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Tempted by the Caesar solution [Guest Post]

Stéphane Van Gelder, March 19, 2013, 09:28:30 (UTC), Domain Policy

The ICANN leadership is in a hurry, so to get things done, it is cutting corners.

One such attempt at going straight around a bend, the proposed changes to the new gTLD registry contract giving the ICANN Board unilateral right of amendment, has raised the registries’ ire.

ICANN’s other group of contracted parties (i.e. entities that must contract directly with ICANN to operate), the registrars, are also up in arms following ICANN’s inclusion of the same proposal at the eleventh hour of ongoing negotiations on their contract.

ICANN’s new leadership team, headed by newly appointed CEO Fadi Chehadé, has been rightly praised since he took office in the second half of 2012. This team has a business background, and it is attempting to apply business logic and business solutions to a number of obvious problems with ICANN.

The main one is predictability. ICANN is just not good at setting timelines, or keeping to those timelines it does manage to set.

In the past, that used to be annoying to stakeholders. But since the Board approved the new gTLD program in 2008, this trait has become excruciating.

This program has spawned a new industry, bought new interests into the ICANN environment, generated large-scale investments on the premise of future TLDs, and shone the spotlight on ICANN’s weaknesses to such business ventures.

Having a constantly slipping timeline as the new gTLD program did through much of its implementation phase, from that 2008 Board green light to the June 2011 Board resolution finally turning it into an operational reality, is a nightmare for any business.

So trying to fix this is a worthy goal. But the ICANN model is not only about business. It is first and foremost about community-driven policy-development and oversight. The new gTLD program is the result of such a process. One that the new ICANN leadership is finding cumbersome enough to want to cut through.

There have been a few mistakes made in this area in the last few months, but they seemed like honest missteps from a motivated team of result-getters. A team that apologized for those mistakes when they became apparent. A welcome change at ICANN.

But now, almost six months into the new leadership’s reign the veil is starting to lift and the leadership’s real visage to appear.

Last week, ICANN’s policymaking body for gTLDs, the GNSO, was unanimous in its denunciation of the leadership’s attempts at making the ICANN train go faster than it was engineered to.

During the GNSO Council’s monthly teleconference, the various groups that make up the GNSO’s diverse community all seemed to speak with one voice.

In a blog post written after the call and entitled “Clearing Up the Logjam: Time for ICANN to Drop Request for a Unilateral Right to Amend the Agreements”, GNSO Councillor Jeff Neuman, a representative of the Registry Stakeholder Group and a past Vice Chair of the Council, said the following:

A very rare thing happened in the GNSO Council meeting this week—the ICANN community spoke with one voice. Registries, registrars, non-commercial interests, new TLD applicants, IP owners and businesses unanimously and unambiguously agreed that giving ICANN a “unilateral right to amend” the registry and registrar agreements is not compatible with ICANN’s bottom-up processes and poses a fundamental threat to the multi-stakeholder model. There is true consensus that this change should be rejected.

ICANN COO Akram Attalah participated in the GNSO Council meeting and explained that this was not a done deal and that the leadership was in listening mode.

Except it all seems to be going in one ear and out the other.

A couple of days later, on March 15, ICANN Staff gave the Council an unofficial response by publishing a paper in which it explains its rationale for the unilateral change suggestion. It says:

The Board-approved amendment process is drafted to address a key concern of ICANN in this changing marketplace. What if the gTLD registration market develops in a way that is anticonsumer, yet very favorable to the existing registries or registrars. In this situation, it would be against the business interests of the incumbent registries or registrars to adopt a change – even when the broader community supports the change. Particularly in light of the “perpetual” renewal terms that are already in place within the proposed agreements, this limited power of the Board is the only way to introduce this type of change over the life of the agreements.

The real message is clear. The current leadership does not trust the ICANN multi-stakeholder bottom-up policy development process. Period.

So in cases of extreme necessity, the Board must have absolute power to enact the changes it sees fit. Experienced ICANN community member and former GNSO Council Chair Avri Doria calls this leadership’s tenure ICANN 3.0, and charts ICANN’s progress thus: “ICANN 1.0 – Democracy, ICANN 2.0 – Oligarchy, ICANN 3.0 – Imperium.”

Is a term which describes the absolute power given to the rulers of ancient Rome suited to ICANN? Of course not. But if a little caricature can help turn the ICANN leadership away from this temptation to get things done at all costs, then maybe it is needed.

This is a guest post by domain name industry consultant Stephane Van Gelder of Stephane Van Gelder Consulting. He has served as chair of the GNSO Council and is currently a member of ICANN’s Nominating Committee.

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Comments (2)

  1. gpmgroup says:

    ICANN 2.0 made a lot of mistakes, for example granting private monopoly positions effectively in perpetuity under the auspices of consumer protection through competition beggar’s belief.

    The whole thinking was fundamentally flawed, as we will no doubt see as many of these new fangled money making schemes unravel.

    Relaxing the controls and framework ICANN 1.0 put in place, simply because some contracted parties and some would be contracted parties felt it would help them make more money, was at the expense of consumer protections and needs to be redressed.

  2. John Berryhill says:

    I, for one, find reference to a “Caesar Solution” in mid-March to be in very poor taste.

    But Stephane has said it, and Stephane is an honorable man.

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