Two powerful parties fought a fierce battle that lasted more than seven years, and (kind of) ended a few months ago. The future of the .amazon was at stake. You read that right – the dispute was over the right to manage the .amazon top-level domain. The parties involved were Amazon Inc. on one side, and the countries from the Amazon basin on the other, with Brazil and Peru being most active. Hundreds of new TLDs have been introduced in the last several years, but we are still looking forward to the launch of .amazon due to the clash between national governments, and one of the largest corporations in the world. In this article, we will have a look at how the events unfolded, and who won this battle. This interesting case shows that sometimes online matters may cross borders, and go way beyond the online world.
The key players
ICANN’s New gTLD Program
In 2011, ICANN’s Board of Directors voted in favor of a change that would affect dramatically the Internet as we knew it. They decided to introduce hundreds of new domain extensions in addition to the 22 generic TLDs that had existed up until then. The New gTLD Program was an initiative to enhance competition, and to give customers a choice, as most good names with the original TLDs had already been taken.
The application process started in 2012, and companies got the green light to submit their proposals for new extensions to ICANN for consideration. These included generic TLDs such as .shop, .ninja, .xyz, or .website, as well as company-specific ones such as .google, .aws, or .bmw. The latter became known as branded TLDs, and they represented about 34% of all applications for new TLDs. While there was no formal difference between these two types of TLDs, the branded ones were not intended to be open for public use. Any company that would start operating a brand TLD registry would have the exclusive right to use the TLD solely for its own websites, products, and services.
One of the companies that submitted an application for a number of new TLDs was Amazon Registry Services. Currently, they operate Amazon’s portfolio of 52 TLDs, including service-related ones like .aws, .kindle, .prime, .imdb, as well as the more generic .book, .bot, .free, .pay, etc. The absence of one extension from this list stands out a mile – .amazon. The reason is that the countries from the Amazon basin strongly opposed the delegation of this TLD to a private company.
Why a Branded TLD?
The Amazon vs. Amazon
Amazon Inc. submitted their application for the .amazon TLD in 2012. They passed the ICANN assessments with a perfect score – 41 out of 41 points. In July 2013, ICANN held a meeting in Durban, South Africa, to review the applications for the new wave of extensions. It was expected that many TLDs would be approved, .amazon being among them. Surprisingly, a number of countries from the Amazon basin sent a letter to the Governmental Advisory Committee of ICANN (GAC) just before the meeting. GAC is the group that represents governments within ICANN. The letter stated that
‘.amazon’ is a geographic name that represents important territories of some of our countries, which have relevant communities, with their own culture and identity directly connected with the name. Beyond the specifics, this should also be understood as a matter of principle”.
As a result, GAC recommended that ICANN rejects Amazon’s application. For more than a year after Amazon had applied for the new extension there had been no indication that any party would object. In this light, it was a surprise that a coalition of countries did that, and in such an aggressive manner. Brazil and Peru expressed the strongest opinion against the possible delegation of the TLD to the US-based corporation. Some people speculated that there was a connection between the objection, and the information disclosed by Edward Snowden just a couple of weeks earlier. The documents he leaked revealed that the NSA had tapped the phone of the Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff. It is believed that going against Amazon was a part of Brazil’s forceful response to the leaks. Whatever the reason, the result was that ICANN formally put the delegation of the .amazon domain on hold in 2014.
In turn, Amazon appealed, and in 2016 asked an independent panel to review ICANN’s decision. The panel found that ICANN had not justified its rejection, and had not allowed Amazon to present its case. It ordered the organization to reassess its decision. ICANN, however, decided to stay away from the controversy, and told the two sides to settle the dispute among themselves.
There was no progress for a couple of years, as neither side would take a step back. Brazil, backed by the rest of the countries in ACTO (Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization) kept on insisting that .amazon should be used solely by state actors as to preserve their cultural heritage, and to prevent a corporation from using it to make money. Amazon repeatedly wrote to ICANN, saying that there was no policy or any “sovereign right under national or international law to the name Amazon”, so there was no viable reason for its application to be rejected. The company also contacted the Brazilian government directly in an attempt to persuade them to stop their opposition to the new TLD, but to no avail.
What Amazon offered the ACTO countries
ICANN inquired about progress a couple of times, but would still not proceed with either approving Amazon’s application, or putting it on permanent hold. Industry watchers questioned the organization’s independence and decisiveness, as it was allowing governments to meddle into its matters. A new gTLD would normally take two years to be launched. Google, for example, applied for a new extension in 2012 as well, and launched .google in 2014.
