With the ICANN Silicon Valley in San Francisco meeting just six short weeks away, the Internet community's hopes of seeing the launch of the new generic top-level domains (gTLD) program have been once again reinvigorated. A meeting of the ICANN Board of Directors last week produced encouraging resolutions that have given hopeful gTLD applicants the clearest indication yet that San Francisco will be the venue for the final approval of the Applicant Guidebook and the beginning of the Internet's next extraordinary phase of evolution.
The Board resolved "that it intends to progress toward launching the New gTLD Program, as close as practically possible to the form as set out in the Proposed Final Applicant Guidebook" and that it "shall" hold the final Governmental Advisory Committee consultation demanded by its bylaws on March 17. The consultation will be limited to topics raised by the GAC related to new gTLDs, the Board said. This prepares the ground for the Board to approve the Guidebook, with any necessary last-minute tweaks, on March 18, the final day of the San Francisco meeting.
The January 25 resolutions represent the kind of strong, decisive action that many of us in the ICANN community have been calling for for months. They are the clearest guidance ICANN has given of its intentions in months and the closest thing we've had to a launch timetable since the last one was abandoned at the Cartagena meeting in December. Anybody with an interest in ICANN's credibility and longevity should take heart that its Board has shown itself able to draw lines in the sand when and where they are needed. Further delays now would serve only to cast ICANN as a bottomless pit of fruitless talk, rather than the effective technical coordinator it was designed to be.
Before San Francisco, of course, comes Brussels, February 28 and March 1. The ICANN Board will hold two days of consultations with the GAC — which will be open to observers, scribed and Webcast — in order to determine what the GAC's remaining concerns specifically are, and whether any middle-ground can be reached. It is still not completely clear how these talks will proceed, but we should all hope that the full two days can be devoted to debating substantive issues, rather than process. The community does not need to see more pointless power plays and procedural point-scoring, we need to hear the honest and open debate of the issues that often has previously been lacking.
It is everyone's hope that ICANN and the GAC will be able to reach mutually satisfactory agreements on the main issues. Some governments may intend to propose ideas so radical that they will depart significantly from the policies currently outlined in the Proposed Final Applicant Guidebook. The ICANN Board should treat these ideas with due caution, not merely because they may derail the planned launch timetable, but also because they may fly in the face of the compromise positions so carefully constructed and extensively debated by the diverse stakeholders of the ICANN community over the last four years. While the GAC may feel some of its suggestions were ignored in 2007, it is far too late now to press the reset button on the Guidebook. Another four years of revision and debate could well prove fatal to the gTLD program and to ICANN in general.
There will undoubtedly be areas where the GAC's input in Brussels will be useful and beneficial to the Guidebook and the new gTLD program in general. These will likely consist of modifications to existing policy that could be gracefully implemented without the need for further lengthy community consultations, as well as longer-term improvements that do not necessarily need to be incorporated into the first-round of applications. ICANN would be wise to take this advice into account where appropriate. Some GAC recommendations that would be overly burdensome to implement today may prove useful in Applicant Guidebooks for subsequent application rounds.
But to embark upon a comprehensive reconfiguration of the first-round Guidebook at this late stage, on the basis solely of radical thirteenth-hour GAC advice, would run counter to ICANN's longstanding commitment to its multi-stakeholder policy-development process. As ICANN's CEO, Rod Beckstrom, told the United Nations in New York, shortly after the close of the Cartagena meeting in December: "The multi-stakeholder model is not the problem. It's the solution. It can shape more effective public/private partnerships in the New Internet Nation State. ICANN is founded on consensus-based, bottom-up, policy development processes. No single group holds undue influence." That final sentence should be at the forefront of the ICANN Board's mind when they arrive in Brussels.
When everybody else arrives in San Francisco less than two weeks later, their minds should not have to linger under a cloud of uncertainty. The community has been waiting a long time for the new gTLD program to commence, and they could use the peace of mind of knowing that the contents of the Final Applicant Guidebook, whatever they look like post-Brussels, are in fact final. San Francisco may be the most well-attended conference in ICANN history. It should be a time applicants can use to explore or begin to finalize their partnerships, launch their marketing campaigns, and engage constructively with other members of the community in the knowledge that the end is in sight. The open-microphone public session in San Francisco should be a time for community members to stand up and thank ICANN's Board for its commitments, not to beg or to threaten.
By Johnny Du, VP, StableTone Ltd
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