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First video of ICANN’s new gTLDs outreach

Kevin Murphy, September 30, 2011, Domain Policy

Here’s what I believe is the first publicly available video from ICANN’s ongoing new top-level domains marketing road-trip, which kicked off earlier this month.

CEO Rod Beckstrom, along with a small entourage of ICANN staffers, attended a breakfast panel discussion of new gTLDs at the London offices of PR company Edelman on September 20.

Also on the panel, moderated by Edelman’s Jonathan Hargreaves, were: Lesley Cowley, CEO of .uk registry Nominet; Lorna Gradden, director of brand-focused registrar Com Laude; and me.

There were roughly 75 people in the audience, which I’ve heard is somewhat more than showed up to similar ICANN panels in Berlin and Paris later in the week.

I know from conversations after the camera stopped rolling that a decent number of attendees were from outside the domain name industry – potential applicants – but the questions you’ll hear on the video pretty much all come from those with a closer interest in the new gTLD program.

As I’ve been reporting, ICANN is taking a softly-softly approach to outreach, saying it’s trying to “educate not advocate”, which is also evident in this video.

My main takeaway – and the story I would have written had I been in the audience taking notes rather than on the panel not – is that some of the recommendations of the JAS working group on new gTLD developing-world applicant support appear to be stillborn.

In the meantime, here’s all 68 minutes of the video.

Cheap gTLD drive adds to ICANN’s to-do list

Kevin Murphy, September 16, 2011, Domain Policy

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.

Snoring interrupts ICANN meeting (MP3)

Kevin Murphy, August 10, 2011, Domain Policy

An ICANN meeting was interrupted yesterday by loud snoring.

I suppose it was only a matter of time.

The incident happened during a teleconference of the Supporting Organization-Advisory Committee New gTLD Applicant Support Working Group chaired by Rafik Dammak and Carlton Samuels.

Dammak is the one who sounds baffled by the sudden interruption, Samuels is the one with the incredible laugh.

Apologies to the participants, but this two-minute MP3 snippet is too gigglesome not to post.

Wiki to shake up the new gTLD market

Tens of thousands of dollars worth of registry secret sauce is set to be released under a Creative Commons license on a new wiki, courtesy of the International Telecommunications Union.

Applying for a new generic top-level domain could be about to get a whole lot cheaper.

Before October, the ITU plans to publish template answers to all 22 of the questions about registry technical operations demanded by ICANN’s Applicant Guidebook.

Because they will be published under a Creative Commons license, new gTLD applicants will be able to copy and paste the whole lot into their applications for free.

And because they will be on a wiki, approved contributors will be able to fine-tune the templates to increase their chances of passing ICANN’s technical evaluation.

Currently, gTLD applicants are generally paying registry back-end providers to take care of this part of their applications, paying $10,000 and up for the privilege.

I think the word that applies here is “disruptive”.

Consultant and former ICANN board member Michael Palage, who has worked on a number of previous TLD launches, is coordinating the creation of the templates with input from registries and engineers.

The resulting “best in class” material will also be used by the ITU and the League of Arab States in their bid for .arab and its Arabic equivalent, .عرب.

According to the Guidebook, applicants do not need hands-on experience running a registry in order to have their application approved. ICANN is trying to enable competition, after all.

But there is a period of pre-delegation testing that each successful applicant must endure before their new gTLD is added to the root, so a simple copy-paste of the ITU’s templates will not suffice.

I doubt this project will take a great deal of money out of the pockets of the incumbent registries – well-funded applicants will presumably be happy to pay the extra money for certainty – but it will provide a bit of flexibility for applicants not already in bed with a back-end.

It could also help open up the new gTLD market to companies that may not have otherwise considered it, such as those in the developing world.

Indeed, part of the rationale for the Creative Commons publication is to aid with “capacity building” in these nations, according to an ITU presentation delivered in Cairo this week.

We’ve already seen pricing competition hit the registry services market in the wake of the approval of the new gTLD program, now it appears we’re seeing the dawn of “free”.

GAC calls for $44,000 new TLDs

Kevin Murphy, May 28, 2011, Domain Policy

ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee has asked for the price of top-level domains to be reduced from $185,000 to $44,000 for applicants from developing nations.

The call came in GAC advice released yesterday, just a few days before ICANN plans to publish the seventh and potentially final version of new gTLD program’s Applicant Guidebook.

The document (pdf) shows that ICANN’s board and the GAC have made substantial progress towards resolving their differences, but that several outstanding issues remain.

Support for developing nations has arguably become the biggest hurdle to be leaped before the program can launch, as I reported earlier in the week.

The GAC has now asked ICANN’s board of directors to implement a support program for developing nation applicants “as a matter of urgency”.

There’s an unstated concern that a Guidebook that appears to unfairly favor applicants from rich countries may be rolled up and used as a cosh, by certain countries, to bash ICANN’s international legitimacy.

Specifically, the GAC wants cheaper fees for poorer applicants:

For support to developing countries, the GAC is asking for a fee waiver, which corresponds to 76 percent of the US$ 185,000 application fee requirement. Further, there will be instances where additional costs will be required: for example, for auction, objections, and extended evaluation. In such events, the GAC proposes fee reduction and waivers in these processes/instances where additional costs are required. The GAC would further like to propose an additional waiver of the annual US$ 25,000 fee during the first 3 years of operation.

The 76% reduction, which is in line with suggestions made by ICANN’s applicant support working group (JAS), would see fees of $44,400 for qualified applications, a $140,600 discount.

The call for auction fees to be lowered appears, on the face of it, bizarre. Presumably it refers to fees paid to the auction house, rather than the bids themselves.

Either way, it appears that developing nation applicants could get a distinct advantage in cases of contested strings, if the GAC advice is followed.

The GAC acknowledged ICANN’s worry that gaming – bogus proxy applicants springing up in qualifying nations, for example – could prove problematic, and writes:

On gaming, the GAC welcomes the JAS WG’s recommendation to set up a parallel process to determine eligibility based on the guidelines they have provided. The GAC proposes that a review team be established consisting of ICANN stakeholders experienced and knowledgeable in gTLD processes, developing country needs and gaming patterns. Furthermore, consideration should be given to the imposition of penalties on entities found to be attempting to game processes put in place to support developing country applicants.

The idea of an applicant support initiative being developed in parallel with the Applicant Guidebook – so as to not delay its approval – was first proposed by the JAS back in November.

But even the JAS envisaged that the details of the program would have to be squared away before the first round of new TLD applications are accepted.

Even if the Guidebook can be approved in the absence of a finalized support program, I think ICANN could have a hard time launching its four-month international outreach campaign until it is able to answer the basic question: “How much is this going to cost me?”

While the applicant support issue may not be a deal-breaker when it comes to approving the Guidebook – currently penciled in for June 20 – it could still delay the opening of the application window.

We’ll have a clearer picture if and when ICANN publishes the next version of the Guidebook, expected Monday, May 30 (late Pacific time, I expect).