Issue guide to ICANN San Francisco

ICANN’s 40th meeting starts next week in San Francisco. Here is a guide to the most important topics, listed in order of importance, with added commentary, background and links to relevant resources.


1. New generic top-level domains (gTLDs)

Why this is important

New Internet extensions will radically reshape the Internet name space. Not only does this open up new opportunities (particularly in the new field of "dot-brand" extensions), but will also have significant legal and marketing implications. The issue should be discussed at top management levels.

New gTLDs will yet again be the dominant topic for an ICANN meeting, as the Board continues its efforts to bring this five-year process to a close.

The San Francisco meeting will be dominated by discussions between the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC) and Board, continuing on from a two-day meeting in Brussels earlier this month.

In an effort to make significant headway by the end of the meeting, ICANN revamped the conference agenda at the last minute to allow for two full days discussion with the GAC and Board.

At issue are 12 issues and 23 sticking points (not to mention another 30 or so that need resolution). The expectation is that, by the end of the meeting, the Board will be in a position to make a clear announcement about when the discussions will finally close - and so when the actual application process itself will open.

After years of delays and backtracking, however, no one is putting any money on the outcome.

The most significant issues that remain are:

  • Trademark protections: The most bitterly fought-over aspect of the new gTLD program. Trademark holders remain worried that a large expansion in the Internet namespace will cause a jump in infringement of trademarks.

    A long series of compromises have been reached between liberalisation and innovation, and protection of trademark rights. The issue is of supreme importance to companies, but despite heavy lobbying, only cosmetic changes are expected at this point.

    A recent decision by the Californian Appeals Court has also put a question mark over some of the more radical suggestions.

  • Sensitive strings: Formally known as the “morality and public order” provision, this issue covers the system put in place to object to “sensitive strings” - meaning applications for controversial or offensive Internet extensions.

    Governments are concerned that offensive top-level names will be added to the Internet just because there wasn’t a mechanism to stop them. An early draft that would see any government given an effective veto was scrapped and in its place governments as a whole would be able to object to a given application.

    How that system will actually work will be the topic of some debate this week however. (The current most popular example is the very real application for dot-gay, which is likely to provoke opposing views from governments.)

  • Geographic names: Governments’ other main concern is the use of names of places and cities (which they view largely as the property of national governments) in applications for new Internet extensions.

    Originally the most contentious issue for the GAC, its complexities have slowly been resolved and only a few sticking points remain. Unfortunately one of those issues is what will actually be considered a ‘geographic name’ and what will not (is ‘Amazon’ a river or an online bookstore, for example).

GAC Scorecard:

We have put together an extensive resource for the GAC Scorecard in order to track the issues and hopefully improve discussion and debate surrounding this outstanding points.

Meetings:

The heavily revised conference schedule now has two meetings for community input on the “GAC Scorecard” and discussions between the GAC and Board (on Monday and Wednesday) that occur just prior to two special all-day GAC-Board meetings (on Tuesday and Thursday). The Board meeting at the end of the conference will then be held on the Friday.

All meetings will be broadcast, transcribed and translated. Follow the links below for more information on each:


2. Dot-xxx

Why this is important

The likely approval of the controversial top-level domain '.xxx', specifically for adult websites, may put ICANN and the issue of new Internet extensions into a mainstream spotlight. The seven-year saga also highlights issues surrounding the accountability of the organisation and the influence of governments on it.

It is now seven years since an application for the extension ‘.xxx’ was received by ICANN; and over a year since an independent panel of adjudicators told the ICANN Board it had broken its own rules when it denied the application.

Dot-xxx (often referred to as ‘triple-x’) has proved highly controversial as it proposes to be a dedicated space for adult content on the Internet. Having initially approved the application through its rules, the ICANN Board, under pressure from the US government, backtracked and denied the application.

Since then, and for five years, the applicant – ICM Registry – has used all of ICANN’s accountability mechanisms to have the decision reviewed and at the San Francisco meeting, dot-xxx may finally be approved. That decision will be protested (possibly physically) by some members of the adult community who fear the new extension will ultimately be used to limit their business online.

The dot-xxx situation has been the catalyst for a number of important changes within ICANN and Internet governance overall. Governments have taken a far firmer stance with new gTLDs (see above) in order to make sure the situation isn’t repeated; ICANN radically changed its rules for new extensions to try to avoid a repeat of the situation; and the Board has been forced to find a way to both formally disagree with governments (the GAC) and overrule one of its own decisions.

It is expected – though far from certain – that the Board will approve dot-xxx at its Friday Board session following some discussions on the subject at the two scheduled GAC-Board meetings on Tuesday and Thursday.

