Should new gTLDs be delayed?

Kevin Murphy, August 31, 2011, 12:57:44 (UTC), Domain Policy

Is the world ready for the new generic top-level domains program? Is ICANN ready?

It’s been well over two months since ICANN approved its new gTLD program, and the initial sense of excitement and purpose in the industry seems to have given way to virtual silence from ICANN and a profound lack of audible enthusiasm from the internet at large.

What’s going on with the program? Where’s the final Applicant Guidebook? Who are the experts ICANN is going to hire to actually decide which applications succeed or fail?

Is four months really sufficient time to put the world on notice that new gTLDs are coming and to give everybody enough opportunity to prepare?

Is anybody outside the industry even paying attention?

Read this quote (with my emphasis) from Friday’s wrap-up session at the .nxt conference in San Francisco and see if you can guess whose mouth it came out of.

My takeaways, if I can run through them quickly…

…a sense of relief that this program is finally underway as of June 20 has suddenly now turned into a worry. There’s a whole lot of people who can’t believe it’s happening, and there’s a sense of worry that it’s all going to happen too fast. So that’s quite interesting. There’s a hell of a lot that has to be done between now and launch.

Some things are not yet done… We haven’t got the information about the [Trademark] Clearinghouse yet, we don’t know what the [Governmental Advisory Committee] processes are going to be, and we actually have to design registry systems and explain those two to customers and show how they are going to fit together and we can’t. So there’s a problem there about the rush.

You may be thinking that those are the words of some naysayer in a stuffed shirt – a hater from the trademark lobby or the advertising industry who wants to put the stoppers on new gTLDs.

Actually, that’s the opinion of Peter Dengate Thrush, who was chairman of the ICANN board of directors when it voted to approve the program, despite concerns that it wasn’t ready yet, in June.

Dengate Thrush is now of course executive chairman of Minds + Machines, which is in the position of actually having to deal with the program in its incomplete state.

His words were, I believe, offered up as an analysis of the mood of the conference, rather than some kind of mea culpa, if you were wondering about the context or tone.

Nevertheless, he had a point.

Here are some of things that don’t seem to have been finalized yet:

The Applicant Guidebook

Incredibly, the most recent version of the application rulebook posted on the ICANN web site dates from May. It’s still essentially still an almost-done draft document.

ICANN’s board voted in June to amend the Applicant Guidebook before the first round of applications opens.

So, where is it? Where’s the final Guidebook?

Who’s going to sign a check investing in new gTLDs when the rules are still open to change?

Still minding the GAC

How, precisely, will the Governmental Advisory Committee decide whether to intervene to thwart a gTLD application on public policy grounds?

ICANN has agreed to let the GAC make up its own rules governing how it reaches consensus before it objects to applications, but so far it has not said what those rules are going to be.

If you think you might apply for a potentially controversial gTLD string – or even if you don’t – you still don’t have enough information today to make a fully informed risk analysis.

Your best strategy right now might be to ensure that your string complies with Sharia, or to pay off a bunch of government officials to ensure they fight your corner.

Where are the experts?

ICANN has not yet named the company or individuals who have been or will be hired to process the hundreds of gTLD applications that are likely to be received next year.

As Dengate Thrush noted, it also hasn’t appointed a Trademark Clearinghouse, which is a critical component of two mandatory new gTLD rights protection mechanisms.

Currently, it’s hard to say for certain what integration between registries and the Clearinghouse will entail financially or technologically.

That may not be an enormous problem, but it could make writing an application slightly trickier.

Watching the watchmen

ICANN is in receipt of letters from competition authorities in the US and European Union, telling it in fairly blunt terms that its decision to allow registries and registrars to integrate is Bad Policy.

The rules that separate registrars like Go Daddy from registries such as VeriSign have been good for consumers, they say, and should be kept in place under the new gTLD regime.

ICANN, also in its June 20 vote, has already agreed to talk to these authorities about possibly scaling back the proposed liberalization of the vertical integration rules.

