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A Little Flexibility from ICANN and We Might Just Get IDNs… for Everyone

Andrew Mack

Nobody doubts that some time in the near future there will be Internationalized Domain Names (IDNs) in Chinese, Russian or Arabic scripts. The Chinese, Russian and Arabic-character-using worlds are large — encompassing hundreds of millions of current and potential users. They are politically influential blocs, with the ability to demand action in international meetings. And perhaps most importantly, they are — at least when taken together — rich. Everybody knows that access on the web in these languages is not a matter of if, but simply a question of when…

But what about the poorer nations of the world that use scripts other than the largest IDNs and the typical Latin character set currently available on the net? What about Amharic, or Georgian, Azeri or Thai, Burmese or Cambodian? Doesn't the internet community have a goal of reaching out to them in their own languages too? The answer is yes, but I fear that despite the rhetoric, some of ICANN's policies may actually end up creating disincentives for companies wishing to fully build out the IDN space.

To listen to the words of Rod Beckstrom, ICANN's new-ish leader, the community's goal is to help make the internet available to anyone in their own language — and in their own character set or script. And, as we heard during the Seoul ICANN meeting last year — there was actually a celebratory cocktail to usher in the new IDN age — IDNs are the future. Still, work on Chinese, Korean and the like is only the beginning. There are dozens of scripts out there.

However, there is potentially a real flaw in ICANN's planning that threatens to upend this vision of universal IDN access, effectively leaving some scripts "out in the cold". Under ICANN's new gTLD implementation plan as presently proposed, registries operating existing gTLDs (or those hoping to operate new ones) will be required to apply for each IDN version separately… and pay full fees for each one. This directly impacts the go/no go decision for registry operators who need to make a reasonable "business case" for each script that they apply for, in order to justify the high application costs. And, while these costs might seem trivial for gTLDs in, say, Chinese or Arabic, this policy pretty much ensures that registry operators (new or old) will leave some scripts undeveloped.

The likely upshot is that the gTLD revolution going on around the world will bypass Georgian, Burmese, and Amharic entirely… furthering the digital divide.

There may be a solution, if ICANN has the flexibility to adjust its policies. Many of the evaluation costs in the new gTLD process are duplicated. As just one example, if a potential registry operator applies for multiple gTLDs, it is likely that most technical qualifications will only have to be evaluated once. This would lower ICANN's evaluation costs, and should lead to reduced application costs as well, leading to more competition for (and interest in) smaller scripts. And there may be other ways to lower the barriers to entry so that companies large and small will be able to make the business case for a truly, fully IDN-friendly internet.

At every ICANN and Internet Governance Forum meeting we hear about the need to make the internet an equal- (or at least more equal-) access platform, one that respects language and culture diversity. Lowering the costs for companies wanting to provide IDN access in less popular scripts is one obvious, tangible way to make this happen. A little flexibility could go a long way to providing a real internet future for the millions that speak and write Armenian or Burmese or a host of other languages.

By Andrew Mack, Principal at AMGlobal Consulting

Related topics: Domain Names, ICANN, Multilinguism, Top-Level Domains, Web

 
   
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Comments

IDN Fast Track and IDN wiki....on the way to solve digital divide Tina Dam  –  Mar 08, 2010 11:24 PM PDT

Hi Andrew, I agree with you that it is important that all language communities have equal access to the Internet, and in fact if you have listened to staff-IDN presentations you will have heard that several times. We do not treat the larger language groups any different than the smaller ones, the richer versus the poorer - they are all equal.

That said, as we need to work via policies and processes, it is absolutely sometimes hard to get this all completely right. I think we are on the right path though. Some of the issues you raise are not issues in the Fast Track process for example - here any country/territory in the ISO-3166-1 list can participate, requesting new TLDS expressed in their official languages. That includes many (although not all, since not all are official languages in a country or territory) of the languages, such as the ones you mention.  In terms of fee's I beleive the model in place is _very_ flexible and does not create an un-necessary barrier for participation. Furthermore, the Fast Track Process is purposely limited to the non-Latin scripts, and thereby aiming at nations like those you mention.