In 2018, ICANN appointed its own CEO Göran Marby to host meetings between the two parties until an agreement was reached. His attempts turned out to be a big failure, as the ACTO countries, and Brazil in particular, were unwilling to negotiate. They kept insisting on having full control over the .amazon TLD. A vivid example of their reluctance was Marby’s trip to Sao Paulo at the end of 2018, when a meeting was cancelled by Brazil in the very last moment, and no talks took place at all. As an excuse, the local government pointed out that representatives from Venezuela would not be present due to the civil unrest in the country. They ignored the fact that all other countries were represented, and that Marby was already in the country for the meeting. Several more attempts to facilitate discussions with the ACTO countries failed in the following months.
Marby’s failed efforts attracted heavy criticism from the industry and from the ACTO governments, and this failure was a turning point. ICANN’s Board of Directors finally got fed up with the lack of progress, as the organization’s reputation was at stake. They decided to take matters in their own hands. In May 2019, the Board finally accepted Amazon’s latest proposal, and asked the organization CEO to proceed with their application for .amazon.
The clothing company Patagonia had applied for .patagonia in 2012, but withdrew its application before the ICANN meeting in Durban in 2013 under pressure from Argentina. Patagonia is the name of a large region shared between Argentina and Chile.
In 2014, .bar was launched after a Mexican registry company reached an agreement with the Montenegrin city of Bar over the exclusive rights to use the TLD.
Amazon won the battle…
Although the dispute seemed to be over, a final decision had not been reached. ICANN decided to wait until September 2019 to publish Amazon’s public commitments regarding the TLD, and to allow some time for comments from interested parties. This move seemed like taking a step back, and it was no surprise that Brazil officially objected through GAC in October 2019, saying that giving .amazon to a corporation was an “expropriation from the Amazon countries”, and that the word “Amazon” was its “birthright”. This time, however, after not taking sides for seven years, the US representative in GAC sharply opposed any further delays or discussions. China, Portugal, Switzerland and the European Commission asked for more negotiations, while Israel supported the US. We will have to wait and see if ICANN will overcome the objections of some governments, and if it will take a decision on Amazon’s application once and for all. This is expected to happen in the next several months, and for the time being, industry watchers expect a positive outcome for Amazon Inc.
… but everybody lost the war.
Although we may be looking at the resolution of this dispute, none of the parties can claim a real victory. On the contrary, they all lost to some extent.
Amazon lost more than seven years in legal battles, trying to get a branded top-level domain, wasting money and effort. It already runs extensions that match its services, like .aws and .kindle. The .amazon one, however, now stands for more than just a name. The dispute has turned it into a symbol of the clash between governments on one side, and the Internet authority and the private sector on the other. Amazon has already invested too much, and cannot afford to walk out on the TLD, so it will keep on fighting to the end.
ICANN lost some of the trust it had as a governing body. It ignored its own bylaws, and rejected a total of five applications from Amazon over a period of seven years with no explanation whatsoever. It failed to take a definitive decision, and asked the two parties in the dispute to reach an agreement among themselves, thus forsaking its role of an Internet authority that has the final say. As a result of the ongoing feud, registry organizations, registrars, and other domain organizations have lost some of their confidence in ICANN, which may have a long-term negative effect for new and old TLDs. You can also check out our article about the ongoing .ORG controversy, which already has a negative impact on all parties involved, including ICANN.
Brazil lost its reputation as a trustworthy partner in this dispute. Their constant objections to Amazon’s TLD applications and resolution proposals indicated that the Brazilian government most probably had some hidden agenda. While there might have been ground for their initial objection, their stubbornness turned out to be counterproductive. Sending letters to ICANN with the same arguments against the TLD delegation over and over again resulted in the community not taking them seriously anymore.
The United States did not get involved in this dispute until November 2019, when they took a side for the first time in seven years. Staying aloof was not necessarily a good thing though. Many observers believe that this behavior showed that they may have lost their role as a global leader and an informal regulator in the online world.
The dispute over the .amazon top-level domain shows how international politics and Internet policy can get mixed up, and how a national government can affect the business of a private company, even if the two have nothing in common. The outcome may have serious repercussions for the online world if ICANN does not stand by its own bylaws, and if it submits to government pressure. This may create a dangerous precedent. As a side effect of the dispute, it is likely that many companies that wanted to register a branded TLD, have changed their minds after seeing ICANN’s lack of determination, and their dependence on state actors. The seven-year long application process, and the lack of flexibility and compromise from one of the sides turned an otherwise trivial process into a virtual war. One that is not in anybody’s interest, and that already has a great impact on the TLD world.
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