But if this is already happening, it’s happening behind closed doors, because we’ve not heard a peep about it from ICANN or the two governments since June.

If this situation escalates when everybody gets back from vacation, I will not be surprised.

Where’s the outreach?

ICANN has promised a four-month communications campaign before the start of the first round of applications. That means it has to kick off by September 12, just two weeks from now.

This campaign actually began at the press conference about half an hour after the June 20 board vote, ICANN president Rod Beckstrom said at the time, but apart from a couple of plaintive cries for help there’s been precious little visible outreach since then.

Director Bertrand de La Chapelle evidently gave Beckstrom a hard time about this during a board meeting a month ago, according to the minutes.

A new ICANN web site devoted to new gTLDs is expected to launch next month, and I understand that staff including Beckstrom will hit the road for a world tour around the same time.

But given the recent mock outrage from ad industry shills such as the Association of National Advertisers, it’s arguably a little late for ICANN to start to worry about framing the issue.

Most people reading about new gTLDs in the press the last few weeks probably came away thinking new gTLDs are nothing but a money grab by registries and cybersquatters/domainers.

(It is that, of course, but it’s lots of other nicer things too.)

From a public relations perspective, ICANN will be starting on the back foot. Its outreach efforts may turn out to be not be so much about educating the world about its program but re-educating it.

Oh, and it only has $750,000 to pull off this feat.

As a very wise man said at .nxt on Friday: “The size and scale of that [budget] doesn’t really match up to the problem it’s trying to address.”

(Yeah, that was Dengate Thrush again)

Welcome to the cheap seats

ICANN has committed $2 million from reserves to a mechanism whereby needy applicants from developing nations will be able to get a discount (TBC) on their application fees.

That mechanism does not yet exist. Such applicants are today at a disadvantage compared to their wealthier competitors when it comes to planning applications and raising funds.

A volunteer working group known as JAS has been working out the details, meeting by phone two or three times a week, but reaching consensus seems to have been a very tough slog.

Policies developed from the bottom up have a convoluted chain of custody before they get approved. A deadline missed by a day or two can delay the ICANN rubber stamp by weeks.

The way things look today, the JAS applicant support policy is going to be cutting it extremely fine if it wants to make it before the ICANN board’s October meeting in Dakar.

Wither round two?

Perhaps the most intractable problem underlying the whole program is the absence of a launch date for the second-round application window.

Speakers at the .nxt conference last week reckoned lawsuits over individual contested gTLDs are inevitable, and that they could delay the second round until as late as 2017, if it happens at all.

It’s in that context that large companies, already nervous about entering into a new, unmeasurable, unproven marketing paradigm, are being asked to commit potentially millions to new gTLDs today.

It’s arguably like being asked, in 1991, to pay $500,000 for sex.com, with no idea whether this newfangled “hypertext” thing is going to take off.

Sounds like a great deal today, but back then it would have sounded like a 419 scam.

As Yahoo lawyer J Scott Evans said at .nxt, many companies feel they have “a gun to their heads”.

It’s hardly surprising some of them have persuaded their trade groups to lobby against the program, threatening to bring their pocket Congressmen down on ICANN’s head and/or file a lawsuit or two.

Which brings me to my headline

Which brings me to my headline. Would another delay be good for the new gTLD program?

If the ANA were to sic its lawyers on ICANN tomorrow, would a temporary restraining order that delayed the program by a few month actually be healthy for it in the longer term?

A great many people and organizations that could make valuable contributions to the domain name industry will not have heard about new gTLDs before June 20.

A delay before January could give ICANN and its community a bit more time to smooth away the rough edges of the program and to address the issues that have not yet been resolved.

It could give potential applicants from outside the established community more time to decide whether to engage with the program, more time to raise funds or secure budgets, and more time to develop their new gTLD application strategies.

I’m referring here not only to large corporations with lengthy budgeting cycles, but also to entrepreneurs with cool ideas and meager resources that perhaps need more time to be able to get on board.

Could a delay also increase the proportion of applicants from outside Europe and North America, and the proportion of IDN gTLD applicants who truly understand their markets?

