ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade gave an alarming assessment of the state of the New gTLD program last week during a candid discussion with registry providers at ICANN meetings in Amsterdam, according to this report from DomainIncite's Kevin Murphy.
Below are various quotes by Mr. Chehade's discussion:
1. "Honestly, if it was up to me, I would delay the whole release of new gTLDs by at least a year."
2. "… a lot of the foundations that I would be comfortable with, as someone who has built businesses before, are just not yet there."
3. "We have people who took six years to write the [new gTLD Applicant] Guidebook and we're asking engineers and software people and third-party vendors and hundreds of people to get that whole program running in six months."
4. "When the number two at IBM called me, Erich Clementi, after we signed the deal with them to do the [Trademark Clearinghouse] he said 'Are you nuts?'. Literally, quote. He said: 'Fadi you've built these systems for us before. You know it takes three times the amount of time it takes to write the specs to build reliable systems.'"
5. "We're facing a difficult situation, we're working hard as we can, our people are at the edge."
6. "I don't mean to scare you, because I know many of your businesses rely on this, but the right people are now in place, we're building it as fast as we can but I want you to understand that this is tough, and I wish it were different. I wish you would all raise your hands and say: 'You know what? Let's take a break and meet in a year'."
7. "I don't want to delay this program, but under all circumstances my mind would tell me: stop."
It was admirable for Mr. Chehade to stand up and talk frankly about the state of the New gTLD program. It is important for everyone going through the process of applying for a New gTLD to understand the constraints and limitations that ICANN is dealing with as it tries to implement the program, as well as the wider Internet community that will be affected by the new extensions.
That said, these statements should give everyone tremendous cause for concern about the state of the New gTLD program. At its core, Mr. Chehade doesn't think the organization can deliver on what it has promised. This will add considerable fuel to the skeptic's argument that the New gTLD program is not ready for prime time. As a threshold matter there are a number of questions that ICANN needs to address immediately in the wake of these comments in order to restore confidence in ICANN and the New gTLD program itself:
How Did We Get Here?
First, why is ICANN in this predicament? It seems like tucked into these comments is the underlying rationale that the ICANN folks who had been minding the store prior to Mr. Chehade coming on board in June, 2012, not only had unrealistic expectations that ICANN could execute the roll-out schedule, but that they also failed to put together the talent and team that could execute the New gTLD program regardless of the aggressive schedule.
On January 26, 2012 former ICANN CEO Rod Beckstrom issued the following statement on his blog which was titled "ICANN Stands Ready For New gTLD Launch":
"On Tuesday 3 January 2012, our executive team met with Michael Salazar, New gTLD Program Director, to review ICANN's readiness to open the application window [...].
We carefully reviewed every critical aspect. Each executive was called on to indicate whether his or her group is fully prepared to fulfill their role in supporting the program. While we noted the ongoing presence of risks that were identified and highlighted to the Board and community in June, and the mitigation steps that have been taken, each executive indicated approval to proceed. As a result, Chief Operating Officer Akram Atallah and Salazar gave me the green light to move forward."
So what happened? Mr. Atallah is still at ICANN (and was interim CEO) and Mr. Chehade considers him a key manager in overseeing the present implementation of the program. But if Mr. Atallah gave ICANN the green light to go forward a year ago, why is it scrambling now to get up to speed? ICANN needs to explain this sequence, and the progress it has made in the past year, to justify the very clear statement from that blog post that "we are prepared to move forward and to open the program as planned."
Get In Front Of The Problems/Issues
Second, the issues that ICANN are facing do not sound like the "teething problems" Mr. Chehade referred to in the press. Instead, it sounds like getting the New gTLD system up and running is a gargantuan programming and database task that will take a great deal more time and resources (including people) than have been focused on completing this work (at least until recently). Maybe this is a case where the time constraints and necessity of an imposed "deadline" are part of the "final push" toward implementation? As the Mythical Man-Month posited way back in 1975, "large software projects get delayed by a year, one day at a time." Mr. Chehade's comments do not sound like those of a CEO confident that his team can deliver as long as they work overtime in the next few months. ICANN needs to explain more fully its progress (or lack of progress) and how it plans to meet the deadlines it has set for building and running the necessary systems.
The World Is Watching
Third, it is simply naive to think that the Internet community is going to give ICANN room to make mistakes with the New gTLD program. In fact, the world is going to be watching ICANN all the more closely as roll-out dates approach. The New gTLD program has been controversial since the day it was first contemplated and has been the subject of negative publicity and skepticism from governments, trade associations, industry experts, and some of the world's leading companies and brand owners.1 The founding chairwoman of ICANN, Esther Dyson is on record in testimony before the U.S. Congress as saying that she sees the program as unnecessary and part of a "sleazy" business model. Mr. Chehade must know that the wider Internet community (beyond the registry community) is not going to give ICANN a break if the program develops problems. Opinions like Dyson's are only going to gain traction in such circumstances. ICANN must act in a transparent and prudent way to get in front of the potential problems the New gTLD program is facing - simply asking for patience is not going to be sufficient and could jeopardize the public's faith in ICANN and its ability to execute the New gTLD program if implementation is botched.
Stability, Security And Confidence In The Internet Is Job #1
Lastly, although it was admirable for Mr. Chehade to speak frankly with the community and explain the challenges ahead, ICANN has a very clear mandate, as per Section 1 of the ICANN By-Laws:
"The mission of [...] ("ICANN") is to coordinate, at the overall level, the global Internet's systems of unique identifiers, and in particular to ensure the stable and secure operation of the Internet's unique identifier systems."
Very few people want to think about the nuts-and-bolts implementation of the New gTLD program and the very guts of the Internet. They want it to "just work." The challenges that many have predicted or foreseen from the beginning are showing up in a pretty negative way. ICANN should not put millions of new domain names into the DNS system without the confidence that it can effectively manage the process and maintain Internet stability. This is not simply about passing applicants through the process smoothly and getting them online, but more importantly ensuring that once the new gTLD's are "up and running" that they are functioning properly and meeting their operational and service requirements. The Chairman of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, Mr. John Liebowitz, has stated his security concerns publicly, explaining that the FTC has "...been very, very concerned about ICANN and their dramatic expansion of the domain names, which we think will cause consumer confusion and even worse lead to more areas where malefactors can hide from the law while defrauding consumers...".
ICANN must also look past mere implementation of the New gTLD program and make sure it has sufficient resources to maintain Internet security. In a February 2010 paper entitled "Proposed Initiatives for Improved DNS Security, Stability and Resiliency," ICANN discussed the importance of integrating registry providers, registrars, law enforcement, security researchers, governments, and the like as part of maintaining security in advance of the New gTLD program. The security mission is still critical and cannot be compromised in order to push the process forward. As noted at the end of the February 2010 paper: "[t]he security, stability and resiliency challenges facing the DNS are rising. ICANN has significant responsibilities under its bylaws and the Affirmation of Commitments to work with the DNS community to address those challenges."
Mr. Chehade has his work cut out for him. He has to restore confidence in his plan with the public and at the same time provide leadership to his ICANN team. They need to feel that they can actually deliver on this task. While he said last week that he would not delay the New gTLC program ("I know none of you want to hear this, and I'm not going to do this — let me repeat, I'm not going to do this...") he is obligated after these public comments to give a good reason why there won't be a delay, and why things will work as promised. If not, perhaps taking a few more months to get things right is more important than hitting arbitrary deadlines.
1 See The Trademark and Copyright Law Blog published by Foley & Hoag LLP, Dec. 11, 2011 – reporting on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation hearing on ICANN’s domain name expansion.
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