ICANN may be given a huge to-do list before it starts accepting new top-level domain applications, in order to help level the playing field between rich and poor countries.
If sweeping new recommendations are approved, ICANN would have just a couple of months to create a new gTLD application review process, to find a panel to police it, and to find the money to cover it.
Since March 2010, a volunteer working group known as JAS has been debating the hows, whos and how muches of a program to provide financial support to gTLD applicants from developing nations.
It’s now come up with its Final Report (pdf), which contains a laundry list of things that JAS says ICANN needs to do before it starts accepting applications from anyone.
JAS has called for a reduction in the application fee from $185,000 to $47,000, as well as a provision allowing qualified applicants to pay the fee on a staggered schedule.
It also asks ICANN to create and partially fund a foundation to provide financial support, in addition to fee reductions, that eligible applicants would be able to draw from and pay back over time.
To qualify for the cheaper fees and other support, applicants would have to come from a developing economy found on certain UN lists. By my count, more than 80 countries would be eligible.
Recognized indigenous peoples – apparently including developed-world groups such as Native American tribes or Aboriginal Australians– would also qualify for assistance.
(I don’t know about you, but I immediately thought about the “Indian casino” model used to evade gambling prohibitions in parts of the US.)
Supported applicants would have to demonstrate that their gTLD would serve an under-served community or language group, and provide “genuine social benefit”.
So-called “.brand” applicants would be specifically excluded, but commercial entities operating in the public interest would be able to apply for the fee reductions and financial support.
The application procedure would be governed by a yet-to-be written Support Evaluation Process, overseen by a not-yet-created Support Application Review Panel, comprised of expert volunteers from inside and outside ICANN’s existing community structures.
The unpaid SARP panelists would have to be knowledgeable about the domain name industry and likely gaming patterns, in order to help prevent applicants exploiting the system.
The JAS says that all of this needs to be in place before the first round of applications:
there is a serious concern that, if support is not available to eligible applicants in the first round, the most obvious and valuable names (ASCII and IDNs) would be taken solely by wealthy investors.
Given the uncertainty regarding further rounds of new gTLD applications following the round planned for January 2012, it is necessary to make support available in the initial January 2012 round.
While I’ve no doubt that the ICANN board of directors will be picking over these proposals during its two-day retreat, which kicked off today, the JAS report now needs to filter through the GNSO and the ALAC – the two ICANN community bodies that commissioned its work.
Realistically, the earliest ICANN can rubber-stamp these recommendations is at its meeting October 28 in Dakar, Senegal, which would give ICANN staff just two months to create and deploy the entire applicant support program and to educate likely users.
ICANN’s new chief financial officer could also have to oversee the recalculation of the new gTLD program budget to reflect the JAS group’s ideas about how the program should be funded.
For example, the JAS report states that the $60,000 component of a single full application fee currently designated to “risks” could be instead be used to cover the shortfall between the $47,000 supported-applicant fee and the $100,000 in anticipated processing costs for such an application.
If ICANN were to adopt the recommendation, it would beg the question of how well the $185,000 “cost recovery” fee was calculated in the first place.
While not unexpected, the JAS proposals are a complex, audacious 11th-hour bump in the wire for ICANN, which already appears to be struggling to get its ducks in a row in time for January 12.
Regardless of whether the program can be rolled out in time, its likely users are already at a disadvantage compared to their wealthier counterparts, which at least have numbers to put in their own budget.