The Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC) holds a unique and powerful role within ICANN.

Although it is only advisory, the GAC represents the views of the world's governments and so its formal "advice" is taken extremely seriously: to the extent that if the ICANN Board does not agree with GAC advice, it is obliged to try to reach agreement or provide a clear explanation for why it does not intend to follow the advice.

This issue of "GAC advice" has become prominent in the new gTLD process due to the program's far-reaching impact. In a precedent-setting move in February 2011, the GAC produced an extensive "scorecard" of issues it had identified with the program's rules and approach. The ICANN Board and GAC then spent the next six months working through each issue.

Since then, one of the most contentious, and ongoing, aspects of GAC advice has been its request that special protections be given to all international governmental organizations (IGOs) so no one will be allowed to register IGO names as domains under any new Internet extension.

As things stand in mid-2013, with ICANN primed to approve applications, the most important GAC advice covers new "safeguards" that it has requested the Board introduce and make contractually binding on all new gTLDs.

A quick history of the "safeguard" advice

At ICANN's meeting in October 2012 in Toronto, the GAC warned that it did not feel there were sufficient "mechanisms" in place to deal with nine areas of concern, including: consumer protection; regulated markets; competition issues; religious terms; and intellectual property rights.

The next month, GAC members provided 242 "early warnings" to gTLD applicants in which it outlined government concerns with specific applications. A week later, the European Union provided a further 58 (it was concerned that the "early warning" mechanism created by ICANN was not compliant with European law). And a few weeks later, Iran added to the list with its own list of 29 early warnings for "unethical" applications.

The GAC was expected to provide formal advice as a group on specific applications that it objected to in February but at the last minute announced that it was taking more time to consider the best way to move forward.

On 31 March, a week before ICANN's meeting in Beijing, the GAC announced that it was planning to provide further advice on "safeguards" for specific groups of applications. It listed the nine areas mentioned at the Toronto meeting and added a further three: support for applications submitted by global authorities; corporate identifier gTLDs; and strings that represent inherent government functions and/or activities.

The GAC spent the entire week in Beijing drawing up its advice, only finishing halfway through the conference's final session. The safeguard aspect of its final advice comprise five parts:

  1. Six safeguards to apply to all new gTLDs
  2. Five additional safeguards to apply to a named list of approx 180 applicants
  3. Three further safeguards for an unnamed subset of that 180
  4. A requirement for restricted registries to provide equitable treatment
  5. A requirement for closed generic applicants to have a public interest goal

Set 1

This comprises six safeguards to cover all new gTLDs, and they are:

  1. WHOIS verification and checks: a twice-a-year check for inaccurate registration information
  2. Mitigating abusive activity: check that domains aren't being used to carry pirated content or carry out similar activity
  3. Security checks: check domains aren't being used to spread malware, acts as scam websites or similar activity
  4. Documentation: Maintain reports of efforts taken to deal with the three prior safeguards
  5. Making and Handling Complaints: introduce a system so others can make complaints related to the first three safeguards
  6. Consequences: introduce a system that penalizes domain name owners found to have broken the first three safeguards

Set 2

This comprises five safeguards that apply to approximately 180 applications identified by name and split up into more than a dozen categories e.g. charity, professional services etc. The safeguards are:

  1. Acceptable use policy: ensure registrants comply with relevant privacy, data collection, consumer protection, and related laws
  2. Registrant notification: ensure those selling domains (registrars) make Internet users aware of the first safeguard
  3. Sensitive data: ensure that domain owners who collect sensitive data (e.g. health or financial) have sufficient security measures to protect it
  4. Regulatory bodies: establish a relationship with the relevant industry body and work with them to limit illegal activity
  5. Single point-of-contact: provide a single point of contact for complaints and contact details for the regulatory bodies in safeguard 4

Set 3

This comprises a further set of three safeguards to be applied to a subset of those applications named in set 2. The applications are not listed but seven categories are and the safeguards are intended for those applications "associated with market sectors which have clear and/or regulated entry requirements". The safeguards are:

  1. Domain registrants must be verified at the time of registration
  2. Registries should consult with the relevant national authorities if verification details are uncertain
  3. Periodic checks should be carried to ensure safeguards 6 and 7 are being followed

Set 4

This comprises a requirement for applicants that intend to restrict registration to be open and transparent about the rules for access so that they do not subject any domain sellers (registrars) or Internet users (registrants) to "undue disadvantage".

Set 5

This comprises a requirement that applies to applications for 61 listed "generic terms" e.g. book, hotel, news. If the applicant intends to run the registry exclusively i.e. have complete control over who is allowed to register which names, then it would be required to "serve a public interest goal".

You can find all the listed safeguards and who the GAC wishes them to apply to here.

ICANN's response

ICANN announced soon after the advice was provided that it would open a public comment period on it and use that feedback for the Board to consider its next steps. ICANN's Board also requested that all applicants respond to it directly.

The advice was provided on 11 April 2013. ICANN provided applicants with a specific form to respond directly to the Board on 18 April. It then opened a public comment period on 23 April. The comment period comes in two parts: an initial period of 21 days closing on 14 May, and a reply period closing 4 June.

On 10 May, ICANN's new gTLD committee announced how it planned to proceed. A summary of applicants' feedback will be provided to the ICANN Board by 31 May; a summary of the public comment period by 12 June. The Board will then consider the feedback and make a determination on 20 June about how to respond to the GAC advice.

ICANN's Board is due to meet for two days on 17 and 18 May, and the new gTLD committee will also have a meeting on 18 May during which the GAC advice and responses to the public comment period will be a lead topic. The next ICANN Board meeting following the 20 June deadline is currently scheduled for 27 June.


Next steps

If you wish to register an interest in our Safeguard Policies, or the GAC advice process, head to our policies interest page and sign up for updates and additional information.

The expectation is that ICANN will follow formal GAC advice, providing a strong incentive for both ICANN and applicants to find a way to meet the GAC's concerns.

The GAC has been considering the issue for over seven months and has been consistent in its concerns and advice over that time, suggesting that the world's governments are in strong agreement.

If ICANN's Board does decide to disagree with any aspect of the advice, it will need to follow the formal process in place to do so. If the Internet community and applicants make it clear they are opposed to particular aspects of the advice, it would give the Board sufficient justification to disagree, but that approach would mean a delay to the program (to at least the third quarter of 2013) and would raise tensions between the world's governments and ICANN.

As mentioned above, the ICANN Board will discuss the GAC advice during its mid-May meeting, and then use summaries of comments to determine how it will respond by 20 June. A Board meeting is scheduled for 27 June. ICANN's next meeting will be in Durban on 14-18 July where it is hoped agreement can be reached.


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