed sufficiently important to merit a single word of explanation in the IP Rights issue paper or fact sheet issued by USTR.

There are twelve signatory nations to the TPP – Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam, and the United States. Article 18.28 requires each of them to do two things with regard to domain names:

  1. Make available for its country code top level domain (ccTLD) a dispute resolution procedure, modeled upon the principles of ICANN’s Uniform Dispute Resolution Policy (UDRP), that is designed to provide expeditious and low cost resolution, is fair and equitable, is not overly burdensome, and does not bar access to judicial redress; and
  2. Provide online public access to a reliable and accurate database of domain registrants in its ccTLD in accordance with each nation’s laws and relevant administrative policies regarding privacy and personal data protection.

Neither of these provisions is earth-shattering, and to some degree they are even positive for the domain sector. Most major ccTLDs already provide access to non-judicial dispute resolution between trademark rights holders and domain registrants, and some even go beyond TPP’s requirements. The .US ccTLD, for example, which had already adopted the UDRP, announced in June 2104 that it was adopting the Uniform Rapid Suspension (URS) procedure which was developed for ICANN’s new gTLD program but is not yet a Consensus Policy applicable to legacy gTLDs. Further, the .US versions of both UDRP and URS require the rights holder to only demonstrate that “the domain name(s) were registered or are being used in bad faith”, while the ICANN versions require evidence of both bad faith registration and use. From a registrant’s point of view, the most positive element of the TPP language is its emphasis on a “fair and equitable” process and its preservation of court access.

As for online access to registrant data, the TPP’s deference to law and policy regarding privacy and personal data protection does not appear to attempt to influence the ongoing attempt by ICANN stakeholders to fashion a new database policy to replace WHOIS. Nor does it require ccTLDs to prohibit the use of privacy and proxy services (which are permitted, for example, by the .AU registry).

So Article 18.28 seems to at least satisfy the “do no harm” standard.

These provisions do not take effect until a signatory nation take the additional steps required under its law to formally adopt the TPP. In the U.S. that requires Congressional approval. President Obama’s November 5th letter to the House and Senate leaders concludes with this statement:

“Consistent with the Trade Priorities Act, I am sending this notification at least 90 days in advance of signing the TPP Agreement.  My Administration looks forward to working with the Congress in developing appropriate legislation to approve and implement this TPP Agreement.”

The TPP faces stiff political opposition within the U.S. Most Democrat members of Congress are opposed to it due to strong resistance from unions and other interest groups.

While we don’t see them as being in the camp of either U.S. political party, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) recently declared that the publication of TPP’s IP provisions “confirms our worst fears about the agreement, and dashes the few hopes that we held out that its most onerous provisions wouldn’t survive to the end of the negotiations”. EFF took a far more jaundiced view than our own regarding the domain name provisions, observing that it “requires countries to adopt an equivalent to ICANN’s flawed Uniform Domain-Name Dispute Resolution Policy (UDRP), despite the fact that this controversial policy is overdue for a formal review by ICANN” (Note: Such UDRP review is expected to commence in the first half of 2016.)

With the U.S. elections just a year away, U.S. Presidential and Congressional electoral politics are converging to bear on the TPP’s prospects. Presidential Contender Bernie Sanders is a long-time and highly vocal detractor of the pact. His official position states that he:

“Opposed NAFTA, CAFTA, permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) with China, the TPP, and other free-trade agreements. These deals kill American jobs by shifting work overseas to nations which fail to provide worker protections and pay extremely low wages.”

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton, who pronounced the TPP to be the “gold standard” of modern trade deals while serving as Secretary of State in the Obama Administration, reversed that stance on October 7th, shortly after the final text was published on WikiLeaks, stating:

“As of today, I am not in favor of what I have learned about it. I have said from the very beginning that we had to have a trade agreement that would create good American jobs, raise wages and advance our national security. I still believe that’s the high bar we have to meet. I’ve been trying to learn as much as I can about the agreement, but I’m worried. I appreciate the hard work that President Obama and his team put into this process and recognize the strides they made. But the bar here is very high and, based on what I have seen, I don’t believe this agreement has met it.”

That position, alleged by some to constitute a “flip-flop “, caused the Washington Post to opine in an editorial:

“Bowing to pressure from the Democratic Party’s ascendant protectionist wing, would-be presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has come out against President Obama’s freshly negotiated Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement. The most hopeful thing to be said about this deeply disappointing abandonment of the president she served, and the internationalist tendency in Democratic ideology she once embodied, is that it is so transparently political… To be sure, Ms. Clinton salted her anti-TPP statement with qualifiers: “What I know about it.” “As of today.” “I am not in favor of what I have learned about it.” And so on. In other words, there is still a chance that later on, if or when she’s president, and it is to her advantage, she may discover some decisive good point in the TPP that would let her take a different position without, technically, contradicting herself. Cynical? Perhaps, but as we said, that’s the hope.”

On the Republican side, leading Presidential contender Donald Trump has made his TPP opposition clear, stating inimitably in a November 9th interview, ““The deal is insanity. That deal should not be supported and it should not be allowed to happen.” While Jeb Bush has voiced support for TPP, others vying for the GOP nomination do not appear to be eager to take a hard position that could antagonize an already disaffected and generally anti-establishment voter base, particularly within its “Tea Party” contingent. More establishment Republican corporate interests tend to favor the TPP, but even in that camp there are notable industries and major companies with strong concerns about various aspects of the agreement.

Congress voted in June 2015 to give the President “fast track” trade promotion authority for the TPP, but that does not mean that a vote will come quickly — just that the TPP text cannot be amended by Congress. The earliest Congress might vote on TPP is Spring 2016. But given that 2016 will be a politically charged year with control of the House, Senate, and White House all theoretically up for grabs, neither party is anxious to take a vote that could alienate millions of potential voters. So there’s a good chance that the final decision on TPP will be left to the next President and Congress sometime in 2017.

The TPP’s signatory nations do not include the largest economic power on the western shore of the Pacific, China, and that omission is to some extent meant to deliberately counter that nation’s economic designs for the Pacific Rim. As former U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers just described that strategy:

“The Council on Foreign Relations, hardly a source of xenophobic or radical ideas, recently issued a report drafted by leading U.S. diplomats condemning this country’s efforts to build up China within the international economic order and calling for a “balancing strategy” that includes “new preferential trading arrangements. . .that consciously exclude China.” No small part of the case being made by the Obama administration for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal involves the idea that it will promote competitiveness vis-a-vis China and reduce China’s influence in determining global trade rules.”

But global investment flows route around trade policies just like the Internet routes around obstacles, and Chinese investors are today taking actions that may elevate the status of domain names in future trade agreements. Domain name registrations have recently been hitting record levels and, as reported in The Domains, most of the demand seems to be coming from purchasers in China who want to diversify out of equities and real estate and now view domains as an asset class with multiple valuable attributes, including good price appreciation potential.

That changing economic role for domains gives hope that, when the next multinational trade pact is under development, the domain investment industry will be well positioned to make its own case that domains must be viewed not just through the prism of potential trademark infringement but as a valuable intangible asset unto itself, and one that is equally deserving of uniform international recognition and protections.

 

***

Domain Name Provisions of the TPP:

 

Article 18.28: Domain Names

  1. In connection with each Party’s system for the management of its country-code top-level domain (ccTLD) domain names, the following shall be available:

(a) an appropriate procedure for the settlement of disputes, based on, or modelled along the same lines as, the principles established in the Uniform Domain-Name Dispute-Resolution Policy, as approved by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) or that:

(i) is designed to resolve disputes expeditiously and at low cost;

(ii) is fair and equitable;

(iii) is not overly burdensome; and

(iv) does not preclude resort to judicial proceedings; and

(b) online public access to a reliable and accurate database of contact information concerning domain-name registrants,

in accordance with each Party’s law and, if applicable, relevant administrator policies regarding protection of privacy and personal data.

  1. In connection with each Party’s system for the management of ccTLD domain names, appropriate remedies17 shall be available at least in cases in which a person registers or holds, with a bad faith intent to profit, a domain name that is identical or confusingly similar to a trademark.

17 The Parties understand that such remedies may, but need not, include, among other things, revocation, cancellation, transfer, damages or injunctive relief.

 

20
Jul

Majority Comments say “No URS by Contract at .Cat & .Pro” – While Staff Report on .Travel Comments is Two Weeks Past Due

Once again, as it was with .Travel, the vast majority of comments on the proposed renewal Registry Agreements (RAs) for the legacy .Cat and .Pro gTLDs are united in their opposition to imposition of Uniform Rapid Suspension (URS) and other new gTLD rights protection mechanisms (RPMs) by contract, arguing that this is a consensus policy decision that can only be fairly made through the policy development process (PDP).

Comments following this general line of reasoning were filed on .Cat by, among others, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, IP Justice, ICANN’s Business Constituency (BC) and Non-Commercial Stakeholders Group (NCSG) — and of course the ICA along with individual comments filed by ICA Board member Nat Cohen and ICA members Jay Chapman and Greg McNair.

As we saw with the comments on .Travel, the only commenters supporting URS by contract at legacy gTLDs were ICANN’s Intellectual Property Constituency (IPC) and new gTLD portfolio registry operator Donuts.