Another area I wanted to bring to attention is the IDN wiki (http://idn.icann.org), where we so far have the following languages represented: Arabic, Chinese, Greek, Hindi, Japanese, Korean, Persian, Russian, Tamil, Yiddish, Amharic, Bengali, Hebrew, Khmer, Thai, Urdu. It is completely open for participation by anyone interested, so hopefully we will get additional language involved as well.

That said, IDNs is only one means of providing better Internet access to many users, others relate to getting actual physical access to the Internet, which is still limited in many regions.

Tina Dam
Senior Director, IDNs
ICANN

Tina,Thanks for posting. I find it quite Constantine Roussos  –  Mar 09, 2010 4:13 PM PDT

Tina,

Thanks for posting. I find it quite interesting that you have managed to get the ICANN Board to vote on launching the IDN ccTLD process without addressing the "overarching" issues that are plaguing the gTLD program. I believe that most "overarching" issues are not solvable issues and just the mere fact that the ICANN Board supporting Fast Track proves my point.

Looking at trademarks in IDNs and big brands, I see no issue. Actually I see this as a HUGE opportunity for brand owners to leverage IDNs in different countries in different languages. These are new opportunities. I am 100% sure brands can leverage their products/services in new IDN markets and make profits. In the end in business it is all about bottom line. I do not see the makers of Avatar complaining about piracy, given that they have shattered all records in movie making history. IP protection is only relevant if it matters. Being too restrictive can be damaging.

Unlike the IDN teat it seems, there is an issue of diminishing returns within the gTLD program and that there are too many ICANN staff involved and they are not being productive. You can work hard but that does not mean you are producing where it really matters. Quite the contrary, they are condoning new "overarching issue" creation and do not seem to put in a timeline to resolve the "supposed" issues.

I will look at the main issues again:

Trademarks: These mechanisms already exist in the marketplace. Unnecessary resources and time is wasted implementing things such as IP Clearinghouses. I see no point to it. I commend you for not making the ccTLD IDN program an ICANN trademark enforcement exercise. I find it fascinating that even the GNSO can not see this and that the Board does not see this. Use some common sense and look how the Internet functions in the year 2010 and devise solutions for that. I sometimes wonder whether the ICANN community is too technical for its own good. Please look at the marketplace and ask people HOW they find websites. Most use Google and Social Media. 99% of users do NOT search direct-to-browser. If they do, they use "keyword".com. So I am not sure why we are wasting time with trademarks. The real cost to brands will be nearly zero. Wasting money on protecting trademarks across all TLDs is pointless because people do not search that way. Do you or others think that users will search for "cocacola.hotel" or even "cocacola.drink" direct to browser and change their search behavior? I did a survey in downtown LA and Santa Monica and found that only 1% knew any of the new TLDs out there (.travel, .pro, .tel, .aero, .museum). Let us assume that someone illegally registers cocacola.drink and it is not CocaCola. Do you actually believe that people will search for it? It will not be in the search engines because Google/Bing/Yahoo/Ask weigh link popularity and incoming links as a critical factor to ranking. When was the last time you saw a parked page ranked in the search results for a relavent competitive term?

You look at all the cybersquatters/typosquatters actually making money: it is all in .com or typos in .cm ccTLD or soon-to-launch .co. ICANN needs to do some logical research and use some common sense. The ICANN community take pride in knowing how the internet works technically but are disconnected with reality with how the Internet is working otherwise. Again my personal belief dealing with all these meetings and countless, meaningless discussions.

Vertical Integration: If you want innovation, you need vertical integration. Freedom to innovate and come up with new offerings is essential, especially for restricted communities.

Malicious Conduct: There is no way ICANN can solve online fraud, phishing and illegal behavior. How is this an issue? Why don't we include world peace in here? I think resources should point to educating users more. Most activities happen due to human error (eg easy password).

Economic Demand: Why is this still on the table? My .music initiative has shown that with the right business plan and offerings, you can create demand and offer new solutions and opportunities. This should be scrapped. It is anti-ICANN because ICANN bylaws say you need to introduce competition. How is this an "overarching" issue?

The leadership team on the gTLD program needs to become more consistent and firm with decisions and not be scared to say "yes" or "no" about things. People are fed up of the "maybes" or "let's have a discussion about this or create another workgroup." I am not saying that the existing gTLD team is incompetent but I am saying that they are indecisive and not productive. Make a difference in areas that REALLY matter.

