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The New gTLD Chess Game

On June 20th, the ICANN board voted to move ahead with the new generic Top-Level Domains (gTLDs) program, intended to add hundreds, if not thousands of new names to the DNS root. Now what? Not even the most enthusiastic ICANN supporters think that any new TLDs will be added before the end of 2012, but there are other things going on that greatly complicate the outlook.

The debate at the ICANN board meeting, all too typically, said nothing about the merits, but was all about trivia (transcript here). It had come to the attention of the board that people in poor countries are unlikely to have the $185,000 application fee, so the main topic of debate was about a $2 million slush fund of paying applicants’ money to subsidize applicants from poor countries. Given the board’s chronic inability to supervise the staff, it seems likely that this will subsidize the staff’s pet projects and friends.

A few days before the vote, both the US Department of Commerce and the European Commission sent pointed letters about the cavalier way the board decided to allow cross-ownership of domain registries and registrars, something the board sort of acknowledged but basically blew off, not something governments take lightly.

More importantly, the National Telecommunication and Information Administration, the part of the US government that handles the contracts with ICANN and Verisign, has been preparing to put the IANA contract out for bid since the current contract ends in September. The’ve issued a Federal register Notice of Inquiry [PDF], and a related speech.

IANA (Internet Assigned Numbers Authority) is four somewhat separate record keeping functions that are handled together largely because they were all done by one guy when the Internet was small. The functions are (from the NOI):

(1) The coordination of the assignment of technical Internet protocol parameters; (2) the administration of certain responsibilities associated with Internet DNS root zone management; (3) the allocation of Internet numbering resources; and (4) other services related to the management of the ARPA and INT TLDs.

The important parts are (2), managing the names and servers put into the DNS root, and (3) handing out IP addresses. Part (1) and the ARPA TLD are primarily tracking nerdy technical details in IETF standards, and the .INT domain, which contains about 160 organizations established by international treaty, is part of IANA only because nobody’s been able to figure out where it really belongs, and it’s an insignificant amount of work. The root zone contains 247 ccTLDS (countries and country-like territories), 30 international versions of TLDs like ???????. for Algeria, the legacy non-ICANN domains .EDU, .MIL, .GOV, .ARPA, and .INT, and the 11 ICANN domains like .COM and .POST.

For the past decade ICANN has done the IANA work on a zero-bid contract, and has done it reasonably competently, but I get the strong impression that the NTIA would really like to give the work to someone or someones else, even if they have to pay. This would separate out the ICANN gTLD mess from the IANA root zone management, and would add a potential firewall before ICANN adds new stuff to the root, while still maintaining the politically sensitive and important function of maintaining ccTLDs as requested by the various governments. (The US has never interfered with ccTLD management, even for countries like Cuba and North Korea.)

The NoI includes language like this:

For delegation requests for new generic TLDS (gTLDs), the Contractor shall include documentation to demonstrate how the proposed string has received consensus support from relevant stakeholders and is supported by the global public interest.

This strikes me as designed specifically to allow them to reject the next .XXX, or for that matter .MICROSOFT or .FORD. (What global public interest is served by selling a vanity domain name to a large corporation?)

Beyond the government activity, there remains the likely threat of lawsuits. Outside the ICANN bubble, new gTLDs are extremely unpopular, being seen by large companies primarily as a shakedown in which they’ll have to spend $500K on a useless TLD to avoid squatters. (See for example, this story at the Financial Times.) It wouldn’t take a whole lot of trademark lawyers to figure out that rather than pay $500K each plus probably $50k/yr for useless TLDs, a few of them could sue ICANN and bring the process to a screeching halt as they engage in discovery and depose all the board members and senior staff, arguing that selling overpriced vanity domains is not consistent with the mission of a California not-for-profit which is what ICANN is.

It’s not clear to me how all these bits will play out, but it’ll take a long time to do so.

By John Levine, Author, Consultant & Speaker

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And the grounds of such a suit would be...? John Berryhill  –  Jun 25, 2011 1:21 AM

I’m curious to know what cause of action you believe would be the premise for such a suit.

Cause of action? Daniel R. Tobias  –  Jul 6, 2011 1:31 AM

Some corporate types think that they have an entitlement binding on the entire rest of the world that they never do anything that could possibly endanger their business model.

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