An identical list of commenters and positions appears at the comment forum for .Pro.

A Staff Report on the .Cat and .Pro comments is scheduled to be filed on July 21st. But odds are that these will be late, given that the due date for the staff report on .Travel comments was July 5th but all that appears at its website is this – “Report Overdue”. It’s difficult to understand why it is taking staff so long to complete and post that document, because that Staff Report is supposed to be an objective compilation and summary of the comments received – and not a defense brief to justify the staff action of proposing the inclusion of URS in these renewal RAs that has drawn such broad criticism and opposition.

We will continue to monitor the .Travel website, along with those for .Cat and .Pro, to see when those Staff Reports are filed and what they say.

Meantime, here is what ICA said in the additional comments we filed on both .Cat and .Pro:

This comment by the Internet Commerce Association incorporates by reference and supplements the comment letter we filed in regard to the proposed renewal registry agreement (RA) for .Travel on June 21st.

The issues are essentially identical, in that:

  • The proposed RAs for. .Cat and .Pro are completely identical to .Travel in regard to incorporating the URS in Section 2 of Specification 7.
  • .Cat and .Pro are legacy gTLDs created before and for which the URS is a non-relevant implementation detail of the current new gTLD program, and is not a Consensus Policy enforceable against all gTLDs and contracted parties.
  • The notice published by ICANN regarding the proposed renewal RA clearly states that “ICANN has proposed” that the new gTLD RA be the starting point for contract renewal discussion and negotiation.

This issue of staff creation of de facto Consensus Policy arose several times at the just concluded ICANN 53 meeting held in Buenos Aires. At its opening session on Sunday morning, June 21st ICANN’s GNSO Council met with senior staff of ICANN’s Global Domains Division (GDD). Many Council members raised their own strong concerns about the staff action and its destructive impact on the GNSO’s role in making gTLD policy. GDD staff provided the weak response that “we did not push anyone to accept” the URS, maintaining that .Travel, .Pro, and .Cat registry operators had all “volunteered” to include it in their proposed renewal agreements. That justification strains credulity given that GDD staff proposed its inclusion as the starting point for registry agreement renewal.

As we stated in our comment letter regarding .Travel–

There can be no doubt that this is a staff attempt to create de facto Consensus Policy, as is clearly documented by the fact that the same objectionable provision appears in the proposed renewal RAs for .Cat and .Pro, both released for comment on May 28th. This evidences a deliberate and illegitimate attempt by contracting staff to create a series of precedents that would lead inevitably to the imposition of the URS on major legacy gTLDs such as .Org, .Net and .Com when they come up for renewal, despite the fact that the URS is not an ICANN Consensus Policy.

GDD staff also said they would change their position if the GNSO told them not to seek to impose new gTLD RPMs on legacy gTLDs – which is not only an impossibility for this proposed renewal RA, given the time required for the GNSO to establish policy via the standard PDP, but completely misunderstands and reverses the proper relationship between the stakeholders and staff. It is stakeholders who create ICANN policies through a bottom up process, which are subsequently administered by staff – not staff given free rein to initiate policy in a top down and unaccountable manner via contract negotiations until the stakeholders stop them.

The same concerns were raised when the Council met with the ICANN Board on the afternoon of June 21st, where they received a far more sympathetic reception. Several Board members agreed that staff should not initiate policy changes.

In addition to the concerns raised by Council members, and at community members at the Public Forum in Buenos Aires, the comments filed on .Travel ran overwhelmingly against incorporation of the URS in the renewal RA.

Only two comments supported the action by GDD staff to propose it as a starting point:

  • The Intellectual Property Constituency (IPC) stated that it “encourages Registry Operators to voluntarily go above and beyond the minimum rights protections. Whether adding new restrictions against abusive registrations, implementing blocking or creating new dispute procedures, those best practices should be encouraged and do not require a PDP for TLD Operators to implement”. We strongly disagree that there is anything voluntary about a process in which a supplicant registry in need of having its contract renewed must negotiate with ICANN staff who propose that inclusion of specific RPMs be the starting point for negotiations.
  • We therefore believe that legacy gTLD registry operators are not free to create and adopt new RPMs that alter the rights of existing registrants at the time of contract renewal because there is no one in the negotiating room to speak for the due process rights of their registrants. Indeed, such negotiations take place behind closed doors and are not transparent to affected stakeholders.
  • Further, the IPC’s claim that “there is clearly no requirement that an RPM must become consensus policy before it can be adopted by a registry. We have already learned that from Donuts and Rightside Registry, both of whom adopted a form of “blocking” as an RPM, which was also not consensus policy” completely misunderstands the critical difference between revenue-generating blocking policies promulgated by portfolio gTLD operators and dispute resolution policies. Blocking policies prevent domains from being registered in the first place and therefore have no impact on existing registrants, while alterations in dispute resolution policies can result in an existing registrant having its domain suspended, extinguished or transferred.
  • The IPC also fails to recognize the difference between a new gTLD, in which potential registrants have clear notice of any supplementary RPMs, and a legacy gTLD in which registrants should expect that additional RPMs will be adopted through a standard PDP that creates Consensus Policy.
  • The new gTLD portfolio operator Donuts, which maintained that the STI-RT that created the URS “never considered” whether it “should not be included in legacy TLDs”. All we can say is that Donuts’ recollection is quite different from ours, as we recall this question being raised multiple times and receiving assurances from STI-RT participants and others involved in the development of the new gTLD RPMs that they would not and could not be imposed on legacy gTLDs absent a subsequent review, followed by a PDP which adopted them as Consensus Policy.

In closing, we repeat the conclusion of our comment letter regarding .Travel —

Consensus Policy regarding RPMs must be vetted within the community to assure a proper balancing of the interests and rights of both trademark owners and domain registrants.

In order to assure that balance two indispensable steps are necessary:

  • The attempt to impose new gTLD RPMs on legacy gTLDs by contract must be withdrawn in recognition that such action is in violation of ICANN Bylaws. If staff is unwilling to retreat on this initiative then ICANN’s Board must assume responsibility and review all the issues at play, including compliance with the Bylaws, before any legacy gTLD RA with such a provision is made final.
  • Any further modification of the new gTLD RPMs must be considered within the context of a full PDP. We are far past the implementation phase of the new gTLD program. Further, it is clear that the applicability of the RPMs to legacy gTLDs is now primed for discussion. Unless both RPM modifications and legacy gTLD applicability are considered within the PDP framework there is a substantial risk of a bait-and-switch policy process, in which RPMs are made applicable to legacy gTLDs and then substantially altered via a backdoor, non-PDP process.

In addition, we repeat the request that ICA made directly to ICANN’s Board at the Buenos Aires Public Forum –

First, we need a commitment that any further alterations of the new gTLD RPMs will be made through a standard PDP. We are far past the implementation details stage and it is now crystal clear that these decisions will implicate legacy gTLDs as well.

Second, if GDD staff ignores the overwhelming weight of comments and retains the URS in the final RAs for legacy gTLDs, you need to vote up and down on those RAs. You need to “own” that decision and in that way indicate whether you believe this GDD staff action is or is not acceptable.

We hope that GDD staff will recognize that they have overreached on these legacy gTLD contracts and that the proper action is to strike the RPMs adopted from the new gTLD program from them and leave that decision to the multistakeholder community.

If staff does not do the right thing then we will press for an up and down Board vote on this and the other affected contracts before they take effect.

 

Sincerely,

Philip S. Corwin

Counsel, Internet Commerce Association

22
Jun

Comments Run Overwhelmingly Against ICANN Staff Attempt to Impose URS on Legacy gTLDs

The comment period on the proposed renewal registry agreement for the .Travel legacy gTLD closed on Sunday, June 21st and the comments submitted are overwhelmingly opposed to ICANN staff’s attempt to impose any of the new gTLD rights protection mechanisms, including Uniform Rapid Suspension (URS), on legacy gTLDs through contracting rather than a formal Policy Development Process (PDP).

In addition to ICA’s own comment (reproduced below) opposition to the contracting route were submitted by ICANN’s Business Constituency and Non-Commercial Stakeholders Group as well as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and IP Justice, plus numerous participants in the domain industry. The only outliers supporting this brazen attempt to detour around ICANN’s Bylaws were ICANN’s Intellectual Property Constituency and the Donuts new gTLD portfolio registry operator.

At its opening session on Sunday morning in Buenos Aires, ICANN’s GNSO Council met with senior staff of ICANN’s Global Domains Division (GDD). Many Council members raised their own strong concerns about the staff action and its destructive impact on the GNSO’s role in making gTLD policy. GDD staff provided the weak response that “we did not push anyone to accept” the URS, maintaining that .Travel, .Pro, and .Cat registry operators had all “volunteered” to include it in their proposed renewal agreements. That justification strains credulity given that GDD staff proposed its inclusion as the starting point for registry agreement renewal – and our friends in the registry and registrar community inform us that ICANN staff play serious hardball in closed door contracting negotiations. GDD staff also said they would change their position if the GNSO told them not to seek to impose new gTLD RPMs on legacy gTLDs – which of course will never happen for both procedural and internal political reasons.

