ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee appears to be backpedaling on its commitment to permitting so-called “closed generic” gTLDs in the next application round.
The GAC’s output from ICANN 76, which took place in Cancun last week, contains a paragraph that suggests that governments are reverting to their decade-old position that maybe closed generics are not a good idea.
The GAC, GNSO and At-Large have been engaging in a “facilitated dialogue” for the past few months in an attempt to figure out whether closed generics should be allowed and under what terms.
The GAC is now saying “no policy option, including the prohibition of Closed Generics, should be excluded if no satisfactory solution is found”. It had agreed to the dialogue on the condition that prohibition would not be an outcome.
A closed generic is a single-registrant gTLD matching a dictionary word that is not a trademark. Think McDonald’s controlling all the names in .burger or Jack Daniels controlling the whole .whiskey zone.
These types of TLDs had not been banned in the 2012 application round, resulting over 180 gTLD applications, including the likes of L’Oreal applying for .makeup and Symantec’s .antivirus.
But the GAC took a disliking to these applications, issuing advice in 2013 that stated: “For strings representing generic terms, exclusive registry access should serve a public interest goal.”
This caused ICANN to implement what amounted to a retroactive ban on closed generics. Many applicants withdrew their bids; other tried to fudge their way around the issue or simply sat on their gTLDs defensively.
When the GNSO came around to developing policy in 2020 for the next new gTLD round, it failed to come to a consensus on whether closed generics should be allowed. It couldn’t even agree on what the default, status quo position was — the 2012 round by policy permitted them, but in practice did not. The matter was punted to ICANN.
A year ago, ICANN said the GAC and GNSO should get their heads together in a small group, the “facilitated dialogue”, to resolve the matter, but the framing paper outlining the rules of engagement for the talks explicitly ruled out two “edge outcomes” that, ICANN said, were “unlikely to achieve consensus”.
Those outcomes were:
1. allowing closed generics without restrictions or limitations OR
2. prohibiting closed generics under any circumstance.
The GAC explicitly agreed to these terms, with then-chair Manal Ismail (who vacated the seat last week) writing (pdf):
The GAC generally agrees with the proposed parameters for dialogue, noting that discussion should focus on a compromise to allow closed generics only if they serve a public interest goal and that the two “edge outcomes” (i.e. allowing closed generics without restrictions/limitations, and prohibiting closed generics under any circumstance) are unlikely to achieve consensus, and should therefore be considered out of scope for this dialogue.
Now, after days of closed-door facilitated dialogue have so far failed to reach a consensus on stuff like what the “public interest” is, the GAC has evidently had a change of heart.
Its new Cancun communique states:
In view of the initial outputs from the facilitated dialogue group on closed generics, involving representatives from the GAC, GNSO and At-Large, the GAC acknowledges the importance of this work, which needs to address multiple challenges. While the GAC continues to be committed to the facilitated dialogue, no policy option, including the prohibition of Closed Generics, should be excluded if no satisfactory solution is found. In any event, any potential solution would be subject to the GAC’s consensus agreement.
In other words, the GAC is going back on its word and explicitly ruling-in one of the two edge outcomes it less than a year ago had explicitly ruled out.
It’s noteworthy — and was noted by several governments during the drafting of the communique — that the other edge outcome, allowing closed generics without restriction, is not mentioned.
It’s tempting to read this as a negotiating tactic — the GAC publicly indicating that a failure to reach a deal with the GNSO will mean a closed generics ban by default, but since the facilitated dialogue is being held entirely in secret it’s impossible to know for sure.