Will a dispute about French wine destroy the Internet, a major trade agreement, and Wisconsin brie?
Currently the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a California non-profit, runs key bits of the Internet under contract with the United States Department of Commerce. ICANN is in the midst of rolling out what is by far the largest number of new domain names (generic top-level domains, or gTLDs) ever created, in which .salon, .hotel, .apple, etc. will join the tried and true .com, .net, .de, etc.
Two names that have multiple applicants but have yet to be delegated to a register (think Verisign or Afilias, who “own” one or more domain name suffixes and who in turn contract with registrars like GoDaddy or Gandi.net to sell domain names to consumers) are .vin and .wine. French opposition to current plans hit a high point in June 2014 when Axelle Lemaire, French minister for all things digital, went to London for a regular meeting of ICANN and threatened to scupper current plans for a reform of ICANN governance, and possibly even the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, also known as TAFTA, the Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Agreement, unless modifications were made to the operation of .vin and .wine..
France, and the European Union, have ongoing opposition to an Internet under control of the United States, and have welcomed a commitment by the Obama administration to release ICANN from its ties to the United States. But Axelle Lemaire went much farther than the official EU line, calling for ICANN governance on the basis of one country, one vote, which would turn Internet governance over to a body more like the United Nations General Assembly, not a body known for effective governance of the matters in its purview.
While the EU has offered criticism of many of the planned new domain names, it’s .vin/.wine that have the French seeing Burgundy red. In their official objection to the .vin name, France wrote of EU requirements on what kind of products can be marketed as “wine”, expressing a concern that non-wine wines could be marketed using the .vin domain. More important, the French raised the issue of the protection of geographical indicators such as France’s appellations d’origine contrôlée in the sale and marketing of wine. The candidate for ownership of .vin, and the three companies vying for .wine, are offering no guarantees on protecting official appellations like champagne or bordeaux from being used by companies that have nothing to do with the producers of these wines.
How can, for example, the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC) ensure that www.champagne.vin or www.champagne.wine propose information on or sales of only real champagne? As bilateral and multlateral trade agreements are signed, the EU has had success in enforcing the principle of appellations d’origine to protect European food and drink products.
Those real world protections would have no counterpart online if .vin and .wine are approved with no mechanism in place to give the real world owners of the appellations at the very least first dibs on their own online names.
The question is not new: the dominant gTLD on the Internet is .com. Surprisingly, major French wine region appellations all have a presence on .com, a totally open domain. But their struggles to achieve that status make them all the more leery of an unfettered .vin or .wine. The Comité Champagne, for instance, has been particularly effective, owning not only www.champagne.com, but websites for every country where they have a “bureau du champagne”, using “champagne” with the local country code top-level domain, including markets such as Austria, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Germany, India, Japan, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Spain, the United States (www.champagne.us) and the UK. Where they do not own “champagne” on the country TLD, they use “champagne-civc”, for example in China, Russia, and Switzerland.
The Comité Champagne took advantage of the fortuitous early reservation of www.champagne.com by a producer who later agreed to transfer the name to the Comité. As for www.bordeaux.com, it benefited from a long tradition of export of bordeaux wines, and a well-developed marketing machine, that let the bordeaux wine growers buy the .com domain early. Others were not so fortunate; makers of Chinon wine, for example, went through a long and somewhat costly process to buy back www.chinon.com.
Chinon sees great opportunities for .vin/.wine, but fears that an open market for domain names there will be even harder to manage than was .com. Jean-Martin Dutour, president of the Syndicat des vins de Chinon, fears that on an open market, his group will be at the mercy of cybersquatters using automated registration bots to get a jump on the official body: “Internet is not our field of business, and we were slow to respond for a presence on .com. Today we are aware of what is at stake, but even so, we cannot compete with firms that are specialized in buying up domain names.”
The gap between the profession of wine growing and marketing and the Internet was an explanation also provided by the CNAOC, the national confederation of wine AOCs. They’re now at the forefront of the issue, but they admit coming a bit late to the game, and regret that the French government did not do more to mobilize professional groups early on. For example, had the professional groups been aware of the stakes, they might have ensured ownership of the domains in question via a “community priority evaluation”. But as I’ve discussed with regard to the .gay domain, such applications are not a sure thing. In practice, had the French mobilized on their own, commercial rivals would have observed that while French wine growers might have a reasonable claim to .vin, they probably have none for .wine. To build a worldwide coalition to protect appellations on .wine would have taken time, and might not have been certain to gain support from wine growers in countries where geographical indications are not used.
France’s Government Advisory Committee Early Warning (GAC EW) for .vin, and subsequent decisions by ICANN to ask the parties involved to continue discussions, show the weakness of ICANN’s leadership on these new gTLDs. The GAC relies on consensus, which is hard to achieve. And even when a consensus is found, nothing in the system requires applicants to talk to the objecting governments, let alone take government objections into account. While that can be a good thing – Iran, for example, refuses any form of gTLD involving sins such as alcohol or sex – most of the objections, particularly from prolific objector Australia, make a great deal of sense, such as consumer protection and opposition to anti-competitive naming.
In the case of .wine, one of the applicants simply refuses to speak to the EU. Others have agreed to talk, but with no concrete outcomes. As of the close of the latest two-month cooling-off period, no agreement has been reached, and ICANN seems ready to delegate .vin to the sole applicant, and to open an auction among the three applicants for .wine.
The CNAOC is all the more distressed because they have made what to them (and to most neutral observers, I think) seems to be a reasonable accommodation. Registration for .vin/.wine would remain open to all, with only the names that correspond exactly to existing AOCs being reserved for the relevant professional organization. In addition, they would like a conflict resolution mechanism to be established for litigious cases beyond these directly protected names.
Pascal Bobillot-Monnot, the head of the CNAOC, is dismayed at the status quo: “Our member organizations are caught up in disputes that have nothing to do with wine.” These disputes relate to two ongoing negotiations that oppose the United States and Europe.
First, TTIP. The EU has been successful in including protection of geographic indications in its latest trade agreements. And the US of course knows that such protections will be expected in any final TTIP. Would inclusion of such protections in the framework of ICANN’s new gTLDs take this bargaining chip off the table? That might explain any pressure on ICANN and other parties to stand firm against the French requests.
The second is the future governance of the Internet. The United States Department of Commerce will be setting ICANN free, and somewhat controversially has asked ICANN to manage the discussions on its own future governance. The EU is keen to have greater involvement of non-US governments, but last month Axelle Lemaire went much farther, calling for an Internet run by a general assembly of nation-states on the basis of one country, one vote.
On the contrary, Neelie Kroes, Vice President of the European Commission in charge of the Digital Agenda for Europe, has rejected excessive government involvement in Internet governance, explicitly excluding a possible role for the International Telecommunications Union, a United Nations agency.
France is talking about nuclear options, threatening the TTIP and undermining the EU’s own position on Internet governance. It seems unlikely that anyone is taking these threats seriously, but they may be enough to suspend the delegation of .vin and .wine until the issue of geographic indications is settled in the framework of TTIP. That seems to be the common sense solution to a real problem.
As for Internet governance, the .vin/.wine dispute is just another argument against ICANN’s current governance model, and in particular its ability to blithely ignore government objections. When added to bigger issues such as the US government spying via Internet revealed by Edward Snowden, Americans may be wittingly or unwittingly promoting a future governance model that will see even more dangerous government involvement than would otherwise be seen.