The same concerns were raised when the Council met with the ICANN Board on Sunday afternoon, where they received a more sympathetic reception. Several Board members agreed that staff should not initiate policy changes – but there was no firm Board commitment to intervene against the staff action.

So while the battle has been joined its outcome is far from settled. ICA intends to raise this matter again at the Public Forum on Thursday afternoon. As stated in our comment letter, “if the decision is made by staff to retain these RPMs in the .Travel renewal RA following the close of the public comment period, we believe that the proposed final contract must be forwarded to, reviewed by, and voted upon by the ICANN Board”. In other words, the Board needs to “own” the final decision, and in that action demonstrate whether it is truly committed to the bottom-up consensus policy process.

Here’s ICA’s comment letter:

 

 

VIRTUALAW LLC

Philip S. Corwin, Founding Principal

1155 F Street, NW  Suite 1050 Washington, DC 20004

202-559-8597/Direct 202-559-8750/Fax 202-255-6172/Cell

psc@vlaw-dc.com

 

June 21, 2015

By E-Mail to comments-travel-renewal-12may15@icann.org

Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers

12025 Waterfront Drive, Suite 300

Los Angeles, CA 90094-2536

 

Re: Proposed Renewal of .TRAVEL Sponsored TLD Registry Agreement

 

Dear ICANN:

I am writing on behalf of the members of the Internet Commerce Association (ICA). ICA is a not-for-profit trade association representing the domain name industry, including domain registrants, domain marketplaces, and direct search providers. Its membership is composed of domain name registrants who invest in domain names (DNs) and develop the associated websites, as well as the companies that serve them. Professional domain name registrants are a major source of the fees that support registrars, registries, and ICANN itself. ICA members own and operate approximately ten percent of all existing Internet domains on behalf of their own domain portfolios as well as those of thousands of customers.

This letter addresses the Proposed Renewal of .TRAVEL Sponsored TLD Registry Agreement that was published for public comment on February 2, 2015.

Summary of Position

The ICA is strongly opposed to the inclusion of new gTLD rights protection mechanisms (RPMs), particularly Uniform Rapid Suspension (URS), in this renewal agreement (RA) for a legacy gTLD.  We believe that this attempt by ICANN contracting staff to create de facto Consensus Policy via individual registry contract, absent a relevant Policy Development Process (PDP), is a glaring example of the type of top down, unaccountable action that should be targeted by enhanced accountability measures accompanying the IANA transition proposal. Contracts with legacy gTLDs can contain and enforce Consensus Policy, but it is an impermissible violation of ICANN’s Bylaws for contracts to attempt to create Consensus Policy.

We strongly urge that Section 2 of Specification 7 of the Renewal Agreement (RA) for .Travel, which contains the URS as well as the Trademark PostDelegation Dispute Resolution Procedure (PDDRP) be deleted in its entirety. Failure to take that action, and the resulting approval of a .Travel RA that contains these RPMs, will constitute a gross and unacceptable violation of ICANN Bylaws. We hope that contracting staff will promptly take the corrective action required on this matter.

However, if the decision is made by staff to retain these RPMs in the .Travel renewal RA following the close of the public comment period, we believe that the proposed final contract must be forwarded to, reviewed by, and voted upon by the ICANN Board. The potential addition of these RPMs to legacy gTLDs through this inappropriate avenue will have a substantial and deleterious effect on ICANN’s policymaking process going forward, will create a new and dangerous precedent whereby de facto Consensus Policy can be created by contractual fiat in violation of ICANN Bylaws, and will substantially and adversely affect third parties around the world consisting of the existing registrants of more than one hundred million legacy gTLD domains.

 

Unaccountable and Uninformed Top Down Policymaking is Unacceptable

On May 13, 2015 I had the honor and privilege of addressing the Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet of the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. I spoke on ICA’s behalf at the Subcommittee’s hearing on “Stakeholder Perspectives on ICANN: The .Sucks Domain and Essential Steps to Guarantee Trust and Accountability in the Internet’s Operation”.

In my oral statement before the Subcommittee I said the following:

While enhanced ICANN accountability measures are overdue they will operate best only if ICANN’s Board and senior staff embrace a culture of accountability that assumes responsibility for the fallout of ICANN decisions and encompasses early consultation with the multistakeholder community that provides organizational legitimacy.

The current situation regarding the proposed renewal RA for the .Travel gTLD is a perfect illustration that a ‘culture of accountability’ that includes proper deference to the multistakeholder community and to the letter and spirit of ICANN’s Bylaws is presently lacking at ICANN. That is extremely dismaying and disheartening, especially for those who believe in the multistakeholder model (MSM) of governance for the unique experiment in technical DNS management known as ICANN.

When the Applicant Guidebook for the new gTLD program was being drafted I was extensively engaged on ICA’s behalf in the vigorous community debate over its RPMs. Throughout their development by the IRT, STI-RT, and then the full community I repeatedly inquired of other stakeholders as well as ICANN senior staff whether adopting these RPMs as new gTLD program “implementation details” would in any way result in their automatic application to legacy gTLDs like .Com. I received repeated assurances that this would not occur – that the RPMs could be imposed on legacy gTLDs only after their impact and efficacy was fully assessed, and then only via a standard PDP to create new Consensus Policy in conformity with ICANN Bylaws.

The present proposal to impose the URS on .Travel is a betrayal of those assurances and a clear violation of ICANN’s Bylaws. The rationale for this decision – 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.” – is flimsy and unconvincing. ICANN staff possesses no legitimate authority to create and impose what amounts to Consensus Policy. Proposing that the RA take the new gTLD RA as its starting point is tantamount to creating Consensus Party given the overwhelming negotiating advantage that ICANN has in such a context.

There can be no doubt that this is a staff attempt to create de facto Consensus Policy, as is clearly documented by the fact that the same objectionable provision appears in the proposed renewal RAs for .Cat and .Pro, both released for comment on May 28th. This evidences a deliberate and illegitimate attempt by contracting staff to create a series of precedents that would lead inevitably to the imposition of the URS on major legacy gTLDs such as .Org, .Net and .Com when they come up for renewal, despite the fact that the URS is not an ICANN Consensus Policy. Acting in a manner that is consistent with ICANN’s Bylaws is far more important than consistency of RAs – if that latter principle had been paramount then there would be no RPMs at new gTLDs to begin with because they are inconsistent with the Consensus Policy in effect at legacy gTLDs.

This staff decision is all the more troubling because it was made in an irresponsibly uninformed manner without waiting for a full evaluation and identification of issues concerning the new gTLD RPMs.  On May 1st the public comment period on “Draft Report: Rights Protection Mechanisms Review” (https://www.icann.org/public-comments/rpm-review-2015-02-02-en) closed, and on May 29th ICANN staff issued a “Report of Public Comments” (https://www.icann.org/en/system/files/files/report-comments-rpm-review-29may15-en.pdf) based upon community input. The Background on that Draft Report states that it “is intended to be available to inform the Issue Report requested by the GNSO as well as the independent review of Trademark Clearinghouse recommended by the GAC. In addition, this paper will serve as input to the Review Team on Competition, Consumer Trust, and Consumer Choice to be convened under Section 9.3 of the Affirmation of Commitments, charged with assessing the effectiveness of the safeguards developed for the New gTLD Program.”

None of these additional reviews have been completed. Further, one of the major reasons that the GNSO requested the referenced Issue Report was so that GNSO’s stakeholders could decide whether those RPMs should become Consensus Policy for all gTLDs. And that Issue Report will not even be delivered until late September because policy staff requested a six-month extension of the delivery date so that additional studies and analysis could be conducted – and the GNSO Council granted that request on January 29th of this year. Yet this near-total lack of evaluated data regarding the performance of the RPMs seems not to have mattered to contracting staff.

 

Policy and Implementation Considerations

The recently published Final Report on Policy and Implementation (P&I) (https://community.icann.org/display/PIWG/Final+Report+Redline+Version) is also germane to this discussion. That Report, issued with the full consensus support of its working group, defines a “GNSO Consensus Policy” (p.9) as “A Policy established (1) pursuant to the procedure and required minimum elements set forth in ICANN’s Bylaws, and (2) covering those topics listed in Section 1.2 of the consensus policies and temporary policies specification of the 2013 RAA (see Annex I) or the relevant sections in the gTLD registry agreements (see Annex II). GNSO Consensus Policies, adopted following the outlined procedures, are applicable and enforceable on contracted parties as of the implementation effective date.” (Emphasis added)

The PDDRP and URS both fit within the cited topics but have not been adopted pursuant to the outlined procedures for stablishing Consensus Policies. Therefore, their imposition by contractual fiat on legacy gTLDs is clearly in violation of the procedural path and required minimum elements set forth in the Bylaws.

In addition, the P&I Report adopts as its first principle that “Policy development processes must function in a bottom-up manner. The process must not be conducted in a top-down manner and then imposed on stakeholders”. Yet in this instance we have ICANN staff engaged in imposing policy from the top down, first on registries and through them onto registrars and registrants. This is absolutely unacceptable. The one exception to that first principle, “emergency cases such as where there are risks to security and stability”, bears no relationship to the RPMs at issue.

