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A decade after the last new gTLD round, Marby starts the clock on the next one

Kevin Murphy, January 12, 2022, Domain Policy

The next new gTLD application is moving a step closer this month, with ICANN chief Göran Marby promising the launch of its Operational Design Phase.

But it’s still unclear whether the ODP has officially started, and many community members are angry and frustrated that the process is taking too long, some 10 years after the last application window opened.

Marby published a blog post December 20 stating “the org has advised the Board that it is beginning the ODP”, but he linked to a December 17 letter (pdf) that told the board “the org is now transitioning to launch the ODP formally as of January”.

We’re well into January now, so does that mean the ODP has officially started? It’s not clear from what ICANN has published.

It seems either ICANN doesn’t yet want to pin down an exact date for the ODP being initiated, which starts the clock on its deadline for completion, or it’s just really bad at communications.

In September, the board gave Marby $9 million and 10 months for the ODP to come up with its final output, an Operational Design Assessment.

The project is being funded from the remaining application fees from the 2012 application round, rather than ICANN’s regular operations budget.

The text of the resolution gives the deadline as “within ten months from the date of initiation, provided that there are no unforeseen matters that could affect the timeline”.

Assuming the “date of initiation” is some point this month, the ODA would be therefore due to be delivered before the end of November this year, barring “unforeseen matters”.

The document would then be considered by the ICANN board, a process likely to be measured in a handful of months, rather than weeks or days, pushing a final decision on the next round out into the first quarter of 2023.

For avoidance of doubt, that’s the decision about whether or not to even have another new gTLD round.

As a reminder, the 2012 round Applicant Guidebook envisaged a second application round beginning about a year after the first.

Naturally, many would-be applicants are incredibly frustrated that this stuff is taking so long, none more so than the Brand Registry Group, which represents companies that want to apply for dot-brand gTLDs and the consultants that want to help them do so.

Overlapping with ICANN’s December 17 letter to the board, BRG president Karen Day wrote to ICANN (pdf) to complain about the lack of progress and the constant extensions of the runway, saying:

The constant delay and lack of commitment to commencing the next round of new gTLDs is unreasonable and disrespectful to the community that has worked diligently… these delays and lack of commitments to deliver the community’s work is an increasing pattern which risks disincentivizing the volunteer community and threatens the multistakeholder model

Day asked the board to provide more clarity about the ODP’s internal milestones and possible delaying factors, and called for future work to begin in parallel with the ODP in order to shorten the overall roadmap.

It’s worth noting that the ODP may wind up raising more questions than it answers, delaying the next round still further.

It’s only the second ODP ICANN has conducted. The first, related to Whois privacy reform, ended in December (after delays) with a report that essentially shat all over the community’s policy work, predicting that it would take several years and cost tens of millions of dollars to implement for potentially very little benefit.

The board is expected to receive that first ODP’s report in February and there’s no telling what conclusions it will reach.

While Marby has publicly indicated that he’s working on the assumption that there will be another new gTLD round, the ODP gives ICANN a deal of power to frustrate and delay that eventuality, if Org is so inclined.

Be the next “face” of dot-brands

Kevin Murphy, December 6, 2021, Domain Policy

The Brand Registry Group is seeking a new executive director, after incumbent Martin Sutton decided he’s to leave the group next year.

Sutton, who’s been in the role since 2015, said the BRG is looking for somebody to be the new “face of the dotBrand community”.

Arguably the group’s biggest issue right now is the next new gTLD application round, which still appears to be years away after a decade’s worth for navel-gazing by ICANN.

If BRG members are to be believed, a whole lot of companies that missed out on the 2012 round or have been founded since then are champing at the bit for the chance to get their own dot-brands.

It’s pretty clear from Sutton’s job posting that a long-time ICANN community member is being sought, and I can think of maybe two or three people who would make perfect candidates.

The BRG is not a formal ICANN structure, but it gets time on the agenda at ICANN meetings and has some political clout. Its members include the likes of Apple, Amazon, Fox, Honda and JP Morgan & Chase.

The executive director is its only full-time employee role.

Big dose of reality for gTLD-hungry dot-brand applicants

Kevin Murphy, October 26, 2021, Domain Policy

Anyone tuning into yesterday’s Brand Registry Group session at ICANN 72 expecting good news about new gTLDs was in for a reality check, with a generally gloomy outlook on display.

BRG members expressed frustration that ICANN continues to drag its feet on the next application round, failing to provide anywhere near the degree of certainty applicants in large organizations need.

