The next few short weeks in the run-up to ICANN's Cartagena meeting could prove the most important time yet for the organization to show that it is a credible and capable overseer of the domain name system. After over two years of delays, tens of thousands of email exchanges, weeks of heated face-to-face discussions, and many millions of accumulated frequent flier miles, the time has arrived for ICANN to finally draw a line under the new top-level domain policy-development process and name the date for the opening of the first-round application window.
When the GNSO arrived at its historic 2007 consensus decision that new top-level domains were desirable, its very first principle, which received unanimous, cross-constituency support, stated: "New generic top-level domains (gTLDs) must be introduced in an orderly, timely and predictable way." The view that the new TLD launch should be "timely" was later reflected by ICANN when, after nine months of gestation, the Board finally formally adopted the GNSO's recommendations and announced to the world that the application process would open in the second quarter of 2009.
With the benefit of hindsight, this deadline of course seems woefully optimistic. A year later, after two versions of the Applicant Guidebook had been drafted and extensively commented on, ICANN told us that applications would start to be accepted "in the first quarter of 2010". As that deadline came and went, post-Nairobi, ICANN appeared to decide that it was getting out of the soothsaying business, and has since provided the patiently waiting community with scant guidance, and no hard dates, on a likely completion timeline for the guidebook, leaving many eager applicants in limbo.
Many potential commercial applicants with solid business plans and credible prospects have raised funding, hired staff and otherwise invested in their businesses since the new gTLD program was first announced, and the delays have already caused significant harm to these candidates. One needs only to peruse some of the many comments sent to ICANN with reference to DAGv4 to get a feel for how palpable the frustration has become. But while the livelihoods of many have been disrupted, it is not only the entrepreneurs and the commercially oriented registries that are being affected by these seemingly interminable delays.
Smaller organizations, including cultural, geographic and linguistic TLDs, are also losing out. Many of these applicants are answerable to governmental entities, and now find themselves having to explain that their proposed TLD cannot yet be applied for due to policy arguments beyond their control and perhaps not even relevant to their model. In some cases, geo-TLD registries have already successfully secured the support of their local or national (or even continental!) governments, creating a seemingly paradoxical situation in which ICANN has actually moved more slowly than old-style offline policy-makers. The longer the new gTLD process is delayed, the longer cultural and geographic communities not currently represented in the DNS will have to remain disenfranchised.
This is especially important given the growing global demand for internationalized domain names. ICANN should be commended for its fantastic recent work bringing multilingualism to the DNS through the delegation of numerous IDN ccTLDs, enabling hundreds of million of users of non-Latin scripts to communicate online in entirely their own languages. But, unlike their ASCII-savvy counterparts, those same users still lack the ability to express their identities online in non-geographic terms and in their own native scripts. While the new gTLD process continues to be delayed, so too is the level playing field that will be enabled when registries are finally able to launch IDN gTLDs.
With all this in mind, it's clear that the time for delay is over. It's now time for ICANN's leadership to draw a line in the sand, make some strong and difficult decisions, and get the new gTLD application process underway as soon as practical.
The Applicant Guidebook as it stands today is not perfect, but it does not have to be. Striving for perfection, for a guidebook which gives every constituency and every interested party everything they have on their wish-list, is an impossible task. There are incompatible views and opinions at play, and the best that can be hoped for is a happy, meaningful compromise which, taking into account the views of all affected members of the internet community, creates the most value for end users whilst inconveniencing as few people as possible as little as possible.
While some special interests may continue to clamor that their voices have not been heard, these calls are disingenuous. Every sector of the community has had more than enough opportunity to register their constructive criticisms and desires; that their wishes may not eventually be reflected wholesale in the new gTLD process does not mean that they have been ignored. It is also clear that some issues, such as vertical integration, will never be resolved to the satisfaction of all interested parties. That is an unfortunate situation, but the solution is not to delay the process still further while the community beats its head against a wall, attempting to reach a consensus that will never be found.
Even if ICANN were to publish a guidebook tomorrow that was wholly acceptable to everybody and appeased every interest, the first round of applications would still certainly highlight problems and issues that nobody had previously considered. Post-launch revision and improvement of the application process is inevitable, even desirable, no matter how elegantly the first-round Applicant Guidebook is constructed and no matter how broad the support it receives.
In ICANN, it is important for all voices to be heard. They have. As the ICANN Board surely appreciates, the time for distraction, for catering to eleventh-hour special-interest surprises, has passed. No more distractions are needed. It is now the time for focus, leadership, and above all the timeliness that was supposed to be an integral part of the process from the outset. There's still time for ICANN to prove that it is worthy of the trust placed in it by the community and a capable manager of the internet's critical resources.
By Johnny Du, VP, StableTone Ltd
|Data Center||Policy & Regulation|
|DNS Security||Regional Registries|
|Domain Names||Registry Services|
|Intellectual Property||Top-Level Domains|
|Internet of Things||Web|
|Internet Protocol||White Space|
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