I applaud that the ICANN Board voted for IDN ccTLDs. I am convinced that the gTLD program has too much staff on board and too many promises are being made by too many people. The law of diminishing returns is a reality. I am guessing the reason why the Fast Track ran more smoothly was because the IDN team was smaller and a bit more logical and firm with timelines, dates and saying "yes" or "no" and following through.

Good work on the IDN ccTLDs and I hope I see Greek on the browser soon. Also glad that I helped bring Cyprus in the GAC.

Hopefully the Board will make the right decisions on everything. Again I congratulate you on the Fast Track and I hope the gTLD counterparts get with the program as well ASAP.

Constantine Roussos
.music

The $185K fee already assumes that efficiency Richard J Tindal  –  Mar 09, 2010 5:26 AM PDT

Andrew,

I support your goal, but I think ICANN staff have already done want you want (at least the example you gave).  The methodology they used to come up with the $185K fee already makes assumptions about multiple applications using the same back-end technical operator.  Currently the benefits of that efficiency are offered to all applicants (via an averaging of the fee). 

Richard

Let's be creative and get pricing that gets us the end we all want Andrew Mack  –  Mar 15, 2010 1:38 PM PDT

I appreciate the responses of Tina and Richard. 

To Tina, I know a great deal of work has gone into the creation of new gTLD policy, and the entire community appreciates these efforts.  That said, the fact that a script can become part of the process doesn't mean that it WILL.  We all know it costs money to build out in different scripts, and simply put, unless we find a way to "bundle" smaller scripts with larger ones, I can't see how Thai or Khmer or any one of the smaller scripts will actually move forward in a way significant enough to really empower these language communities on the web.  Some sort of "piggybacking" or package deals (effectively enabling one provider to do a whole series of IDNs) would strike me as the best option, since it is not a subsidy per se, but rather a way of incentivizing providers that are already going to make money in the IDN space, hence a win-win for the community.

To Richard's point, from what I understand the $185k number is calculated as an average.  Hence the idea that you would charge everyone the same price for what are essentially very different goods doesn't really make sense to me.  The value to a potential provider of a gTLD in Amharic can't possibly be what it might be in Chinese.  So if this is an average, why not make the less desirable property cheaper?  After all, real estate where I grew up in Cincinnati is cheaper than it is in San Francisco.  And if the issue is cost recovery, let's draw that circle as narrowly as we can, not trying to "cost recover" sunk costs from the past as seems to be part of the $185 number.

In the end, we as a community have consistently expressed our interest in having a playing field that is open to all.  If this means we have to show some creativity and flexibility in pricing, it would seem a worthwhile price to pay.

We'll find a way to make it work Richard J Tindal  –  Mar 16, 2010 6:38 AM PDT

I think we'll find a solution to this.  As you know, the Board passed a Resolution in Nairobi establishing a Working Group whose mission is a to find a sustainable way to support limited-resource applicants.  I plan to be in that Group, as I'm sure you will.  We'll find a way to allow these applicants to participate in the process.

RT

Late follow-up and some IDN ccTLD Tina Dam  –  Apr 13, 2010 1:06 PM PDT

Hi Andrew, sorry for the late follow-up. I agree with you to a large extend - but it is unfortunately not always that simple. Some of your comments belong to the gTLD team, which I am not a member of. So just a reminder to take it to the gTLD comment forums.

But, that said, I hope you saw the newly announced IDN ccTLD progress. It may be that some scripts and languages are difficult to get represented in gTLDs, but then there is the IDN ccTLD option. We now have the following countries/territories completed in String Evaulation:

Saudi-Arabia, Egypt, United Arab Emirates, Russia, China, Hong Kong, Palestine, Qatar, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand, Tunisia

The corresponding IDN ccTLDs can be seen here:http://icann.org/en/topics/idn/fast-track/string-evaluation-completion-en.htm

It may not be enough, but surely a good step in the right direction. In terms of finacial support I dont think i can help, but surely when it comes to information, explaining the criteria and the processes I am around anytime!

Tina

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