Trademark issues could derail new gTLDs at ICANN meeting

Trademark protection is among the contentious issues being discussed in Nairobi this week

Trademark protection, costs and cybersecurity threats are some of the issues likely to derail the introduction of new Internet generic top-level domains, being discussed at a meeting of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers Board this week in Nairobi.

Trademark protection and the rights of trademark holders have been among the controversial issues at the meeting, which started Sunday and continues through Friday.

"The issue is very simple and complicated at the same time -- trademark holders have a responsibility to protect their brands, but again, it could end up being too expensive for them," said Mike Silber, a member of the ICANN board from South Africa.

Generic top-level domains include .com, .net and .biz. Applicants are seeking to expand gTLDs to include city names such as Berlin and Madrid.

The debate on trademarks has been sharply divided with major corporations opposing introduction of new gTLDs, arguing that they would be forced into defensive domain-name buying and that it would eventually cost the companies, and end-users, billions of dollars. On the other side, supporters argue that the new gTLDs will foster competition, innovation, business growth and employment, and eventually contribute to economic growth.

Trademark holders will have an opportunity to buy domains before they hit the open market, but there are questions related to whether companies would be forced to pay more for new generic domains if they already own a registered trademark whose name would be in the new gTLD. There also are questions whether the introduction of new gTLDs will have a significant effect on the Internet root zone and whether new gTLDs will lead to increased cases of Domain Name System abuse, leading to instability.

"There is need for assurance that there will be no negative effect on DNS resilience, that the new gTLDs will not lead to increased cases of DNS abuse and malicious conduct," said Mark Carvell, head of international communications policy at the U.K. Department for Business Innovation and Skills.

Carvell, who sits on ICANN's Government Advisory Committee, said that work is being done on a letter to be presented to the board related to the introduction of new gTLDs.

"The DNS is under attack today more than ever before, the number and complexity of attacks have risen and ICANN relies on governments and other stakeholders to preserve the DNS," said Rod Beckstrom, ICANN president and CEO.

Governments and law enforcement agencies are expected to work together to enforce trademarks, but it's not clear what will happen in countries with weak or no trademark laws.

"Two things can happen when trademark is infringed: The party can register its objection to ICANN or opt for litigation," said Silber.

ICANN developed a process for addressing trademark issues, allowing applicants to suggest new gTLD extensions and for objections to be expressed by those with commercial or community heritage interests.

Applicants will be required to pay a US$55,000 nonrefundable fee at the first step and other fees based on whether disputes arise over gTLD applications.

The fees have been termed steep by some developing countries, and it is not clear what will be done to protect some famous geographic names within developing countries whose communities may not be able to afford the fees to apply for or reserve new gTLDs.

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