Finally, the P&I Report states a first standard, which is “As outlined in the ICANN Bylaws, the GNSO is responsible for developing and recommending to the ICANN Board substantive policies relating to generic top-level domains. As such, gTLD policy development should not take place outside of the GNSO.(Emphasis added) That standard has been grossly violated by the proposed RA as it imposes staff-dictated policy decisions on legacy gTLDs absent any GNSO involvement.

 

Unfair Impact on Registrants

Registrants at new gTLDs had clear notice that they would be subject to the new RPMs. Registrants at legacy gTLDs expect that they shall only be subject to Consensus Policy adopted in accordance with ICANN’s Bylaws. The proposed RA is a complete betrayal of that legitimate expectation and is totally at odds with ICANN rhetoric in support of registrant rights. It is also likely to raise legality of enforceability issues if there is any attempt to enforce new gTLD RPMs against registrants at legacy gTLDs absent their adoption via Consensus Policy.

The danger for legacy gTLD registrants is compounded by the fact that the URS that staff is trying to impose today may differ materially from what the URS becomes in the next few years. In this regard, the Report of Public Comments on the “Draft Report: Rights Protection Mechanisms Review” was released on May 29th.

The Report’s URS section makes clear that some parties would like Uniform Rapid Suspension converted into Uniform Rapid Transfer, with additional tweaks that would put domain registrants at a substantial disadvantage in URS proceedings.

Among the ideas suggested for the URS by various commenters were:

  • Adding various forms of domain transfer options, either at the time of the decision or when the domain registration expires.
  • Lengthening the term of the domain suspension beyond the initial registration period.
  • Lowering the “clear and convincing evidence” burden of proof standard to the “preponderance of the evidence” burden used in UDRP actions – combined with changing what needs to be proved from ‘registration and use’ in bad faith to ‘registration or use’.
  • Making the URS a “loser pays” procedure.
  • Eliminating or shortening the current one-year post-decision time period in which a defaulting registrant can file for de novo appeal.
  • Requiring the registrant to pay a response fee in all filings, rather than only in those cases involving 15 or more domains, as set in the current URS rules.

Taken collectively, these suggestions would undo whatever rough balance between rights holders and registrants was achieved in the creation of the URS. They make clear that the URS could be changed in the future to become an accelerated, lower-cost version of the UDRP, with the same burden of proof plus a domain transfer option. Those two changes alone would probably cause a mass shift from UDRP filings to URS by trademark owners – thereby converting the URS from its intended use as a narrow supplement to the UDRP to a complete substitute for it. Registrants would have less time to respond, shorter word limits in which to state their replies, and be denied the option of requesting a three member expert panel. Other potential changes could be adoption of a loser pays requirement, requiring registrants to pay a response fee in all cases, and changing what must be proved by complainant to bad faith registration or use.

ICA is sensitive to some legitimate concerns of trademark owners regarding the effectiveness of the URS and we have suggested means to address those concerns without undermining registrant rights. But proposals such as those listed above illustrate that the staff attempt to put the URS in place at legacy gTLDs via contractual fiat puts the cart far before the horse. We must know what the URS is going to be before we can consider its impact on legacy gTLD registrants and debate whether it should be adopted as Consensus Policy.

It is also a dangerous and destructive approach. If staff can succeed in this effort, and if the URS is then modified for new gTLDs though a non-PDP “implementation” route, that modified URS would automatically take effect at legacy gTLDs with contract provisions such as the one that staff is attempting to impose on .Travel . The result would be a radically different URS effectively put in place at legacy gTLDs absent any compliance with ICANN Bylaws pertaining to Consensus Policy.

Consensus Policy regarding RPMs must be vetted within the community to assure a proper balancing of the interests and rights of both trademark owners and domain registrants.

In order to assure that balance two indispensable steps are necessary:

  • The attempt to impose new gTLD RPMs on legacy gTLDs by contract must be withdrawn in recognition that such action is in violation of ICANN Bylaws. If staff is unwilling to retreat on this initiative then ICANN’s Board must assume responsibility and review all the issues at play, including compliance with the Bylaws, before any legacy gTLD RA with such a provision is made final.
  • Any further modification of the new gTLD RPMs must be considered within the context of a full PDP. We are far past the implementation phase of the new gTLD program. Further, it is clear that the applicability of the RPMs to legacy gTLDs is now primed for discussion. Unless both RPM modifications and legacy gTLD applicability are considered within the PDP framework there is a substantial risk of a bait-and-switch policy process, in which RPMs are made applicable to legacy gTLDs and then substantially altered via a backdoor, non-PDP process.

 

In addition, any suggestion that legacy gTLDs can “voluntarily” adopt new gTLD RPMs that have been proposed by ICANN staff in the course of renewal RA negotiations should be rejected as specious, given the differential in bargaining leverage between a registry operator in need of a RA and ICANN staff with the power to approve or deny it.

 

Conclusion

We appreciate the opportunity to provide these comments on the proposed renewal RA for .Travel.

For all the reasons outlined above, the attempted imposition of new gTLD RPMs on this legacy gTLD are absolutely unacceptable and in gross violation of ICANN Bylaws. They must be stripped out of the RA and reserved for consideration in a future PDP by the full ICANN multistakeholder community.

While much is at stake for legacy gTLD registrants, ICANN’s own credibility is also on the line in this instance. At a time when enhanced accountability measures are being designed, a successful end run around the PDP requirements for establishing Consensus Policy would suggest the need for even stronger accountability measures than those presently under consideration. Fortunately, the accountability process will still be ongoing when ICANN decides whether to withdraw this illicit action or double down in its pursuit.

 

Sincerely,

 

Philip S. Corwin

Counsel, Internet Commerce Association

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

15
Jun

Electronic Frontier Foundation tells ICANN to Delete URS from .Travel

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has just told ICANN to drop the notion of applying the Uniform Rapid Suspension (URS) dispute resolution system to .Travel and other legacy gTLDs without undertaking a full Policy Development Process (PDP).

In a June 12 letter, EFF stated:

ICANN should not apply URS to the .travel domain, or to any additional domains, by the unaccountable means of staff inserting new conditions into the renewal of the registry operator’s contract. Rather, the public policy implications of such a move demand that a full PDP be undertaken first.

EFF’s letter also states:

The introduction of the URS, in response to a 2009 recommendation from the new gTLD program’s Implementation Recommendation Team (IRT), was characterized (however dubiously) as an implementation detail of the new gTLD program…The URS never became a consensus policy that would be applicable across all gTLDs…If the URS is to be extended to legacy domains such as .travel, this would place many further domains at risk of rapid suspension, which raises significant free speech concerns. It would also set a bad precedent for the extension of the URS to other legacy domains such as .com, .net and .org as their registries’ contracts come up for renewal.

ICANN contracting staff decided to impose the URS on .Travel based upon the misguided notion that it was more important “to increase the consistency of registry agreements across all gTLDs” than to act consistently with ICANN’s Bylaws. They didn’t even wait for their colleagues in the policy department to deliver the ‘Issues Report on new gTLD RPMs’ to the GNSO Council this coming September. One of the reasons the GNSO Council requested that report was so the GNSO could decide if those RPMs should become Consensus Policy for all gTLDs.

And it’s not just .Travel targeted by this staff power grab. Two weeks after publishing that proposed Registry Agreement (RA) ICANN published the proposed RAs for .Cat and .Pro, which also contain the URS. You can draw a dot-ted line through those registries that brings the URS to .org, .net and .com when they come up for renewal as de facto, staff-determined policy absent any demonstrated community consensus.

And when the URS reaches those big legacy domains, what will it look like? A review of the Report of Public Comments on the “Draft Report: Rights Protection Mechanisms Review” makes clear that if certain interests have their way the URS could be changed in the future to become an accelerated, lower-cost version of the UDRP, with the same burden of proof plus a domain transfer option. The result of transforming URS into URT (Uniform Rapid Transfer) would be more opportunities for domain hijackers and far less due process for domain registrants.

Whether the URS should change, much less if it should become a consensus policy for legacy gTLDs, are important policy decisions that should be decided by ICANN’s multistakeholder community through the standard PDP – not imposed in an unaccountable top down manner by ICANN staff.

EFF has made a valuable contribution to ICANN accountability by expressing its strong opposition to this high-handed attempt to short-circuit proper decision-making procedures. Let’s hope that more organizations and individuals speak out while the public comment period on these RAs remain open — and at the upcoming ICANN meeting in Buenos Aires.

21
May

Act Now — Just Say “No!” to URS at .Travel – Or It Will Travel to .Com

 

On May 12th ICANN posted the “Proposed Renewal of .TRAVEL Sponsored TLD Registry Agreement” for a period of public comment ending June 21st.

You’d expect ICANN staff to be on their best behavior right now, during ongoing community efforts to fashion enhanced and binding accountability measures. But instead this proposed Registry Agreement (RA) contains a provision through which staff is trying to preempt community discussion and decide a major policy issue through a contract with a private party. And that very big issue is whether Uniform Rapid Suspension (URS) should be a consensus policy applicable to all gTLDs, including incumbents like .Com and .Net.

The starting point for the proposed new .Travel RA was not the prior .Travel RA but the standard registry agreement for new gTLDs. As explained in ICANN’s announcement:

The current Registry Agreement for .TRAVEL, like other registry agreements, provides for presumptive renewal so long as certain requirements are met. It also provides that upon renewal, changes may be made to the terms of the Agreement.