Meanwhile, a former ICANN director clashed with GoDaddy’s chief new gTLD evangelist on whether the 2012 round could be considered a success and whether there really is a lot of demand for the next round.

The BRG has arguably been the most vocal group in the community when it comes for calling for ICANN to stop messing around and approve the next round already, so members are naturally not enthused about the recent approval of an Operational Design Phase, a new layer of bureaucracy expected to add at least 13 months to the next-round runway.

Deborah Atta-Fynn, a VP at current and prospective future dot-brand owner JP Morgan Chase, expressed frustration with ICANN’s inability to put a date on the next round, or even confirm it will be approved, saying that it’s tough to get departmental buy-in for a project with undefined timing and which may never even happen.

Would-be dot-brands “need that clarity, and they need that definitive timeline” she said.

“In the same way that ICANN has to ramp up, we need to ramp up,” she said. “We have to get internal stakeholders from legal and marketing and whatever other groups may be involved to buy into it. They need to see the value, they need to see the use cases.”

“That open-endedness of the timeline makes it very difficult for us to get that stakeholder buy-in that we need. It makes it difficult for us to do any definitive planning,” she said.

Nigel Hickson, now the UK’s Governmental Advisory Committee representative and a civil servant but a senior ICANN staffer at the time of the 2012 round, concurred with the need for firmer timeline.

“It’s very difficult to tell ministers that something is going to happen, and then it doesn’t happen for a couple of years, because basically they lose interest,” he said. “Having some predictability in this process is very important.”

But probably the most compelling interventions during yesterday’s session came from former ICANN director Mike Silber, a new gTLD skeptic who abstained from the 2011 vote approving the program, and new gTLD evangelist Tony Kirsch, now with GoDaddy Registry after years with Neustar.

Silber had some stern words for ICANN of 2011, and for the two CEOs preceding Goran Marby, and indicated that he was an admirer of the policy work done by the New gTLD Subsequent Procedures working group (SubPro) and a supporter of a thorough ODP.

Silber started by taking a pop at former ICANN directors and staffers who he said pushed the program through “for their own personal benefit or ego boost or whatever”, then left the Org to let others “clean up the mess they created by rushing”. He didn’t name them, but I can think of at least three people he might have been talking about, including ICANN’s then-chair and then-CEO.

“This time it doesn’t look like a rush,” he said.

He went on to say that he expects the next application round to be a different animal to 2012, with less speculation and a more realistic approach to what new gTLDs can achieve.

“If you look at the number of applications and look at the number of TLDs actually launched and the number of TLDs that have actually been successful, I think that he hype that existed in 2012 is not there any longer,” he said.

“I think people are going to look long and hard before submitting an application,” Silber said. “These weird and wonderful applications for these weird and wonderful TLDs, by people who thought they would make a fortune, are vaporware.”

“I think applicants now are more serious, and I think there’s going to be a lot less speculation,” he said.

This hype-reduction takes the pressure of ICANN to quickly approve the next round, he said.

Counterpoint was provided by GoDaddy’s Kirsch, a long-time cheerleader for new gTLDs and in particular dot-brands. He’s not a fan of the ODP and the delay it represents.

Kirsch said that new gTLD advocates are reflecting the fact that there’s demand for both top-level and second-level domains out there.

“If there is no customer base, if there is no demand, then there is no revenue base,” he said.

He pointed to data showing that, while there are only 26 million new gTLD domains registered today, there have been 136 million registered over the lifetime of the 2012 round to date (about seven years).

While agreeing that the next round might see less wild top-level speculation, and that the industry has “matured”, Kirsch suggested there might actually be more applications for generic dictionary TLDs next time, but with a better understanding of the marketing commitment needed to make them succeed.

“I’m working with people right now who are doing that with a far greater business plan underneath it, and an understanding that if they don’t have that they won’t succeed with a generic term in the new world,” he said.

Silber dismissed the 136 million number as “indicative of speculation”, which Kirsch did not try very hard to dispute, and expressed skepticism about the level of demand at the top level.

“I find it quite amusing that people say there’s real demand, but then they need a target date to actually drive demand and it makes me worry that maybe the demand’s not quite as real as they think it is,” he said.

Atta-Fynn, Kirsch and session chair Martin Sutton challenged this.

“I think that the the idea that we need to target date to drive demand is incorrect,” Kirsch said. “I think we need a target date to convert interest into demand.”

“It is incumbent on ICANN to make sure that it provides a robust and visible plan for applicants to buy into this, because I think everyone’s watching and we’ve had enough time. It’s time to turn this into a into a real program that that benefits all internet users around the world,” he said.