As I prepare to jet off to Prague this weekend for the coming ICANN conference, I had to reflect back on the tumultuous year this has been in ICANN and the Internet world generally, especially as relates to Africa and Emerging Markets. And after all the smoke and fury, I had to ask: Is ICANN leaving Africa behind? Or could it be that it's exactly the opposite? That Africa is moving forward and ICANN is missing the party?
Certainly you can make the case that ICANN's approach to the continent has been, well, more than a few kilometers south of satisfactory. One need only think back to the public comments of Mike Silber, ICANN Board Member from South Africa, who noted just how limited ICANN's vaunted "outreach" to the continent has been in the context of the revolutionary new gTLD program. Almost no new budget at all to reach the billion people traditionally least connected to ICANN's inner workings? Really? It's hard to see how that could be ok.
So I suppose the results should not be surprising… For literally years now — ever since ICANN Kenya — I have been one of the hearty band of volunteers/lunatics (you pick) working with the JAS group to come up with a support program for underserved regions and languages as part of the new gTLD program. And after many thousands of hours spent designing a system for support, we learned that only 3 applicants actually chose to use this window and that there were only 17 new gTLD applicants from Africa — out of nearly 2,000 applications worldwide. There are many reasons, I'm sure, but people don't participate in a system they don't know exists.
Moreover, to pick up on Steve DelBianco's CircleID post from a few days ago, there could be no better ammunition for ICANN's critics in, let's say, the UN world, who argue that this failure to engage developing regions aggressively points up a need for more benevolent government involvement. Let's be clear — a UN takeover of the Internet would be a fiasco, but we live in a political world and rule number one is don't make it easy for your critics. On outreach, ICANN dropped the ball.
I contrast all of this with my week here in Washington, where on Tuesday I moderated a panel on ICT for Smart Cities at the Corporate Council on Africa's annual Africa Infrastructure summit. The event brought businesses interested in Africa together with policy and government leaders from around the continent. And the panel — which included senior execs from Oracle, Microsoft and IBM as well as the Minister of Trade from Ghana — was clear in its message. The next stages in Africa's development — and the growth opportunities for businesses on the continent, both local and international — will be firmly grounded in a HUGE expansion of Africans working in the internet space. Businesses, non-profits and governments trying to find a way to protect IP, create policies to offer opportunities to citizens and build a web-enabled future… sounded a lot like ICANN to me.
At the closing panel one of the speakers, a Minister from Zambia, got up and all but chided the US business leaders — but he could have been talking to ICANN as well in my opinion. "We're moving", he said (and I paraphrase here). "And while we want to work with you, we can't wait any longer for you to reach out to us. If you can't get focused on working with Africa", he suggested, "others will, and we'll go on without you."
Whether or not there could have been demand for many more new gTLDs from Africa is anyone's guess. And I certainly wish .Africa and the other African applicants well. But with the new gTLD program we as an Internet community missed a big opportunity to show we are focused on the billion potential African users and others in Emerging Markets. When ICANN's new CEO comes on board, I hope he'll make the extra effort to catch up with Africa… while that's still possible.
By Andrew Mack, Principal at AMGlobal Consulting
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