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. In order to account for the specific nature of the .TRAVEL TLD, a Sponsored TLD, relevant provisions in the 5 May 2005 Sponsored TLD Registry Agreement have been carried over to this renewal agreement.

As a result, the proposed renewal agreement for .TRAVEL is similar to the terms of a Registry Agreement for a new gTLD that elected for community TLD status and that is not operated by an intergovernmental organization of a government entity… (Emphasis added)

There is one very big problem with that staff-determined “consistency” approach. It would make all domains at .Travel, a legacy gTLD and not a new gTLD, subject to URS, which is not a consensus policy applicable to all gTLDs.  

To that end, the proposed draft RA for .Travel includes, at p. 78, an amended version of Specification 7 (Minimum Requirements for Rights Protection Mechanisms) with this provision:

Dispute Resolution Mechanisms. Registry Operator will comply with the following dispute resolution mechanisms as they may be revised from time to time:

the Uniform Rapid Suspension system (“URS”) adopted by ICANN (posted at http://www.icann.org/en/resources/registries/urs), including the implementation of determinations issued by URS examiners. (Emphasis added)

This is top-down, staff-driven policymaking at its worst and is thoroughly unacceptable.

It appears that ICANN staff, on its own initiative and with no advance consultation with the community, are attempting to impose an “implementation detail” for the new gTLD program into a legacy gTLD renewal contract.

That would effectively convert the URS into a consensus policy without any community discussion of whether it should be, and set a precedent that could bring the URS to .Com, .Net, .Org and all other legacy gTLDs as their own RAs come up for renewal.

It was well understood at the time that the Rights Protection Mechanisms (RPMs) were debated and created for the new gTLD program’s Applicant Guidebook that they were to be regarded as “implementation details” for the new gTLD program and not as “consensus policy” applicable to all gTLDs. There was actually an extended debate in which IP interests insisted that they were mere implementation of the program’s general commitment to protecting IP rights and therefore did not require an extended policy development process (PDP) to be made applicable to new gTLDs. That dog won’t hunt for incumbent gTLDs like .Com.

As for considering whether the new gTLD RPMs should someday become consensus policy, ICANN recently closed a comment period on a “Draft Report: Rights Protection Mechanism Review” and ICA submitted an extensive comment letter on it. That Draft RPM Report is supposed to be preliminary to a full staff Issues Report on new gTLD RPMs to be delivered to the GNSO Council in late September. Receipt of that Issues Report is expected to inform a discussion of how well all the new RPMs are performing, whether they need to be altered, and – most importantly – whether they should become consensus policies for all gTLDs.

But now ICANN contracting staff, before the policy staff have even delivered their RPM Issues Report, are attempting to preempt that entire consensus policy discussion by imposing the URS on an incumbent gTLD.

This is a prime and disturbing example of top-down, staff-driven policymaking. And it is clear justification for the overdue and badly needed accountability mechanisms that ICANN stakeholders are now fashioning.

We understand that trademark interests would probably support making the URS a consensus policy. We know that many new gTLD registry operators are on the record saying that all the new RA provisions they are subject to, including URS, should be the rules of the road for incumbent registries as well.

As for ICA, we are a long way from establishing our position on that question – but we insist that it occur only after full community debate and consideration of all the potential reverberations of such a decision. That’s what a PDP is for.

This very important decision is one for the entire community to make after informed discussion, not for ICANN staff to make in a manner that preempts the discussion–

  • We need to review the actual performance of the URS, including the quality of arbitration decisions.
  •  We need to see if it is going to be materially changed in any way – especially if it is going to be altered to include a domain transfer option, which could convert it into a $500 vehicle for domain trolls to attempt abusive domain hijacking.

 

  • And, most important, we have to understand how well it meshes with any contemplated changes in the UDRP, since the receipt of the RPM Issues Report may well kick off a policy development process (PDP) on UDRP reform as well.

ICANN needs to hear from the global Internet community, in significant volume, that imposing the URS on an incumbent gTLD is unacceptable because it would mean that ICANN staff, not the community, is determining that URS should be a consensus policy and thereby undermining the entire bottom-up policy process. Domain suspensions are serious business – in fact they were at the heart of the SOPA proposal that inspired millions of emails to the US Congress in opposition.

This is clearly an issue for domain registrants – registrants at new gTLDs knew that their domains were subject to the Trademark Clearinghouse claims notice system and the URS, but registrants at incumbent gTLDs have never been subject to URS and should only become so if the community decides it should become a consensus policy.

But this should also be an issue for every other ICANN stakeholder and global domain registrant who wants to hold the line against staff-driven usurpation of the community’s right to initiate and make policy decisions.

So get your comments in by June 21st if you want to see the community remain in control of this key policy decision rather than have ICANN staff determine it via private contract negotiations. ICA will be commenting against including the URS in this RA, but we need lots of company.  

Here’s what to do:

  • Prepare a comment to ICANN and send it to comments-travel-renewal-12may15@icann.org by June 21st. Your comment can be in the text of the email or attached as a Word, PDF, or similar document type. A draft comment template is provided below that you can use as is or modify to reflect your personal point of view.
  • Besides sending your own comment, contact at least two other individuals who you think are opposed to having ICANN staff use the contracting process to put the URS in place at incumbent gTLDs, provide a link to this ICA post, and ask them to submit their own comments as well. And ask them to do the same to ensure maximum input to ICANN. And it wouldn’t hurt to also contact other trade associations and public interest groups as well as spread the word on social media.

 

 

This initiative can be stopped – but that will be best ensured if ICANN gets lots of comments that oppose including the URS in the .Travel RA.

Act now or be prepared to see the same tactic used to impose the URS on .Com, .Net, .Org and other incumbent gTLDs. Don’t complain then if you’re not willing to take a few minutes and speak up now. 

And here’s that draft template for comments: 

To comments-travel-renewal-12may15@icann.org

Dear ICANN:

I am writing in regard to the Proposed Renewal of .TRAVEL Sponsored TLD Registry Agreement issued for public comment on May 12, 2015.

I am strongly opposed to the inclusion of a modified version of the new gTLD rights protection mechanisms in Specification 7 of the proposed RA, especially Uniform Rapid Suspension (URS).

All the new gTLD RPMs were implementation details of the new gTLD program and are not ICANN consensus policies applicable to all registries and registrars. The URS can become a consensus policy only after a full policy development process (PDP) engaged in by the entire ICANN community of stakeholders. The ICANN community has not even received the new gTLD RPM Issues Report that staff will be providing to the GNSO in September 2015.

Imposing URS on an incumbent gTLD via the contracting process is an absolutely unacceptable staff intervention into the policymaking process. Approval of this draft contract would constitute top-down, staff-driven policymaking in direct violation of ICANN’s stated commitment to the bottom-up, private sector led policy development process.

Therefore, the .Travel renewal RA should be referred for Board consideration only after Specification 7/URS has been removed from the agreement, along with all other provisions derived from the new gTLD RA that are not established consensus policies applicable to incumbent gTLDs.

Thank you for your consideration of my views.

Sincerely,

[Name, title, organization]
4
May

ICA to ICANN: We’ll “Vigorously Oppose” Changing URS to Facilitate RDNH

On Thursday, April 30th ICA filed a comment letter with ICANN regarding the “Draft Report: Rights Protection Mechanisms Review” published earlier this year. This preliminary report paves the way for a more extensive issues report on the new gTLD RPMs that will be delivered to the GNSO Council this fall. That second report will not only inform the debate on whether the RPMs should be changed prior to any future rounds of new gTLDs, but also may set the stage for a full-fledged policy development process (PDP) on UDRP reform that could kick off in 2016. The UDRP is the only consensus ICANN policy that has never undergone such review and reform.

In its letter ICA stated its opposition to any suggestions that a domain transfer capability should be added to the Uniform Rapid Suspension arbitration procedure:

ICA would vigorously oppose any attempt to amend the URS to provide a domain transfer option as such a rapid and circumscribed process could be readily abused to further the scourge of reverse domain name hijacking.

However, ICA does understand trademark owner concerns that domains suspended in a URS procedure can currently be re-registered for infringing purposes at the end of their registration period, and suggested an alternative win-win approach that could balance their interests with those of domain investors:

However, we are sympathetic to the concerns of trademark owners, and would suggest the alternative of permanently barring the re-registration of a URS losing domain where the domain name/trademark is not a generic term and its registration by anyone other than the rights holder would almost surely constitute infringement. This concept could also be explored in regard to generic terms registered at gTLDs whose names correspond to the goods and services for which the word is trademarked by the prevailing complainant. Such an approach would not invite URS abuse for domain hijacking purposes but would afford permanent protection to infringed rights holders – and without the unending costs associated with holding a domain defensively in a large and growing portfolio.  

Other key points made in ICA’s comment letter were:

  • ICA would not support any expansion of the TMCH matching rules to include plurals, mark+keyword, and common typos.
  • ICA supports the inclusion of more comprehensive information regarding generic words and infringement in the Claims notice, as well as clarifying under what circumstances the post-notice registration of a domain will be considered to constitute “bad faith” for UDRP and URS purposes.
  • We would not support any extension of the mandatory Claims generation period beyond the initial ninety days until our concerns about the Claims notice are effectively addressed.
  • ICA would oppose any easing of the TMCH verification requirements for court decisions or UDRP cases.

