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That Letter to ICANN from the NTIA

A cranky letter from the NTIA to ICANN [PDF], submitted in late December during ICANN’s comment period for new top-level domains, has encouraged the awkward coalition of those opposed to new TLDs. The NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration), a division of the Department of Commerce, is the agency tasked with being ICANN’s watchdog. So a letter from them carries some weight, though not as much as some people think.

The letter basically says (read it, it’s not long) that ICANN hasn’t proven that new TLDs will benefit the consumer, which I suppose is true, although I wonder how anyone could prove that without actually trying it. Otherwise, the letter asks for many of the changes that others who support new TLDs (including me) have asked for, including justifying the excessive fees, come up with a way other than auctions for deciding which applications are better, come up with a better way of managing contracts, etc. etc.

ICANN’s response is predictable: we received many comments, they raised some good points, our next draft will have changes based on the comments we received. Period. NTIA’s letter is one of many. I’m not sure why people thought that ICANN would change direction based on a cranky comment, even from the NTIA.

There are good reasons ICANN won’t change direction. When you consider these all together, it’s hard to see how they could do anything except push ahead.

  • New gTLDs are a core mission since ICANN’s inception. No-one can be surprised this is happening, only that it took so long.
  • The process for new gTLDs was originated in the GNSO (ICANN’s “General Assembly”) and brought forward in accordance with the procedures in place. These procedures, in turn, were brought about by the constant (and justified) harping about how ICANN needed to be more transparent and democratic. It wasn’t the Board who thought this up. In other words, the new gTLD activities happened because ICANN did what the NTIA (and others) insisted that it do. If the NTIA cares at all about being consistent, they aren’t left much room to object.
  • The NTIA can chastise ICANN, but they have a pretty blunt instrument with which to do so. They can not renew ICANN’s lease if they want to, and choose to create a new ICANN. I doubt very much that they’re interested in doing that. Otherwise, they can simply voice their displeasure from time to time, as we all do.
  • There’s a new administration in town. Of course there is a certain level of follow-through between administrations, but it’s likely that the Obama administration will have different priorities from the Bush administration. From that perspective, the letter from Acting Assistant Secretary Baker has less weight than it might have had a few years ago.
  • It’s not as if everyone is against new TLDs. In fact, opposition seems to be limited to trademark holders, who continue with their longtime opposition; domainers, who have suddenly discovered the allure of protecting vested interests; and ICANN detractors, who hate everything ICANN does. I wouldn’t call this a united or stable coalition.

Domainers are caught in a bit of a bind. On the one hand, they bravely tout the idea that .com is king, that .com is so ingrained in people minds that nothing will ever change it, that domainers should ignore new TLDs (see for instance comment #10 here). On the other hand, their lobbying organization, the ICA, has taken on the task of stopping new TLDs with vigor, suggesting that in fact there is concern about people thinking something besides .com.

In general, the domainer press has given a lot of attention to something that, in the orthodox domainer formulation, is irrelevant. The publication of the letter on ICANN’s site ignited a conflagration in the echo-chamber of the domain press.

The most colorful overamplification is Domain Name Wire’s headline “U.S. Government Has Domainers’ Backs.” Whatever else you can say about Secretary Baker, she is definitely not in the business of protecting domainers. She gets lobbied all day by intellectual property owners, most of whom would throw an anvil to a drowning domainer. Verizon’s $33M judgment against OnlineNIC is an itty-bitty clue about how trademark owners feel about domainers. (Yes, there is a valid distinction between “domaining” and “cybersquatting,” but that’s not how many trademark owners see it.)

There are some who want to stop new TLDs, for a variety of reasons. I’m not at all sure that the NTIA is among them; they just want to make sure ICANN doesn’t hand them a headache. But there are lots more who want to see new TLDs go ahead, and they’ve been working at it for 10 years. For many, a TLD means having an identity on the Internet. These include regional/ethnic groups (e.g. .CAT for Catalonia, already in the root), some brand owners who would rather promote their own brand than VeriSign’s .com brand, community groups who see the promotional value of all their members using an email address that promotes the organization (e.g., .AARP), and yes, some entrepreneurs with what they think is a good idea.

ICANN is following its procedures and is moving ahead. Many people filed comments (including the NTIA, but also including myself) on what we saw as flaws in their plan. ICANN is addressing these, and the new draft will tell us how well they succeeded. But I don’t see this movement being stopped, or even slowed down significantly.

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Complicated ICANN World Antony Van Couvering  –  Jan 24, 2009 5:21 AM

There is today a story, in French, from the ICANN registrar meeting in Rome, which says that Craig Schwartz from ICANN is saying that the final ICANN RFP (application form for new gTLDs) won’t be ready in May as promised.  Lots of comments came in, they are taking them seriously, they want to make sure the application is ready, etc. 

Two possibilities: they are delaying and this is a cover story; or they really do want to respond to comments responsibly and it will take some time.  My information, from talking to people within ICANN, is that they are working overtime to have something ready for Mexico City.  We shall see…



I'm in Rome for the registrar meeting Stéphane Van Gelder  –  Jan 24, 2009 5:34 PM

I'm in Rome for the registrar meeting where we asked Craig if delays were to be expected. The answer he gave might have been misunderstood by some. Nothing's set at the moment. I doubt even ICANN staff know whether or if the new TLD program will be delayed. More info here: http://www.stephane-vangelder.com/archives/184-New-gTLDs-to-be-delayed-by-third-DAG.html

Not so blunt instruments John Levine  –  Jan 24, 2009 5:51 PM

The NTIA can chastise ICANN, but they have a pretty blunt instrument with which to do so.

Don’t forget that three of the root servers are operated by the US government, and many more by organizations with more interest in maintaining good relations with the USG than with ICANN, starting with Verisign. ICANN has never tested what would happen if they put entries in the root zone that the operators weren’t happy to serve, and I can only predict that if it comes to that, it will be ugly and ICANN is unlikely to win.

Your assertion that "the ICA has taken Philip S Corwin  –  Jan 24, 2009 11:24 PM

Your assertion that “the ICA has taken on the task of stopping new TLDs with vigor” because they could threaten the secondary market asset value of .com domains is completely off the mark. The ICA website post you link to clearly says that the threat to .com domains would be from differential registration/renewal pricing if the new gTLD rules permitted that to occur at the incumbents. Most of the domainers and the companies that serve them which comprise the ICA do not feel that new gTLDs will diminish the asset value of .com domains; some even believe that the confusing proliferation will actually boost .com values —and I certainly haven’t heard any domain investors/developeres state that new gTLDs should just be dismissed out of hand (in fact, some number are considering their own applications for select new registries). One wonders whether the author bothered to read the detailed comment letter that ICA submitted to ICANN—which is available at http://forum.icann.org/lists/gtld-guide/msg00164.html  and is the only accurate and comprehensive statement of our views on this subject—as it is quite different in tone and approach of IP sector comments and does not make a case for stopping the rollout but to slowing down the process while troublesome aspects of the proposal are stripped out and more details are provided in other areas. ICA’s comments targeted the potential for differential pricing and the acquiesence to the GAC position that the authority of national governments be expanded beyond ccTLDs to first and second level country and region names at all new gTLDs. We also raised questions regarding ICANN’s ability to process hundreds of new applications simultaneously, and the propriety of an a potential flood of application fees exceeding its own annual operating budget. Domainers are concerned that a proliferation of new gTLDs for which there may be little market demand could in turn lead to registry failures and the imposition of future costs on all registrants, and that a major mishandling of this initiative might well lead to ICANN capture by the ITU or a similar organization in a post-U.S. oversight environment.

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