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Poor nation support crucial to new TLD talks

Kevin Murphy, May 23, 2011, Domain Policy

Whether to provide discounts for new top-level domain applicants from poor countries has become a critical obstacle in the process of getting ICANN’s new gTLD program approved.

Not only are its policy-making bodies going through a bout of infighting over proposals to help developing nations, but it is also being seen as a “major political risk” to ICANN’s global credibility.

Sources say that the Governmental Advisory Committee is increasingly concerned that a lack of support for poorer nations could used to bash the gTLD program and discredit ICANN itself.

There are fears that the Group of 77 could use the perception that ICANN works primarily for the benefit of the developed world to push for more UN-based governmental control of the internet.

These concerns were apparently raised during the ICANN Board-GAC teleconference on Friday, and will continue to be discussed in the run-up to the Singapore meeting.

Merely applying for a new gTLD will cost a minimum of $185,000 in direct ICANN fees, potentially rising dramatically in the case of complex or contested applications.

That sum also excludes the many more hundreds of thousands of dollars required to create an application that meets ICANN’s stringent financial and technical stability demands.

Many have estimated that an application for a new gTLD could require an first-year outlay of easily over $1 million.

Unsurprisingly, this may exclude applicants from poorer nations, particularly non-profit and community-based initiatives.

There’s a worry that if support mechanisms are not in place for the first round of applications, culturally or commercially valuable IDN gTLDs will get snapped up by wealthy western companies.

Warning: More Acronyms Ahead

To come up with solutions to this problem, ICANN in April 2010 asked for what is now called the “Joint SO/AC Working Group on New gTLD Applicant Support” – JAS for short.

JAS was chartered by, and comprised of members of, the Generic Names Supporting Organization and the At Large Advisory Committee, two of ICANN’s policy bodies.

Earlier this month, JAS submitted its draft second milestone report (pdf) was submitted to the ICANN board. It’s more of a collection of ideas than a structured framework for applicant support.

It calls for, among other things, fees and financial commitments reduced by as much as three quarters for applicants from about 50 poor nations, if they can show they are (essentially) worthy and needy.

It also suggests that such applicants could have their requirements to support the new DNSSEC and IPv6 technologies from day one – which would raise start-up costs – eliminated.

Unfortunately, the GNSO and ALAC apparently had quite different expectations about what the JAS would produce, and since January the group has been working under a split charter.

Registries and registrars were (and are) worried that JAS was going too far when it recommended, for example, discounted application fees.

Because ICANN has priced applications on a cost-recovery basis, there’s a real concern that discounts for poor applicants will translate into higher fees for wealthier applicants.

Broadly, it’s an example of the usual tensions between commercial domain name industry stakeholders and other groups playing out through quite arcane due process/jurisdictional arguments.

For the last couple of weeks, this has manifested itself as a row about the fact that JAS submitted its report the report was submitted to the ICANN board before it was approved by the GNSO.

Mind The GAC

If it’s the case, as sources say, that the GAC is urgently pressing for applicant support measures to be available in the first round of new gTLD applications, this puts another question mark over ICANN’s ability to approve the Applicant Guidebook in Singapore a month from now.

The GAC “scorecard” of problematic issues has since November stated that ICANN should adopt the findings of the JAS.

But today the JAS is nowhere near producing a comprehensive solution to the problem. Its recommendations as they stand are also unlikely to attract broad support from registry/registrar stakeholders.

Many of its current suggestions are also highly complex, calling for ICANN to establish special funds, staggered payment or repayment programs and additional applicant background checks.

They would take time to implement.

There’s been some talk about the idea that ICANN could approve the Applicant Guidebook before the JAS work is complete, but I’m not sure how realistic that is or whether it would receive the GAC blessing.

If the GAC is worried that ICANN’s very legitimacy could be at risk if it goes ahead with the program before the developing world is catered for, we could be looking at another big roadblock.

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.