 

ICA will continue to articulate its members’ views in regard to the RPMs and the UDRP as this discussion continues within ICANN.

Trademarks and domains are both valuable intangible assets. The respective rights of their owners must be carefully balanced in any revision of these critical arbitration and brand protection policies to ensure that the asset value of domains and the due process rights of registrants are adequately protected and respected.

The full text of our comment letter follows—

 

 

VIRTUALAW LLC

Philip S. Corwin, Founding Principal

1155 F Street, NW  Suite 1050

Washington, DC 20004

202-559-8597/Direct

202-559-8750/Fax

202-255-6172/Cell

psc@vlaw-dc.com

 

                                                                                                April 30, 2015

By E-Mail to comments-rpm-review-02feb15@icann.org

Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers

12025 Waterfront Drive, Suite 300

Los Angeles, CA 90094-2536

 

Re: Draft Report: Rights Protection Mechanisms Review 

Dear ICANN:

I am writing on behalf of the members of the Internet Commerce Association (ICA). ICA is a not-for-profit trade association representing the domain name industry, including domain registrants, domain marketplaces, and direct search providers. Its membership is composed of domain name registrants who invest in domain names (DNs) and develop the associated websites, as well as the companies that serve them. Professional domain name registrants are a major source of the fees that support registrars, registries, and ICANN itself. ICA members own and operate approximately ten percent of all existing Internet domains on behalf of their own domain portfolios as well as those of thousands of customers.

This letter addresses the Draft Report: Rights Protection Mechanisms Review that was published for public comment on February 2, 2015. That document, drafted by ICANN staff, is intended to inform the Issue Report on new gTLD Rights Protection Mechanisms (RPMs) requested by the GNSO as well as the independent review of Trademark Clearinghouse recommended by the GAC. In addition, the same document is intended to serve as input to the Review Team on Competition, Consumer Trust, and Consumer Choice to be convened under Section 9.3 of the Affirmation of Commitments, charged with assessing the effectiveness of the safeguards developed for the New gTLD Program.

Executive Summary

  • ICA would not support any expansion of the TMCH matching rules to include plurals, mark+keyword, and common typos.
  • ICA supports the inclusion of more comprehensive information regarding generic words and infringement in the Claims notice, as well as clarifying under what circumstances the post-notice registration of a domain will be considered to constitute “bad faith” for UDRP and URS purposes.
  • We would not support any extension of the mandatory Claims generation period beyond the initial ninety days until our concerns about the Claims notice are effectively addressed.
  • ICA would oppose any easing of the TMCH verification requirements for court decisions or UDRP cases.

 

  • ICA would vigorously oppose any attempt to amend the URS to provide a domain transfer option as such a rapid and circumscribed process could be readily abused to further the scourge of reverse domain name hijacking. However, we are sympathetic to the concerns of trademark owners, and suggest an alternative approach that would address their concerns to a significant extent.

Trademark Clearinghouse (TMCH)

While no specific question on this issue is raised at the end of Section 3, we note that a portion of Section 3.4 (Matching Rules) states:

ICANN continues to receive feedback regarding the “identical match” definition, specifically, that ICANN should consider expansion of the matching rules to include plurals, “marks contained” or mark+keyword, and common typos of a mark. The scope of matching was one area identified by the GAC in recommending an independent review of the Trademark Clearinghouse, and this topic is expected to be explored in that review as well.

ICA already has substantial concerns, detailed in this letter, about the high number of false positive Trademark Claims Notices being generated that are likely deterring legitimate noninfringing domain registrations, especially for generic words that have one or more TMCH matches.

Further, as noted in the report, “The matching rules are intended to provide an objective, automatable way of determining a match, rather than the Clearinghouse making subjective determinations”, and any easing of the matching requirement would inevitably require the TMCH to exercise subjective judgment.

In addition, the ability to register up to fifty previously abused variations of a trademark that were found infringing in litigation or a UDRP under the Abused Domain name label service already permits rights holders some substantial degree of protection beyond exact matches.

Therefore, we would not support any expansion of the TMCH matching rules to include plurals, mark+keyword, and common typos. 

Trademark Claims Service

We first address Section 5 questions a, b, and f, which are:

  • Is the Claims notice an effective form of communication?
  • For those with registrant/customer interactions, what has been the customer response to Claims notices?
  • How could the Claims service be improved?

ICA believes that the current language of the Claims notice is unduly intimidating to potential registrants, especially those lacking any sophisticated understanding of trademark law, and that the language needs to be modified in order to clarify that registration of a generic word that is trademarked for a particular class of goods and services is unlikely to result in infringement if registered for another intended purpose.

On March 12th ICA published an article, “Estimating Trademark Claims Notice Suppression of Non-Infringing New gTLD Registrations”, which made these observations regarding statistics contained in the Report:

[T]his statistic regarding Trademark Claims Notices generated by the Trademark Clearinghouse (TMCH) leapt out:

Sum of TLDs with initiated Claims periods         297

Sum of Claims Transactions                                    96,471

Sum of Claims Notices Generated                25,221,479

That 25 million-plus Claims Notices statistic is the one that garnered attention. As of February 1, 2015 the total number of domains registered in all new gTLDs was approximately 4.2 million, so the ratio of Claims Notices to new gTLD registrations was about 6:1. That is, for each new gTLD domain that was registered there were about 6 additional registrations that were commenced for some purpose – but of that total number, only three tenth of one percent (96,471 out of 25,221,479) continued on to completing a “transaction” resulting in a domain registration.

…[since March 2014] the number of Claims Notices has increased fifty-fold, the percentage of completed registrations against TMCH inquiries has declined by more than ninety percent, and the ratio of Claims Notices to registered new gTLD domains has increased from 4:3 to 6:1. So the TMCH is clearly having a “chilling effect” – but is it primarily chilling potentially infringing or non-infringing domain registrations?

… As of January 2015 34,300 marks had been submitted for registration into the TMCH. So, on average, each registered mark generated 735 Claims Notices.

At the time the Report was issued, there were 297 new gTLDs that had initiated Claims periods, so there was an average of 85,000 Claims Notices generated per new gTLD. For the vast majority of new gTLDs that is far higher than their total domain registrations to date – indeed, only the top seven new gTLDs exceed that figure.

So what is going on here? Is the TMCH incredibly effective at deterring the registration of trademark infringing domains? Or is it incredibly effective at deterring the registration of domains with an intended use that would not infringe trademark?

It may well be a lot of both.

… No doubt there have been attempts by intentional cybersquatters to register trademarked names that have been effectively deterred when they received a Claims Notice and realized that the trademark owner would be notified of the domain registration immediately and might well take some form of legal response.

But there also may have been lots of potential registrants for non-infringing uses of short and meaningful generic dictionary words as domain labels who were spooked enough when they received the Claims Notice to abandon the registration. While the Claims Notice does provide a prospective registrant with information regarding the Jurisdiction where the trademark is registered and the class of Goods and Services that the trademark covers, most prospective registrants of non-infringing domains are not well versed in trademark law, don’t want to have to spend money to consult a lawyer to see if their registration will be infringing or not, and don’t want to risk being hit with a cease-and-desist letter, UDRP or URS filing, or a trademark infringement lawsuit. The same could be true even for potential registrants well versed in trademark law who simply don’t wish to expose themselves to a potential legal action, regardless of its merits – especially since continuing on to registration after receipt of the Notice might be alleged to constitute proof of bad faith registration.

The legalistic language of the Trademark Notice would certainly cause major hesitation for most prospective general public applicants… Revising the language of the Claims Notice to make it more understandable by a registrant lacking deep understanding of trademark law might also be considered, but that can hardly be relied upon to protect the registrant from post-registration legal action by the trademark owner.

… Summing up, the TMCH has almost surely been quite effective in deterring infringing domain registrations at new gTLDs. But it appears to also have been a substantial damper on total new gTLD domain registrations. The unanswered question is how big of a headwind it has been.

That article estimates that several million legitimate registrations may have been deterred by receipt of Claims notices, while noting that it is impossible to know the exact number.

We believe that the generation of Claims notices will continue to deter legitimate noninfringing domain registrations at new gTLDs. This situation can be partly but not completely addressed by providing more comprehensive information in the notice, and also clarifying under what circumstances the post-notice registration of a domain will be considered to constitute “bad faith” for UDRP and URS purposes. In conjunction with this observation, we would not support any extension of the mandatory Claims generation period beyond the initial ninety days until these concerns are effectively addressed.

We also address Questions i and j:

  • How effective is the inclusion of previously abused labels in protecting against trademark abuse and infringement?
  • Should the standards for verification of previously abused labels be modified?

According to the Report:

Since the introduction of the Abused Domain Name Label service in October 2013, 324 domain labels based on 158 cases have been added… ICANN has received some feedback in regard to the documentation required to verify UDRP cases. To verify that the mark that was the subject of the case is the same as the mark in the Trademark Clearinghouse record is difficult in some cases if the rights holder no longer has the UDRP or court filings or records, or where the trademark information was not included in the original complaints.

