Restricting .doctor TLD to Physicians Unfair, Donuts Tells ICANN in Reconsideration Filing

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By Joseph Wright

March 16 — A newly required public interest commitment (PIC) would place the .doctor top-level domain in a unique, “ultra-highly sensitive” category in violation of ICANN's policy of nondiscrimination in the namespace, according to a reconsideration request filed by Donuts Inc. subsidiary Brice Trail March 12.

The challenged PIC would limit all registrations in the .doctor TLD to medical practitioners. Registrations in other highly sensitive industry-related TLDs require registrants to represent that they have the necessary qualifications of the relevant industry if they hold themselves out to be practitioners in that industry.

The reconsideration request said that many potential registrants would be shut out of the .doctor TLD unnecessarily because they do not hold themselves out as medical professionals, and thus would not confuse Internet users. Brice Trail cited examples such as academic Ph.D. holders with the title “doctor” and non-medical repair professionals who use “doctor” in their trade name, such as “rug doctor” or “computer doctor.”

Brice Trail's more inclusive plan for the .doctor TLD had the apparent support of Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers staff as recently as early December 2014, when Akram Atallah, president of ICANN's Global Domain Division told Bloomberg BNA that the string should not be limited to medical doctors.

“If I'm an applicant and I am a doctor, I better have the papers to show that I'm a legitimate doctor. At the same time if I am registering for a movie with a doctor in it that's a different matter,” Atallah said at the time. “We didn't want to limit the market for the domain but wanted to prevent people from claiming to be something that they are not”.

Atallah told Bloomberg BNA March 16 that his earlier comments were the result of choosing a bad example in .doctor rather than, for instance, .health, and that .doctor is being treated differently because it is the only highly regulated industry TLD on which the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC) issued string-specific advice.

Battle Over Category 1 Definition

The three competing applications for .doctor have been part of a larger battle over TLDs in highly regulated industries, to which “Category 1” safeguards have been applied.

The ICANN New gTLD Program Committee (NGPC), decided Feb. 5, 2014 to move the .doctor string to highly-regulated industry Category 1 status. (The NGPC is a board of directors committee comprised of all non-conflicted members.) In doing so, it adopted GAC advice provided in its Nov. 20, 2013 Buenos Aires communique.

In a Dec. 29, 2014 e-mail obtained by Bloomberg BNA, ICANN director of registry services and engagement Krista Papac informed Brice Trail's Daniel Schindler that the registry agreement for .doctor would require the eight safeguards applicable to all Category 1 applications. In addition, Papac said, ICANN would require an additional safeguard, which read: “Registry Operator will ensure that the domains in the TLD are ascribed exclusively to legitimate medical practitioners.”

On Feb. 12 in Singapore the NGPC ratified ICANN staff action in proceeding with its implementation of the 2014 resolution recategorizing the .doctor string.

The GAC long sought full-fledged verification and validation of the credentials for registrants in Category 1 TLDs, but at the most recent ICANN public meeting in Singapore it stepped back from that previous advice, saying only that verification and validation are best practices to which that registries should strive.

The World Health Organization has also spearheaded efforts of international medical community groups to restrict the distribution of health-related domain names, but Atallah said in December that the groups' protests were too little too late, having failed to file public interest-related objections during the application process.

Papac's e-mail and the NGPC's ratification of the staff's implementation of its resolution appear to signal a reversal of that policy position.

Donuts Says .doctor Is Being Singled Out

The reconsideration request cites the NGPC's Feb. 12 approval of staff action as well as the staff action imposing the controversial PIC as the actions requiring reconsideration.

The crux of Brice Trail's complaint is that the newly required PIC singles out applicants for the .doctor string relative to other Category 1 highly regulated industry strings.

“The Board Decision and Staff Action discriminate against Brice Trail as compared to applicants for all other domains in the ‘highly regulated' category,” Brice Trail said in the reconsideration request. “No other gTLD in that category has heretofore been made subject to the conditions that would be imposed upon .DOCTOR, which has been improperly singled out for disparate treatment in violation of established policy.

Mason Cole, VP of Communications and Industry Relations for Donuts Inc., told Bloomberg BNA that similar PICs have not been imposed on applicants for any other highly regulated strings.

“They're not doing the same thing with .lawyer,” Cole said. “They're not doing the same thing with surgery.”

Cole said that the limitation of the .doctor TLD to licensed physicians is unnecessarily narrow, and that Brice Trail is seeking to defend not just its own application, but the expressive rights of potential registrants.

“If I want to set up a site that reviews doctors in DC called dcreviews.doctor, I should have the latitude to do that,” Cole said. “Our job is to stick up for the rights of everyone who should be allowed to use that term, and that's what we are doing.”

Brice Trail is one of three applicants for the .doctor TLD currently scheduled for auction on April 29. Its reconsideration request asks that the auction be rescheduled at least 30 days after the outcome of the request. Cole said it is too soon to say whether the outcome of the reconsideration request will affect Donuts' interest in the TLD.

To contact the reporter on this story: Joseph Wright in Washington at jwright@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Thomas O'Toole at totoole@bna.com