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Dot-word bidders in last-minute dash after ICANN reveals timetable

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Domain name policy overseer ICANN has put an end to weeks of speculation by revealing a new timetable for the roll-out of its controversial new top-level domains programme.

As many as 2,300 applications for dot-whatever gTLDs are expected to flood in before the organisation closes its TLD Application System (TAS) at a minute before midnight tonight (23.59 GMT, 19.59 ET, 16.59 Pacific).

Companies around the world are expected to apply for strings ranging from .vegas to .london, from .shop to .jewelers, from .bank to .creditunion.

But according to ICANN, as many as 500 applications were still incomplete as of last night, setting the stage for a mad rush to hit the deadline; when TAS closes, it is not expected to reopen for a few years at least.

TAS opened for applications 12 January and was originally supposed to close on 12 April, but ICANN unexpectedly pulled the plug with just 12 hours left on the clock, after discovering a security bug that enabled applicants to look at each others' names.

The system was down until 22 May, earning ICANN the ire of applicants, each of which is paying $185,000 (£118,000) for the privilege of applying. Some companies are expected to apply for dozens of strings.

According to the newly published timetable, the full list of applicants and the gTLDs they want will be published on 13 June, setting the stage for potentially dozens of contention battles.

ICANN currently expects to evaluate the bids in batches of about 500, give or take, so it has had to come up with a way to split the expected 2,000-plus applications into more management chunks.

The fairest way, pretty much everyone agreed, was random selection. However, this did not pass the scrutiny of the organisation's legal team, which determined that chance-based batching would almost certainly invite a lawsuit in its litigation-happy home state of California.

Batching applications based on luck would come dangerously close to fitting the definition of an illegal lottery, which would get ICANN sued by those who oppose the programme in its entirety.

Archers, PULL!

To dodge this lawyer-shaped bullet, ICANN has instead come up with a widely derided mechanism it calls “digital archery” or “time-target variance”. It has been likened by gTLD applicants to a fairground skill game, and not usually in a good way.

Applicants will be invited to select a target time on a target date, then log into a secure website and hit a “submit” button as close to that time as possible. ICANN will log the time its servers receive the input and create its batches based on which applicants were closest to their target times.

Digital archery has the benefit of being based more on the applicants' judgment (or, more likely, their ability to write a tight script and rent a server as few hops away from ICANN's as possible) rather than chance, but by most accounts that's the only benefit of the system.

According to the timetable published by ICANN last night, digital archery will run from 8 June until 28 June, meaning some applicants are expected to play the game before they know what the competitive landscape for new gTLD applications looks like. The results of the batching process will be announced on 11 July.

For non-applicants, perhaps the more important time window runs from 13 June until 12 August.

That's when anybody in the world will be able to complain, for free, about any application they don't like the look of.

If you're a butcher, say, and you don't like the (hypothetical at this stage) application for .butcher, for whatever reason, you'll be able to file a comment with ICANN in the hope that its Independent Objector will see your objection and attempt to block approval of the bid.

With many gTLDs expected to be contested by multiple applicants, some observers are predicting the astroturf to be laid on pretty thick during this period.

There will also be formal objection periods, with fees attached, for companies that think a gTLD string being applied for is too similar to their trademarked brand and for those who believe that applicants for strings identifying their community are not representing them.

Governments are also expected to play a big role in objecting to applications that have implications, for example, for “moral” issues (expect porn and gambling gTLDs to come under scrutiny) and terms that represent regulated industries. ®

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