Given the great controversy generated within the ICANN community by the substance and manner of adoption of the “Trademark-plus-fifty” proposal it is rather remarkable how little it has been used, especially since it only costs $50-75 to verify a UDRP case. We have no explanation why the trademark interests who fought so hard for the “Strawman proposal” in which it was contained have made so little use of it.

We would oppose any easing of the TMCH verification requirements for court decisions or UDRP cases. Domain investors who have been the subject of such cases (increasingly in the context of attempted domain hijackings via UDRP) maintain their own records of those legal actions, and it is difficult to believe that a  rights holder which initiated a trademark case UDRP, or counsel thereof, would not have equal access to such records. Any easing of the verification requirements would inevitably invite abuse.

Uniform Rapid Suspension (URS)

We address questions a and e of Section 6:

  • How effective is this service in providing a quick and low-cost process for addressing infringement?
  • What factors could be addressed to make the URS more effective?

ICA participated in the development of the URS and understands that it is meant to be a narrow supplement to, and not a broad substitute for, the traditional UDRP. It provides rights holders with a lower cost and faster means of addressing infringing domains, especially when they are associated with such public harms as malware distribution, phishing, or spam.

In regard to this portion of the Report:

Overall, ICANN has received feedback received from the community is that the URS has produced positive results and that it works fairly well in terms of what it is designed to accomplish. It is quick, inexpensive and caters to those who have slam-dunk cases or are indifferent towards the suspension of the name solution, perhaps due to the fact they are unable to register that name. However, some rights holders have not opted to use this service due to the remedy being limited to suspension only.

There is also concern over the possibility of the domain name being registered once more by another potential infringer once it is released, thus some rights holders feel more comfortable having the domain name in their portfolio, which can be achieved via a UDRP. Indeed, initial feedback has indicated that suspension of the domain name is not a long-term solution.

The key term in that passage is that the URS “works fairly well in terms of what it is designed to accomplish”. It is no surprise that it does not work well for purposes beyond its design – a design that was worked out through consensus that emerged from months of intense discussion and negotiation within the community.

While the URS does provide a prevailing claimant with the option of extending the domain’s registration period for one additional year it is not – and was never meant to be – a permanent solution for a rights holder who wishes to permanently remove it from the pool of available domain names.

ICA would vigorously oppose any attempt to amend the URS to provide a domain transfer option as such a rapid and circumscribed process could be readily abused to further the scourge of reverse domain name hijacking.

However, we are sympathetic to the concerns of trademark owners, and would suggest the alternative of permanently barring the re-registration of a URS losing domain where the domain name/trademark is not a generic term and its registration by anyone other than the rights holder would almost surely constitute infringement. This concept could also be explored in regard to generic terms registered at gTLDs whose names correspond to the goods and services for which the word is trademarked by the prevailing complainant. Such an approach would not invite URS abuse for domain hijacking purposes but would afford permanent protection to infringed rights holders – and without the unending costs associated with holding a domain defensively in a large and growing portfolio.  

Conclusion

We appreciate the opportunity to provide these comments on the draft Report. We hope they are helpful to the ICANN community’s further consideration of this highly important matter, especially as staff work to prepare an Issue Report on new gTLD Rights Protection Mechanisms (RPMs) to be delivered for GNSO review and consideration this fall.

Sincerely,

 

Philip S. Corwin

Counsel, Internet Commerce Association

1
Oct

ICA Exploring Domain Theft Project to Counter a Growing Abuse

There has been a lot of domain industry press attention lately to domain thefts. We don’t know for sure if this problem is becoming more acute or is just being reported on more often. But, regardless of the level of activity, we know that there are inadequate recovery and punitive remedies available at present for domain owners who experience theft of their valuable domain assets. Something is very wrong when a hacker can surreptitiously transfer a valuable domain and there is no reliable or cost-efficient means for recovering it.

ICA’s Board is therefore considering initiation of a Domain Theft Project (DTP) to address this issue, in the belief this is exactly the type of issue that ICA was established to address.

One component of the DTP would be to discuss the situation with leading registrars as well as ICANN’s Registrar Stakeholders Group to gather more information on the severity of the problem, as well as to better determine how these thefts are accomplished and what best practices on the part of both registrants and registrars might prevent them.

In addition, assuming that there will still be thefts occurring even if stronger preventative measures are adopted by registrars and registrants, the DTP will carefully explore at least three potential avenues of better redress for registrant victims of domain thieves:

1. Amending the UDRP to allow it to be used for the recovery of stolen domains. The exploration of this potential avenue will be very carefully conducted to assure that any potential UDRP revisions do not create new opportunities for scam artists to abuse the UDRP for domain hijacking. But UDRP reform will be on the table and under discussion within ICANN as of April 2015 as part of the review of new gTLD Rights Protection Measures (RPMs), so if an acceptable proposal can be developed it can be advocated for adoption within that review and reform context.

2. Amending Federal law to establish clear civil liability for illicit access to the computers of a registrar, and to also clarify that available equitable relief includes restoration of the domain to its original owner. This would likely involve the House and Senate Judiciary Committees. The biggest challenge here will probably not be getting the concept looked upon favorably but the larger context of amending the underlying statute, which inevitably brings in other players and complex issues. There’s also the reality that getting anything through Congress these days, no matter how worthy, is a big challenge. But the DTP’s initial focus would be on drafting a bill and seeking its introduction to focus attention and foster discussion.

3. Amending the Registrar Accreditation Agreement (RAA) to require registrars to preserve and publish title history. This may be somewhat difficult because the registrars are understandably inclined to push back against anything that involves more work or that may increase their liability. The RAA was also just amended in 2013 and that process involved one-on-one negotiations between the registrars and ICANN, with limited access and information provided to third parties. Nonetheless ICA has good contacts with the registrar community and can start discussions to explore their receptiveness, as well as whether they have ideas about other approaches. Perhaps one result will be to encourage registrars to compete in the marketplace on the basis of which provides the best anti-theft security.

In addition to the above initiatives, changes in Federal criminal law may also be worth exploring. ICA member and domain attorney Stevan Lieberman has recently  dealt with the FBI and Department of Justice on this and is willing to contribute his experience and legal expertise and take the initiative on this potential aspect of the DTP. Steve’s experience in assisting the victim of the MLA.com domain theft, as well as other incidents, are detailed in this recent Huffington Post article — http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/09/29/domain-theft_n_5877510.html. Other ICA members have also volunteered to serve on the DTP, and we welcome further interest and participation.

Meanwhile, another recent article provides details regarding growing domain theft activity based in China —http://domaingang.com/domain-news/rise-dragon-domain-theft-china-gaining-momentum/. That suggests another avenue of possible effort – given the US Trade Representative’s efforts to curb IP piracy based in China and other nations, we could explore encouraging similar efforts against domain theft activities.

The DTP can also encourage greater attention to this problem by both domain industry and general media outlets. Public attention and information will be a key component of preventative best practices as well as making the case for needed reforms. This is a problem that affects more than just the domain investment industry; small businesses are particularly vulnerable and can suffer devastating losses when their customers can no longer reach them at a website they have used for years.

The DTP will also collect anecdotal information about individual domain thefts, including details of how the theft occurred, how long the time period was between the theft and its discovery by the registrant, and whether the domain(s) was recovered. We will need to build a database of actual domain theft incidents to make a case for changes in Federal law and ICANN policies, as well as to help determine whether the measures we are contemplating will be effective and comprehensive.

This is an ambitious project and its goals will proceed on different timetables and take considerable effort to achieve. But we know that the current situation is not tolerable – and if domain investors don’t take the lead for change then who will?

 

 

7
Sep

ICANN’s Comment Period on Accountability Process Seeks Scope Limitations

Bowing to unprecedented community pressure in the form of a unanimous letter questioning its staff-developed Accountability Process, as well as a reconsideration request filed with the Board, on September 5th ICANN issued a notice titled “Public Comment Invited: Enhancing ICANN Accountability Process”. The notice opens a 21-day public comment period on that staff proposal.

However, ICANN staff apparently cannot resist asserting some form of top-down control even what that very conduct is at issue, and the notice and accompanying explanation contain attempts to restrict and unduly channel the scope of community comment.

The explanation instructs that the scope of the comments should be narrowly focused:

This public comment period is focused on addressing questions about the design of the Enhancing ICANN Accountability Process – not about the potential solutions or outcomes of the review….issues and solutions are not under discussion here. The question for this public comment discussion is: Are there any final modifications or improvements needed to the Enhancing ICANN Accountability process design to allow for this discussion to proceed?

The question that ends that excerpt clearly asserts that the staff-designed plan should be the starting point for comments focused on “modifications and improvements” to it. But many in the community feel that the staff proposal is unduly complex and deliberately designed to dilute its views, while granting ICANN’s Board excessive latitude to reject any and all recommendations that are eventually produced. A fully open comment period should allow suggestions for replacement of all or part of the staff’s proposed Process. Besides, how can you untangle the design of a process from the issues it is addressing and their potential solutions?

