The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) has released a document called “Proposed Measures for Letter/Letter Two-Character ASCII Labels to Avoid Confusion with Corresponding Country Codes”. Under the measures proposed in this document, governments and independent country code Top Level Domain (ccTLD) operators would be given the first option on a list of currently-blocked two-character new generic Top Level Domains (gTLDs). These domain names are ones that reflect various ccTLD extensions and which have caused some governments to worry about the risk of confusion with their own TLD.When the first round of new gTLDs was launched in 2013, pursuant to the New gTLD Registry Agreement, all two-character domain names were initially reserved and thus not available for registration. In late 2014, ICANN allowed Registries to release all letter-number, number-letter and number-number combinations. Letter-letter domain names could also be released following a formal Registry request to ICANN, but they were subject to a 60-day period during which the relevant government was notified and within which third parties could object. Official representatives of a number of the countries concerned have objected, including Italy and Portugal, which have blocked domain names like <pt.blog> and <it.travellers> and there are currently over 16,000 letter/letter two-character domain names blocked.
Certain other countries, such as the United States, have, in the past, made in known that they have no problem with their corresponding letter-letter domain names. US representative Suzanne Radell stated at an ICANN meeting in 2014 that “the use of the ‘US’ two-letter country code at the second level has not presented any technical or policy issues for the United States”. She went on to point out that domain names such as <us.com> and <us.org>, which have been available for some time and which are marketed as alternatives to the .US ccTLD, were not an issue for the US government.
Included in the new ICANN proposals is an obligation for the Registry Operator to implement a 30-day period in which registration of letter/letter two-character ASCII labels (i.e. Country Codes) will be made exclusively available to the relevant governments, but also to private country-code managers such as those that manage the .TV and .TK extensions. In jurisdictions where the TLD is managed by a private company, both the private company and the relevant government will be eligible to register it, which could conceivably lead to a situation where both entities want the same domain name. It is not currently clear how such a situation would be handled.
No mention of prices is made in the ICANN document and, although two-character domain names generally command premium prices, there would almost certainly be an expectation that these be kept reasonable for any offering to governments.
The ICANN proposals also put the onus on registrars to ensure, via their registration agreements, that future registrants do not use these two-character ASCII label domain names for “misrepresenting or falsely implying that the registrant or its business is affiliated with a government or country-code manager if such affiliation, sponsorship or endorsement does not exist.” In relation to any such reports, the Registry Operator must take the same steps as those relating to the reporting of illegal conduct as set forth in their Registry Agreement with ICANN.
It will be interesting to see which governments and ccTLD operators opt to snap up these domain names as and when they are released.