Bluntly, would a short delay in the launch, whether it came about as a result of legal action or not, make round one of the ICANN new gTLD program less of a clusterfuck?

Yeah, I’m playing Devil’s Advocate here

The best quote I heard during my remote participation in the .nxt conference last week was offered up by Brian Larson from DotMLS as “Larson’s Corollary to Newton’s Third Law”:

Any discussion about what the post-new-gTLD world is going to look like is inherently speculative… For any argument about the post-new-gTLD world there is an equally plausible but opposite argument.

For the avoidance of doubt, if there was any doubt in your mind, that maxim certainly applies to the opinions expressed in this article. I could just as easily write 2,000 words arguing for the opposing view.

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Comments (8)

  1. andrew says:

    It’s this sort of analysis and detailed writing that keeps bringing me back to your site, Kevin. Keep up the good work.

  2. JS says:

    excellent piece Kevin

    + with Beckstrom “leaving”, I’m not sure if ICANN has strong leadership right now.

    One thing I wanted to see a year ago was a spin off of the program for IDN equivalents of existing gTLDs. I still wish it had happened before the Singapore meeting. It sickens me how all the US centric bullshit is dragging everything down. The world is a little bit bigger than San Francisco Bay. Now we’ll see how 750k will fare in bringing up to speed the entire Asian region, Middle East, Eastern Europe, etc. to the possibilities of new gTLDs… that is, if most of the budget is not spent on explaining to US businesses how their brand will not be cybersquatted.

    a clusterfuck, you said it right.

  3. With all due respect, Thrush is engaging in reverse psychology here. The bottom line is that Thrush (and others) green-lighted this and then jumped ship to profit off of his decision. The mainstream press is picking up on the story and no matter how “concerned” he acts it’s not going to wash.

  4. JM says:

    There’s not much point in announcing something in August.

    We expect a complete and detailed announcement from ICANN in early September, followed by an in-depth outreach campaign.

    Groups then still have seven months to get their applications written and in.

    We’ve been preparing since before 2008, when the programme was announced to broad international coverage.

    If you aren’t already aware of the programme, you’re probably either living under a rock, or don’t really need to apply.

    We expect many groups will wait to see how this first round plays out, and then apply in the second round, once there are some comparables.

    ICANN also needs to actually run a round, there’s been years of lab work. The point about equal and opposite arguments is in fact the best reason for getting underway.

  5. Kevin, you know perfectly well that Peter was describing not what he himself felt, but what a few others were saying. It’s a tad disingenuous to use someone’s musings about what others are feeling as a “gotcha.”

    I heard them myself, saying they wish there could be a delay because they’re not quite ready, and there are still a few saying it. It dumbfounds me that some people would actually prefer to argue about might be than to construct what is. It’s like listening to counterfactual history, where people get together and wonder what the world would have looked like if there had been a bad storm in the English Channel on D-Day. These are unicorns, hobbits, dragons, a skein of armchair fantasies.

    Some lobbyists shove pieces of paper in front of a few in-house trade associations and they sign. An ICANN ex-chair takes a break from going to Aspen confabs and planning trips to space to say that new TLDs are “useless.” This is a reason for delay?

    Deadlines exist for a reason: nothing would get done without them. The new gTLD program has already taken longer than World War II. Let’s get on with it.

    Antony

  6. Alexa Raad says:

    Kevin
    Thank you for the synopsis of the conference. On the issue of readiness… However, its taken a long time for the program to be argued over, discussed and now finally defined in what is a pretty detailed guidebook and a timeline. There are some things still outstanding like the trademark clearing house, and who exactly are the evaluators. But none are show stoppers.

    However, as I said at the closing panel, there has not been a material change to the guidebook and a look at the red-line versions from May 11 and April 11th of this year for example, will show that there changes were for the most part additional clarification or detail.

    Given what we currently have to work with, namely a pretty detailed guidebook, our focus should be better familiarity with the rules and constructive clarification. No need to delay.

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