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What’s At Stake conference bans new gTLD consultants

Kevin Murphy, October 20, 2011, 17:20:53 (UTC), Domain Policy

A conference in New York next month has been set up for marketers to discuss ICANN’s new top-level domains program without pitches from consultants.

What’s At Stake, scheduled for November 1, is for new gTLD skeptics, primarily marketers from large companies that will be impacted by the program.

It’s going to discuss the implications of the program and a few ways ICANN could tweak it to make it less daunting for large corporate applicants.

The conference, found at whatsatstake.com, is being organized by New York marketing pro Judy Shapiro, in conjunction with CADNA, the Coalition Against Domain Name Abuse.

Former ICANN chair Esther Dyson, who has recently emerged as a fierce critic of the program, is scheduled to keynote the event.

The goal is not to “bash ICANN”, Shapiro told DI in an interview yesterday.

Unlike the Association of National Advertisers and other trade groups, the conference will focus on changes that could be made to the program, rather than its outright suspension, she said.

Primarily, Shapiro wants to see ICANN name the date for a second round of applications.

“If they just said they’re going to do another auction in so many months time, it would be a thousand times better right away,” she said, referring to a second application round rather than an actual “auction”.

Currently, the first application window is scheduled to run from January 12 to April 12 next year. There’s no fixed date for a second round, and some say it could be five years before we see one.

This has economically incentivized new gTLD consultants and registry service providers to play up the “clock is ticking” and “it may be your only chance to apply” memes.

While accurate, this has arguably helped cast the domain name industry yet again as a bunch of borderline extortionists focused primarily on pumping defensive registrations.

It also could mean that some large companies fire off applications for far more gTLDs than they could conceivably need or use, just in order to “defensively” own a keyword related to their industry.

If that happens, it’s quite possible that we’ll see a bunch of dormant or otherwise half-assed extensions go live, substantiating the view that new gTLDs are a waste of time and that .com is king, etc. etc. etc.

The ICANN program as it stands today is “brilliantly constructed to force everyone to buy everything they want in one fell swoop,” Shapiro said.

The problem with naming a second-round date is of course that the first one is likely to take years to run its course. Everybody is expecting some kind of litigation, which could delay any schedule.

Shapiro herself expects that there will be a lawsuit designed to delay the program at some point between now and January.

Shapiro’s background is in corporate brand management for companies such as AT&T, Lucent and CA. She currently runs the online marketing company engageSimply.

“I was very familiar with ICANN. It was not a mystery to me,” she said, explaining her decision to launch the conference. “But I found I was clueless [about the new gTLD program] and I was shocked that I was clueless. I did a survey of 40 friends at top companies, and they were clueless too.”

She decided to offer a conference after she read an August 16 AdAge op-ed by Alexa Raad, CEO of the consultancy Architelos, which she said many marketers dd not understand.

But What’s At Stake is an invitation-only event, and new gTLD consultants are not welcome.

“I am paying for it, I do not want any pitches,” said Shapiro.

While she is trying to secure the attendance of an ICANN executive, she said the organization is being “not so forthcoming”, even maybe a little “defensive”.

If true, this is a pity. It strikes me that these the kinds of people ICANN needs to be reaching out to, even if it means one of its regular expository go-to guys has to squirm in his chair for a few hours.

“They’ve done such a bad job reaching out to this community,” Shapiro said. “Everyone I’m talking to has said: Why are they doing this?”

I put it to her that the new gTLD program has been in development for several years, and that literally anybody was able to participate in the creation of the Applicant Guidebook.

“The problem has been that the issue of domain management falls usually under the technical and legal sides of the house,” she said. “There’s been no collaboration between the IT, legal and marketing folks.”

Marketing people, usually focused on making short-term numbers, are only just waking up to the possibilities and potential problems that new gTLDs will create, she indicated.

The message that the new gTLD program is a cross-disciplinary challenge is also one that many new gTLD consultants have been preaching since even before ICANN approved the program in June.

There’s a convergence of views, to an extent, here. The problem seems to be the apparent disconnect between what the domain name industry thinks marketers should think and what they do think.

Marketers have been far more focused recently on the “local/mobile/social triad” of disruptive advertising technologies, rather than on new gTLDs, Shapiro said.

“The ICANN industry is completely disconnected from the realities of marketing industry,” she said.

The other demand Shapiro/CADNA has for ICANN is for the program to be made more corporate-friendly, but this appears to be very much a secondary concern.

The program currently requires applicants to disclose personal information about their company principals, which sits uncomfortably with many senior executives at large brands, for example.

The Continued Operations Instrument, a financial bond designed to fund failover support for defunct registries, is also a concern. As I noted earlier in the week, it seems unnecessary to impose this on single-registrant .brand applicants.

There are already at least two special provisions in the Applicant Guidebook that exclude .brand registries from certain commitments, so creating more would not be unprecedented.

The problem of course is that as soon as ICANN starts giving extra privileges to certain classes of applicant, it runs the risk of creating loopholes that can be gamed by other applicants.

What’s At Stake starts at 8.45am local time November 1. Shapiro said she’s hoping to webcast it and possibly even allow questions from people not able to attend in person.

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