Meetings:


3. Accountability and Transparency

Why this is important

The review of ICANN’s accountability and transparency was the first test of the organization’s new autonomy from the US government. It did not go well, and has left the door open to critics of ICANN’s role in global Internet governance. The recommendations from the review team will be reviewed by ICANN itself, providing a crucial test of whether the organization is willing or able to correct its own failings.

It is broadly accepted that the Accountability and Transparency Review Team (ATRT) did the best of a bad job in reviewing the organization’s well-known failings.

The 12-month process is a cornerstone of ICANN’s new Affirmation of Commitments (AoC) – an agreement that saw it gain autonomy from the US government – but the review itself was plagued with problems.

A bureaucratic selection process was followed by interference from ICANN’s staff and Board on the selection of reviewers and the provision of a budget, and left the review team – which included the US government’s Commerce Secretary – with too little time to properly do their work.

The review team then spent much of its time on procedural and internal issues while continuing to face an uncooperative Board and staff, who made public and private statements denigrating the validity and importance of the review team’s recommendations.

When the team did begin to collate its findings, it then faced a barrier in the form of ICANN’s chairman (who was part of the review team) who refused to accept many of the findings in drafting discussions.

Despite the problems, the final report contained 27 recommendations that have gained broad acceptance by the broader Internet community in a public comment period.

The ICANN Board must now decide what to do with the recommendations and it has requested (Resolution 2011.01.25.32) that ICANN's staff draw up a paper outlining what it believes should be done.

That paper was due to be delivered to the Board on 21 February and will be discussed at the Board meeting on Friday 18 March, although it has yet to be provided to the community, or the ATRT review team (as of 12 March).

Considering that the final report contained a whole section outlining the problems the ATRT had had with ICANN’s staff and Board, the big question on Internet governance experts’ lips is whether the staff and Board are able to acknowledge their own failings and accept independent recommendations into how to improve.

If they fail in that task, the result is likely to be seized upon by critics of ICANN as another reason why its role needs to be revised or taken over by a different body.

Meetings:


4. Domain transfer policies

Why this is important

Domain owners frequently wish to transfer their domain to a different registrar, sometimes for better service, sometimes to consolidate domains, sometimes to move ownership. The policies that cover domain transfer are out-of-date and sometimes used to steal ownership of domains. A five-part review will update those policies.

The main policy making body of ICANN, the GNSO, has opened up no less than five separate policy development processes (PDPs) to look at different aspects of the Inter-Registrar Transfer Policy (IRTP) – the document that decides how domain names are moved from one owner to another.

Those five areas are:

  1. A process for fast return of a domain name
  2. Additional provisions for undoing wrong transfers
  3. Additional provisions for changing owner details
  4. Best practices for “registrar lock” of domains
  5. Looking at a specific case of transfer denial related to “lock status”

Each PDP has its own working group (e.g. IRTP (Part B) WG) that reviews the issues in its particular field, publishes a report for public comment and then revises that report in light of comments.

The Part A working group has completed its work and put forward recommendations to the GNSO Council. Meanwhile, the Part B group have just published their final report for public comment (having already been through one round of public comment). The three other parts have yet to start their work.

The Part B final report is available at:
http://gnso.icann.org/issues/transfers/irtp-b-proposed-final-report-21fe...

The public comment period on that report can be found at (closes 31 March):
http://www.icann.org/en/public-comment/#irtp-b-proposed-final-report

Meetings:


5. New GNSO Constituencies

Why this is important

The GNSO is the main policy-making body of ICANN so changes to its structure can have an important impact on its discussions. The new constituencies are expected to reflect specific lobbying groups.

The GNSO possesses a culture of political back-biting that Washington DC would be proud of. The reason is simple: it is the main policy-making body of ICANN and makes recommendations to the Board that are largely followed.

The GNSO has been through a long and frequently painful process of review in an effort to update its structure and provide space for all relevant stakeholders in its discussions. One key part of this process has been the creation of new “constituencies” who become part of the formal structure and may also be granted a seat on the GNSO Council, the formal voting body.

Fears that the system would be gamed or otherwise abused led to the process for creating new constituencies itself going through a long process of discussion and debate. That is slowly coming to a close with a report on the process itself having been published for public comment (and now awaiting a summary and analysis).

It is another step in a slow and awkward process but one that is worth reviewing for any group that feels it should be represented at an official level within the GNSO.

Report: http://gnso.icann.org/improvements/newco-recognition-process-10jan11-en.pdf