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No cheap TLDs for poor countries

Kevin Murphy, January 17, 2011, Domain Registries

Applicants in the developing world that hoped to get a new top-level domain on the cheap will be disappointed after proposals to help subsidize their applications were watered down.

The ICANN GNSO Council last week voted against measures that could have reduced application fees or asked ICANN set up an aid fund for applicants from poor nations.

ICANN’s application fee for a single TLD is $185,000, but it is widely expected to cost most applicants at least double or triple that, once add-on fees and consulting costs are taken into account.

While this is not a lot of money if you’re a big corporation, it’s a substantial barrier to entry if you’re an entrepreneur or community initiative from a poorer country.

So for several months an ICANN working group known as JAS, for Joint Applicant Support, has been working on ideas for how ICANN and others can support less wealthy applicants.

The group wanted to do further work to establish ways to subsidize the application fee, set up an ICANN fund using revenue from TLD auctions, and negotiate registry-level support.

But the GNSO Council voted those ideas down last Thursday, ostensibly on the basis that they were too far-reaching and “beyond the scope of the GNSO” to approve.

The vote was split roughly along party lines, with almost all of the support for the broader motions coming from non-commercial stakeholders.

Business interests such as registrars, registries, ISPs and intellectual property stakeholders voted in favor of a more “limited” set of objectives.

Proponents of the new limited charter tell me that they remain supportive of the work of the JAS, but that they did not believe it has the expertise to carry out such far-reaching work.

I suspect that commercial factors also played a role. For example, the JAS wanted to:

Discuss with Backend Registry Service Providers the extent of coordination, to be given by Backend Registry Service Providers (e.g. brokering the relationships, reviewing the operational quality of the relationship) and propose methods for coordinating that assistance

But the registry-supported replacement resolution, which was approved, asks the JAS to instead:

Propose methods for applicants to seek out assistance from registry service providers.

References to reduced application fees for needy applicants, and to the need for an ICANN-supported fund, were cut entirely.

The changes received majority support on the Council, but were not universally welcomed. Former Council chair Avri Doria called it “neocolonialism”, and wrote on her blog:

The only kind of aid the JAS WG is allowed to work on is aid that makes a applicant from a developing economy beholden and subject to the control of an incumbent or an expert.

Because the JAS working group was a joint effort of the GNSO and At Large Advisory Committee, it now has two charters – one broad, one narrow – and it’s not entirely clear how its work will proceed.

But it does seem that the $185,000 application fee is here to stay, no matter where you come from.

New TLD competition group throws in the towel

Kevin Murphy, September 29, 2010, Domain Registries

The ICANN working group tasked with deciding whether registrars should be allowed to apply for new top-level domains has failed to reach agreement after over six months of talks.

This means it will be down to the ICANN board of directors to decide, possibly at its next meeting, what the rules should be on vertical integration and cross ownership in new TLDs.

It’s been pretty clear from the Vertical Integration Working Group’s recent discussions that there would be no chance of the group reaching a consensus on the headline topics in the remaining time allotted to it.

Within the last two hours, the GNSO Council has been notified that the group has failed to reach consensus.

Should ICANN-accredited registrars be allowed to apply for new TLDs? Should registries be allow to sell direct to consumers? Should registrars be able to own stakes in registries? Vice versa? How much? Whither the .brand?

All these questions will now have to be resolved by the ICANN staff and board.

Currently, the Draft Applicant Guidebook limits registry/registrar cross-ownership to 2%, effectively barring existing registrars from applying to run new TLD registries.

While the VI working group has been working on the problem since February, positions quickly became entrenched based on the commercial interests of many participants. There has been no substantial progress towards compromise or consensus in months.

But the group did manage to reach rough agreement on a number of peripheral problems that will have a lesser economic impact on the incumbent registries and registrars.

For example, the board will likely be told that “single registrant, single user” TLDs, a variant of the .brand where the registry is the only registrant, should be looked into further.

On the core issue of cross ownership, three proposals are on the table.

One, the Free Trade Proposal, would eliminate such restrictions entirely. Two others, RACK+ and JN2+, would increase the limits to 15%.

The RACK+ proposal is the closest to the status quo in terms of barring vertical integration, while JN2+ contains explicit exceptions for .brand TLDs and smaller community registries.

Given the lack of consensus, it’s quite feasible that the ICANN board may decide to cherry pick from two or more proposals, or come up with something entirely novel. We’ll have to wait and see.