A slice of ICANN63

6th November 2018


Nick Wenban-Smith
General Counsel

At the end of October, the ICANN travelling caravan descended on Barcelona for six days of meetings. As this event was the designated Annual General Meeting, the longest of the three main ‘in person’ meetings of 2018, and hosted in a European city, it was well attended and packed full of meetings, presentations and discussions.

There were three key issues that I was most interested in during ICANN63: any matters directly relating to ccTLDs (and the .UK domain in particular), the policy development for the creation of future new gTLDs, and the consequences of the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) on the whole ICANN community.

Firstly, ccTLDs. Most ccTLDs of the world belong to the Country Code Names Supporting Organisation (ccNSO), and much of the ccNSO business involves sharing information and best practices. Notably in Barcelona, the sessions included an update on the consequences of Brexit on the .eu domain, advice on robust business continuity and disaster recovery, discussions of the use of cloud services, and the recent change in outsourced registry services supplier by the Australia (.au) ccTLD.

The ccNSO is just one of several governance and accountability bodies within the ICANN structure. The most obvious manifestations of this are the appointment of two directors to ICANN’s Board (out of a total of twenty) and appointment of two out of four members of the Customer Standing Committee (CSC). The UK is well represented currently, with Nigel Roberts (the country code manager for the Channel Islands .gg and .je) on the ICANN Board as one of the ccNSO appointees, and my Nominet colleague Brett Carr now with the CSC. The CSC is a relatively new beast which, since 2016, monitors and reports on the performance of the IANA function in place of the US Government. The IANA function is the top of the DNS hierarchy and is an absolutely key piece of the internet infrastructure upon which all top level domains rely, so it’s good to have someone as technically experienced as Brett at the table for us.

Currently, the ccNSO is developing policy in relation to the end life of a ccTLD, which has historically been a little ad hoc. Occasionally, countries do change names or merge/ fragment, and consequentially their two-letter code is changed. For example, when the Democratic Republic of the Congo changed its name from Zaire, the country code changed from .zr to .cd. In Barcelona we discussed a hard end point of between four and ten years for the final termination of a ccTLD for which the code element no longer exists, together with the associated steps and processes to be followed. There is plenty more work to be done, and the ccNSO will have fortnightly conference calls on this until the next in-person meeting in Japan in March 2019.

Secondly, new gTLDs. Since the 2012 application window for new gTLDs, the Generic Names Supporting Organisation (GNSO) has been reviewing the experiences and is in the process of issuing various reports and recommendations. Given that there were over 1,900 applications in 2012 – some of which are still in dispute – this is a mammoth undertaking which has already taken over two years of intensive effort.

There are numerous points of policy and implementation which are still in active debate, one of which is the treatment of geographic terms. In 2012, the geographic names rules were fairly simple. Country and territory names weren’t allowed as new gTLDs; new gTLDs had to be at least three characters long (thereby leaving the two-character set for country codes) and certain regional names and city names required written sign off by the appropriate public authority. However, in practice some tricky issues arose. The .patagonia application was swiftly withdrawn following protest from South American countries, but .amazon is now moving forwards following lengthy litigation.

Another application area under discussion is the process of private auctions used to resolve the majority of the ‘contention sets’ created when multiple parties applied for the same characters to be a new gTLD (e.g. .app had 15 different applicants, including internet giants Apple and Google). In 2012, applicants in the contention set had to settle matters amongst themselves, sometimes resulting in hefty sums being paid to encourage applicants to withdraw. If no progress was made, a final tie-breaker was a public auction, a process which has led to some $230 million (yes, you read that right) being collected by ICANN (future use has yet to be decided).

When looking forward to the next applications, there are some concerns that the private dealings and public auction mechanisms might lead to undesirable outcomes. There is a risk of speculative applications being made on the one hand, and valuable internet real estate being concentrated in the hands of the already rich and powerful tech companies who lead the industry today. Some options to improve the processes mentioned above for the next application round have now just been put out for public comment, so everyone with views on these difficult and interesting questions can have their say.

Thirdly, GDPR. This ICANN meeting provided an update in the ongoing saga of GDPR and the accompanying reduction in open WHOIS data. In the week before GDPR kicked in, ICANN made emergency policy changes to allow for the redaction of registration data and hence allowed registries and registrars with European customers to avoid breaching the GDPR (and face mighty fines). There is now an expedited policy development process (ePDP) to develop a permanent policy solution (taking 12 months as opposed to the typical 3-5 years). As we have now reached the half way mark, an interim report will be out for public comment shortly.

This is just a fraction of the myriad of topics and issues discussed at the recent ICANN. If you’re involved in the domain name ecosystem, attending an ICANN meeting is definitely a bucket list experience and can be most insightful. On a personal level, I found the recent Barcelona-based meeting particularly enjoyable as I once spent a year teaching English in that stunning city. I relished the opportunity to return and start my busy days watching the sun rise over the Mediterranean during my morning run. There’s nothing like a beautiful skyline to help focus the mind on domain debates.