Earlier today the policy staff at ICANN gave a briefing on upcoming policy issues to be discussed at the organisation’s meeting in Cartagena next month.

Here is a brief summary, listed in order of importance to business with added commentary and background. You can also download the presentation [pdf] given by ICANN staff.

1. New generic top-level domains (gTLDs)

Why this is important: New gTLDs 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 be the dominant topic for the Cartagena meeting, with nearly five years of work coming to a close. The ICANN Board has made clear its intention to finalise the “Applicant Guidebook” containing the rules to apply for a new Internet extension. However, the broader community – which has seen the program delayed several times in the past – remains skeptical that sufficient agreement can be reached given continued disagreement over several sub-issues. Most significant are:

  • Vertical Integration: This is the imposed market separation between registries (running an extension) and registrars (selling domains on extensions). The Board surprised many by taking a strong stance on the subject after a year of continued disagreement. It voted for a liberalisation of the current situation, removing ownership rules, at a recent meeting in November. Although that should settle the matter, there will still be argument over how the broad decision is implemented in the rules.
  • 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. While this issue is of supreme importance to companies, it is unlikely that further impact on the rules is possible at this stage following years of lobbying and many hours of patient policy work and discussions.
  • Morality and Public Order: A clause intended to stand in the way of applications for offensive names. Since the subject matter is controversial; so too is the proposed solution. That has been alot of back-and-forth on this issue, mostly between free speech advocates and governments (an explanatory memo [pdf] has been produced outlining the arguments). An entire session has been dedicated to the issue at the meeting. In the end, it is likely that the Board will stick with the most recent iteration (or a very slightly modified form) on this subject contained in the final version of the Applicant Guidebook.

2. Dot-xxx and accountability

Why this is important: The possible approval of the controversial top-level domain ‘.xxx’, specifically for adult websites, will likely bring the issue of ICANN and Internet extensions into a mainstream spotlight. The case also highlights issues surrounding the accountability of the organisation and the influence of governments on it.

Dot-xxx was not raised by ICANN staff on the policy call, mostly because the issue is now a matter for high-level political decision-making rather than staff-aided debate. Most recently (October), the Board resolved that it should have a dialogue with the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC) about its concerns over the application, specifically noting however that such a discussion should end before the Cartagena meeting.

It is difficult to discern what the end result of this latest twist in a long and ongoing saga will be, but current predictions are that the GAC will not explicitly condemn dot-xxx (it will be hard to do so when many governments have free-speech obligations), which leaves the way open for the ICANN Board to approve the extension and put an end to a highly damaging situation for the organisation.

The issue of dot-xxx is important in a larger sense because if it is approved, it will be the first time that the ICANN Board has reversed a prior decision through its own accountability mechanisms. The issue of accountability has long been a problem for ICANN and has undermined confidence in its ability to manage the domain name system objectively.

The process has also helped define a grey area of decision-making with respect to the role of governments. If approved, governments would, by their own actions, acknowledge that they serve an advisory role and need to justify their decisions in a broader context, rather than possess an implicit veto. The result of that has broader implications for Internet governance and policy in general.

3. Changes to the Registrar Accreditation Agreement (RAA)

Why this is important: If you are considering registering your own Internet extension (see above), this agreement will determine the framework in which your domains are provided. Otherwise, the RAA also creates the legal structure through domain names are registered – and so also abuse of registration policies.

The RAA is the contract between ICANN and domain registrars (those who sell domains). Following the collapse of a registrar a few years ago, during which thousands lost control of their domain names, significant pressure was exerted on this contract which was liberally drawn up back in 1999 in order to help develop the nascent registrar market. The RAA was revised after a 12-month consultation but only introduced modest proposals in return for fast introduction. Since then, a longer process has developed a series of further changes, most designed at either providing greater rights to the registrant, or forcing greater compliance to agreed standards and norms by registrars.

At Cartagena, a final report with various recommendations will be discussed by ICANN’s main policy body, the GNSO. The GNSO will then have to decide what to do with the report – an issue made more complex by the fact that registrars are, naturally, resistant to changes being drawn up that affect their business. The registrars also form a part of the GNSO and will argue that the process used to arrive at the latest recommendations was not sufficiently thorough to result in contractual changes. At the last ICANN meeting in July, registrars complained (with some justification) that a series of suggested changes to their contract drawn up law enforcement and subsequently supported by governments, was putting them into an impossible situation.

The issue of changes to the RAA is a highly charged and political one. Do not expect much movement, especially while the gTLD process remains such a priority.

4. Registration abuse policies

Why this is important: The registration and renewal of domain names is increasingly important and increasingly valuable, particularly for businesses (imagine if your website suddenly disappeared and was replaced by someone else’s). Efforts to prevent abuse of the systems is hampered by the fact there are no universally agreed standards or procedures.

A final report on this issue, which covers cybersquatting, “Whois” access, and contract uniformity was produced in May and the group that authored it was asked to come back with suggestions for implementing its recommendations. The result of that work [pdf] will be discussed in Cartagena. Broadly speaking, the suggested changes that found unanimous agreement and are easiest to implement are being pushed heaviest.

Issues include: greater reporting on the use of “Whois” (registration data); prevention of fake renewal notices; standard procedures for suspending domains; standard procedures for identifying stolen identities and information; and so on. Expect some movement on the “low-hanging fruit”.

5. Whois internationalisation

Why this is important: If you register domain names for subsidiaries in non-English speaking markets, or possibly if you register domains with registries not based in English-speaking countries, you may soon be able (or obliged) to provide your registration details in different languages.

With the introduction of “internationalised domain names” which allow for Internet extension to be represented in different languages, and with the growing global use and multilingual nature of the Internet, it has become inevitable that ICANN needs to allow for registrants to provide their details in languages other than English.

A working group has produced some initial work and ideas that will be discussed and moved forward during the Cartagena meeting. There are also a series of related Whois discussions (the latest in a 10-year effort to improve the current system) that are worth observing.