Additionally, notwithstanding its admonition to focus on process, ICANN itself uses the notice to assert limitations on the substance of what may be produced by whatever final Process is ultimately adopted. And it relies on its characterization of statements made by the U.S. government at this past week’s Istanbul IGF meeting as the foundation for that assertion. The explanation asserts:

This process is intended to deal with focused systemic issues caused by the changing historical relationship with the United States, including for example, by stress testing against internal or external captures or takeovers, and safeguards against capture at all levels, which is a pre-condition of the IANA stewardship transition. Statements made by the NTIA since posting clarify that this process is limited to ensuring ICANN remains accountable in the absence of its contractual relationship with the U.S. Government. This process could potentially include an evolution of the AoC, but does not replace or duplicate existing ICANN accountability processes such as the Accountability and Transparency Reviews that deal with routine execution of tasks.

ICANN is an evolving organization with existing review mechanisms that ensure it continues to evolve to events not related to the changing relationship with the U.S. Government.

…In the previous public comment and public sessions, community members have identified many possible solutions of how to enhance ICANN accountability, such as the development of new community driven redress mechanisms. These proposed issues and solutions as they pertain to the changing relationship with the US are expected to be addressed by the process. (Emphasis added)

Likewise, the notice further asserts that a major factor underlying the opening of the comment period was:

The emphasis made by the U.S. government at ICANN’s Town Hall Meeting at the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Istanbul that the enhancement of ICANN’s accountability mechanisms be narrowly focused on those related to the IANA Functions Stewardship Transition, that is reiterating its focus is on the changing historical contractual relationship with the US, and that both the transition and accountability processes be delivered simultaneously by September 2015 when the IANA contract expires. (Emphasis added)

It is quite difficult to parse these statements and comprehend what ICANN actually believes is in scope for this comment period. A narrow focus on the termination of the clerical role played by the U.S. in reviewing proposed IANA functions root zone changes seems completely at odds with envisioning comments on the Affirmation of Commitments (AoC). The accountability concerns that drove the recent unprecedented community actions are based in the widely held views of many stakeholders that ICANN’s existing accountability measures are inadequate — and that ICANN may exercise its right to terminate the AoC between it and the U.S. once the IANA transition is completed. Even if AoC termination does not occur, ICANN may face growing pressure to expand the counterparty end of the AoC so that it is no longer an agreement solely between it and the U.S. And, as the AoC is the basis for the periodic Accountability and Transparency Reviews, one cannot discuss one and ignore the other.

Another confusing aspect of the guidance is its concession that new community driven redress mechanisms are within the scope of the Accountability Process. Overall, the coming termination of the unique U.S. oversight tied to periodic re-awarding of the IANA functions contract is the most fundamental change to ICANN since its creation, and a fair and open process would deem almost any suggestion for enhanced accountability as within scope.

So far as U.S. remarks made this past week in Istanbul, the IGF 2014 website does not appear to provide a transcript of the September 2nd Town Hall meeting referenced above, and ICANN’s own IGF webpage contains no mention of the event, so it is not clear whether ICANN’s characterization of Secretary Strickling’s remarks is fully accurate. But it is not unusual for U.S. officials to tailor their remarks for overseas audiences, and the one that gathered in Istanbul would probably equate any extension of the IANA contract beyond September 2015 as indicative that the U.S. may not intend to complete the transition.

In any event, ICANN’s characterization of Secretary Strickling’s remarks is at some considerable variance his last official statement on this subject made in the U.S. and posted at the NTIA website, his July 22nd remarks at the American Enterprise Institute. He told that audience:

We have not set a deadline for this action.  While the current contract with ICANN expires in September 2015, we have repeatedly noted that we can extend the contract for up to four years if the Internet community needs more time to develop a proposal that meets the criteria we have outlined.  In the meantime, our current role will not change…Also this spring, in response to community discussions at its Singapore meeting, ICANN announced a separate process to address ways to improve its overall accountability.  Specifically, this process will examine how ICANN can strengthen its accountability mechanisms to address the absence of its historical contractual relationship with NTIA.  This important accountability issue will and should be addressed before any transition takes place. (Emphasis added)

As can be seen, in those remarks Secretary Strickling reiterated that September 2015 is a goal and not a deadline ( a point he also emphasized in Congressional testimony); and that the accountability process, while separate from the IANA transition discussions, should address ICANN’s “overall accountability” and should be completed before the transition is made final.

There is a transcript of a separate IGF Istanbul session on Core Internet Values in which Secretary Strickling made some interesting observations on the current process:

Now I think as we move forward, our commitment to the multistakeholder process, I hope people feel, has been very concretely demonstrated by our announcement in March to transition out of our remaining role in terms of our stewardship of the IANA functions.  And I do think that this is really putting our many where our mouth is, in terms of the United States support of the multistakeholder process.  We’re watching with great, almost amusement as the community takes this on.  I think it’s a real test to the community of the multistakeholder model and can they organise themselves?  Can they now focus on the important issues and get to consensus?  I think upon the successful completion of this, and I do expect a successful completion, this process will be much stronger for what the community is going through right now as they try to wrestle with all of the different issues that are emerging about how broad the analysis has to be and how they go about bringing together all the different interests of ICANN in one place on what is perhaps the most fundamental Question ICANN has had to face since its creation back in 1998.  (Emphasis added)

Indeed, the ICANN community has organized itself as never before around the fundamental questions of what kind of robust and enforceable accountability measures ICANN requires in the aftermath of U.S. withdrawal from IANA functions oversight, and the design of the process for determining that. And the community has done this in spite of, and in reaction to, continued efforts of ICANN staff to control the structure, scope, and timing of the Accountability Process. The stakes are very high — as Secretary Strickling confirmed, this is “the most fundamental Question ICANN has had to face” since its creation.

So what happens next? True to form, ICANN staff is pressing ahead with its staff-designed Process instead of properly putting it on hold during the comment period, declaring:

The Enhancing ICANN Accountability mechanisms will remain operational through this comment period but will not address the substantive issues of enhancing ICANN accountability in the absence of the U.S. Government contract until the end of the 21-day public comment period. Any changes to the process structure instituted following the 21-day public comment period will be implemented accordingly. (Emphasis added)

Meanwhile, the segments of the community that filed the Reconsideration Request for Board review of staff actions have wisely elected to leave it in place and not withdraw it until they can see whether this comment period results in meaningful alterations of the Accountability Process.

It must be noted that the community is being given only three weeks to comment on an Accountability Process of which it has no clear or common understanding. On September 3rd the same stakeholders that signed the unanimous letter questioning the Process submitted a detailed letter of inquiry asking for specific information about it. That letter contains twenty separate questions, many of which include multiple additional sub-questions, and there is no guarantee that a response will be received from ICANN staff during the comment period. How can one submit final comments on a Process that is not fully understood?

In addition, the comment period closes at midnight on Saturday, September 27th – and the opening meetings of the ICANN 51 meeting in Los Angeles start on Saturday, October 11th, just two weeks to the day after that. So time is very short and the community is unlikely to have detailed answers to its questions about the staff plan until late in the comment period, if then.

Given the present situation the best course for the stakeholders who came together and brought the pressure to obtain this comment period is to continue to press forward and build consensus on key aspects of the Accountability Process they want and the scope of what it should address – and ignore ICANN staff attempts to impose any artificial deadlines or limitations on the scope, or the substance and timing, of the Process. After all, if the community had accepted ICANN’s August 14th process as the fait accompli that staff intended, instead of coming together and pushing back, there wouldn’t even be a public comment period opening now.

 

2
Sep

ICA-Endorsed Session on ICANN Accountability Scheduled for September Third at IGF Istanbul

Although ICA is not in attendance at the Internet Governance Forum meeting currently taking place in Istanbul, Turkey an ICA-endorsed session on “Accountability in Multistakeholder Governance Regime ICANN” will be taking place on the morning of September 3rd. ICA was one of several host organizations that endorsed the proposal for this session, along with CGI.BR of Brazil, the Public Interest Registry, InternetNZ of New Zealand, and the Internet Governance Project.

The session will address the following questions:

  • To whom is ICANN accountable and what are the mechanisms for ensuring that accountability is adequate?
  • In what way do these mechanisms need strengthening or further improvements, particularly in light of NTIA’s announcement to transition out its current role?
  • How do checks and balances on power, such as structural separation of key DNS operations encourage accountability?
  • How have ICANN’s Affirmation of Commitments and the Accountability and Transparency Review Team fostered (or undermined) accountability goals at ICANN?
  • What lessons were learned from the AoC and ATRT processes on achieving accountability under a multi-stakeholder governance regime?
  • What is the role of ICANN’s Ombudsman Office in achieving accountability for the institution?

Panelists at the session will include NTIA head Larry Strickling, VeriSign Vice President Pat Kane, and ICANN Ombudsman Chris LaHatte, along with others from the technical community and civil society. Robin Gross of the IPJustice organization will moderate.

Achieving enhanced accountability for ICANN Board and staff actions is an important component of protecting the rights of domain investors, especially as the U.S. contemplates relinquishing its IANA functions oversight role that put real teeth into enforcement of the Affirmation of Commitments (AoC). ICA will continue to work within the Business Constituency and with other members of the broad ICANN community as the Accountability Process moves forward in order to ensure that any transition of the IANA functions is accompanied by meaningful enhancements of available accountability measures — and perhaps by new means of redress as well.