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A Sustainable Framework For The Deployment Of New gTLDs

Ross Rader

At the Fourth Annual Meeting of the ICANN Board in Amsterdam, the ICANN Board asked the DNSO Names Council (who have since become "the GNSO Council”) to provide the Board with advice and input on the issues that surround the creation of new generic top-level domain names. Based on the Council's publicly documented conversations thus far, it is becoming clear that Council is moving in directions that do not seem to be consistent with the continued health of the namespace or development of a competitive market for registration and DNS services.

Not all of the blame for this can be dropped at the feet of the Council. Specifically, the Board asked the Council to consider "...whether to structure the evolution of the namespace" or not, "...and if there should be structuring, how to do so." These are leading questions that will only result in the consideration of one possible outcome, or none at all. If ICANN wishes to pursue a productive exploration of the range of alternatives, the terms of reference for this group need to be revised immediately.

The Council seems to have failed to recognize the leading nature of these questions and have not requested a less biased mandate.

Further, it seems apparent from the Council's public discussions that they are intent on disregarding a very basic principle that has quietly taken hold in domain name policy circles over the past few years — the roll-out of new gTLDs should be undertaken in a controlled, logical manner that does not disrupt the operation of existing infrastructure or services. Rather than building on this premise, it seems to be moving in an entirely different direction, namely:

That the evolution of the namespace should be structured

  • Structured evolution implies sponsorship of the gTLDs
  • That there should be a semantic connection between the gTLD and the sponsor
  • That the rules for operation of the new gTLDs should be similar to that of a franchise and therefore not "owned" by the sponsor or registry so as to permit the transfer away from a failed sponsor or registry to an alternative provider.
  • That the bid price of future applications be steep enough to discourage spurious applications, but not penalize losers beyond the actual administrative costs.

Without stating why "structure" is a Good Thing™, the Council's discussions recommend a complete structuring of the namespace, not a cautiously monitored expansion.

Had the Council followed through on the principle of logical, controlled expansion rather than breaking out in new directions, they should have been led towards a realization that the community needs a plan of work by which we can measure the success and failure of the deployment of new gTLDs while we deploy them.

This would move the debate forward. It would also put the Council at the forefront of a new era of predictable, productive and progressive expansion of the namespace.

But, the Council doesn't appear to be ready to lead us in this direction. Instead, it appears that they will recommend a structured namespace that will tend towards over-regulation with very little justification for doing so. The imposition of these well-intentioned rules will not lead to an evolution of the namespace, but instead create a few new TLDs that ultimately result in failure. This regulation will serve to strangle the vibrancy and health of the market.

The travesty is that we already know that this is the direction that over-regulation will take us. The evidence lies within the lessons that we should have learned from the prior roll-out of new TLDs, namely:

  • Picking winners is futile. The Names Council seems to pick up on this within their recommendations, but somehow conveniently forgets that this applies equally to sponsors, "strings and taxonomies" as well as operators, registrars and registrants.
  • The best-laid plans are likely not. Despite the best intentions and promises of each of the applicants in prior rounds, none of them have really lived up to their promises. Instead, faced with the realities of the marketplace, they had to adjust their approaches and implementations until they got the point that their operations were viable. Some are still in the process of tweaking, and some may never get the formula right.
  • Forcing ICANN to review generally dissatisfactory policy leads to general dissatisfaction. There was a lot that was right with the various policies that were implemented through the roll-out of the last round of new gTLDs. There was also a lot wrong with them. For instance, history is likely to remember thick registries as being massive drags on innovation and competition within this sector. Convenient yes, but extremely costly otherwise. The problem is, the prior review processes that should have caught things like this were unable to appropriately examine these important, but secondary concerns. There was simply too much to do, too few to do it and far too little time to do it in. As a result, the under-resourced, over-burdened review process produced less than optimal in many respects.

There are also positive lessons that we need to take to heart:
  • Everybody knows what it takes to run a registry. Rolling out new gTLDs forced the wizard out from behind the curtain. Big or small, thick or thin, there are very few questions concerning what it takes to run a domain name registry. I feel very confident that I could run one from home for less than $50,000 per year -a small one, but a real one nonetheless.
  • Rolling out new TLDs created repeatable processes. These processes invariably could do with improvement, but they are repeatable, and that's what's important. For instance, the process of soliciting applicants. The dot ORG rollout was a big improvement over the initial new gTLD rollout. The third one will be even better. Each of these has its roots in the same process - which is a great start.
  • Expect failure. Going into the process of launching the new gTLDs, everyone expected massive success — without exception. Now, a few years later, our expectations have been tempered by the actual results of operation. There are new gTLDs that are doing well, and there are new gTLDs that aren't. Some will fail miserably and some will enjoy some degree of the massive success that was first anticipated.

The real question that the GNSO Council should be dealing with is what sense to make of all of this. The Council needs to give us a plan — or we need to give them one.

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This article is reproduced with special permission from Tucows Inc. Copyright 2003, Tucows Inc. All rights reserved. URL.

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By Ross Rader, Director of Innovation & Research
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