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Outrage over ICANN’s new gTLD fees

Kevin Murphy, May 29, 2024, 16:14:29 (UTC), Domain Policy

Is ICANN stifling competition and pricing out the Global South by setting its new gTLD evaluation fees too high? A great many community volunteers seem to think so, judging by recent conversations.

The Org last week revealed that it plans to charge registry service providers that want to participate in the next application round $92,000 for their technical evaluation, on top of the estimated $250,000 fee that it will charge for each applied-for string.

Critics have pointed out that a roughly equivalent evaluation, used when a 2012-round gTLD switches to an unknown back-end, currently costs about $14,300, and they’re baffled as to why ICANN plans to up its fees so much.

The Registry Service Provider Evaluation Program was intended to cut a lot of waste and duplication from the new gTLD program. Instead of doing a technical evaluation on an RSP for each gTLD application, the RSP is evaluated once and each applicant simply selects an RSP from a list of approved companies.

ICANN says the program will cost $4.1 million overall, with $2 million of that already mostly spent on the design and implementation phase. It’s expecting all of the existing 40-ish back-end providers to submit to evaluation, along with an unknown number of newcomers.

Assuming fewer than 50 participating RSPs, ICANN will charge $92,000 per RSP. The program is designed to be run on a cost-recovery basis. ICANN says it will lower the price and issue refunds if there are significantly more participants.

Despite that caveat, ICANN staffers running the new gTLD program have faced a barrage of criticism over the last week from members of the SubPro Implementation Review Team, the community volunteers tasked with making sure staff implementation sticks to community policy.

The high-end of the fee scale is high enough that it will essentially “kill off” the RSP market in the Global South, according to Rubens Kuhl of Brazilian ccTLD registry, which currently runs the back-end for a handful of 2012-round strings.

The term “Global South” refers to less-wealthy countries largely in the southern hemisphere, mainly in Africa, Asia and Latin America, where $92,000 goes a lot further than it does in North America or Europe.

“What ICANN is suggesting right now simply kills off all Global South RSPs,” Kuhl said during a call yesterday. “Those RSPs could have the technical capability to run gTLDs, and they run very large ccTLDs… It simply seems like a system designed to keep the Global South out.”

Gustavo Lozano Ibarra, director of technical services projects at ICANN and former NIC Mexico employee, responded first by saying that gTLD applicants in the next round from the Global South do necessarily have to chose an RSP from their own region.

“I completely understand that there could be some RSPs in the Global South with capabilities for which the fee could be an issue,” he said. “I think that we get that, and I think that maybe the lack of an Applicant Support Program for the RSPs is something that we need to take into consideration for the next round.”

“So, this round, no Global South. Okay, thank you,” said Kuhl.

“I don’t think this proposed US$92,000 RSP pre-evaluation fee is going to encourage diverse participation in the next nTLD round, especially from developing regions,” Neil Dundas of South African RSP DNS Africa said on the IRT’s mailing list.

“It’s a new financial barrier to entry that previously was not there and it will almost certainly hamper participation from developing regions,” he said.

Mailing list chatter suggests that this potential barrier to entry is something that ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee may take a dim view of when the community convenes in Rwanda for ICANN 80 next month.

ICANN is also taking flak for how it is calculating the total cost of the RSP program. Consultant and registry operator Jeff Neuman accused the Org of “double-dipping” by charging for staffers’ work on the program, which he said should already be covered by the fees registries, registrars and ultimately registrants pay into ICANN’s budget.

Responding to criticism that ICANN has over-spent, Ibarra pointed out on yesterday’s call that $4.1 million is a fraction of the $22 million he said ICANN spent on technical evaluations in the 2012 application round.

In addition, RSPs that are attached to potentially dozens of gTLD applications will save a lot of money by only paying to be evaluated once, he said.

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