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ICANN’s New gTLD Timetable: the Good, the Bad & the Ugly

ICANN staff recently posted on its website an updated timeline on the new gTLD process. Attempting to be “fair and balanced,” I see some good, some bad, and some potential ugly in this timeline.

I know there are a lot of good people at ICANN working very hard to conclude the Herculean task of implementing the new gTLD process. However, ICANN just can’t help shooting itself in the foot with poorly worded and ambiguous statements. Given the extensive in-house and outside media/marketing resources available to ICANN (and ICANN’s considerable and growing budget), this inability to make even such critically important documents clear is a growing concern for me and others in the ICANN community that causes us all to wonder whether ICANN is truly ready to “go out on its own.”

The Good

It appears that ICANN is not going to rush a release of the Third Draft Applicant Guidebook (DAG). ICANN had previously indicated that a third draft of the Guidebook would be released prior to the Sydney regional meeting this June. It now appears that ICANN is going to wait until it has resolved the four remaining overarching issues before publishing the next DAG. ICANN has stated that is expects to release the next version in early September. Given that the public comment period for that release apparently would not close until after ICANN’s Seoul meeting (Oct. 25-30), ICANN appears to be contemplating a comment period of at least 45 days.

The Bad

In this release, ICANN staff states that “[t]his timing enables the publication of the final Guidebook and following a communications period, the acceptance of applications in the first quarter of 2010.” But how can the ICANN staff preordain that this next DAG will be the final one or that the ICANN Board will accept it? Statements like this put the ICANN Board in a very awkward position, because if there is any slippage in this time table, prospective applicants will come to the public forum in Africa next March insisting that ICANN had promised to accept their applications in 2010Q1. Obviously, ICANN feels pressure to appease a handful of applicants that have publicly expressed their interests in moving forward ASAP with new gTLD proposals. But as a steward of the Internet, ICANN should be communicating a message that addresses the concerns of the broader Internet community. Given the numerous deadlines ICANN has missed over the last several years regarding when they would begin accepting applications for new gTLDs, ICANN should focus on completing its next deliverable-publishing DAG No. 3-before making promises about when applications will be accepted.

There are further problems declaring now that applications will definitely be accepted in 2010Q1. If ICANN staff had taken the time to read the draft proposal of the Implementation Review Team (IRT)-the group tasked by the ICANN Board to help resolve the overarching issues regarding trademark protection-they would have noticed the following recommendation: “ICANN must publish the GPML [Globally Protected Marks List] before [ICANN accepts applications] and early enough beforehand to allow for potential applicants to take the GPML into consideration should they choose to do so.”

The GPML will take some time to implement, especially because it is envisioned to be part of a proposed “IP Clearinghouse.” It’s particularly difficult to see how this could be accomplished in the timeline proposed by ICANN in light of the minimum four-month window between the finalization of the RFP (i.e., the call for gTLD applications) and the commencement of the new gTLD submission process as originally recommended in the GNSO Policy Development Process (PDP) (see Implementation Guide E). This four month hard-coded window is critical as it ensures a level playing field for all applicants-as opposed to some previous rounds, the window between the posting of final criteria and the deadline for applications was so short (six weeks back in 2000) that it gave ICANN insiders a significant advantage.

Also potentially complicating the proposed aggressive timeline is the fact that, following the Seoul meeting, the ICANN Board has only one regularly schedule Board teleconferenced planned in 2009 (for December 9).

Should the ICANN Board ultimately decide not to implement the GPML and the IP Clearinghouse, despite the apparently strong support for these concepts, the IP community will look back at ICANN’s latest timeline as the “writing on the wall” indicating that these proposals were doomed from the start because ICANN was preoccupied with meeting the 2010Q1 deadline. Such speculation and conspiracy-theorizing could all have been prevented if only ICANN had released a more thoughtfully crafted timeline.

The Ugly

While I have acknowledged (PDF) a number of reservations about the ICANN new gtLD implementation process, I must also acknowledge the hard work that some very qualified ICANN staff and consultants have been doing behind the scenes to resolve these outstanding issues. Unfortunately, senior ICANN management just isn’t properly communicating to the broader community what’s being done to address outstanding concerns about gTLDs. I very much hope the ICANN Board will address this pressing problem at its retreat next week. Continued communication failures like this are not simply unacceptable for an international organization of ICANN’s stature; indeed, they raise serious questions about how ICANN will communicate to the global community the events leading up to expiration of ICANN’s Joint Project Agreement with the U.S. Government this September-and what will happen after that.

By Michael D. Palage, Intellectual Property Attorney and IT Consultant

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Agree and disagree Kieren McCarthy  –  May 11, 2009 9:32 PM

Well, I agree with you about the announcement. It was written more as a report rather than an announcement and I think it suffers because of that. Fortunately I have been tasked with coming up with a better internal system for producing announcements and public comment periods which should provide better and more consistent announcements in future. It’ll take a few months but you should start seeing the results shortly after Sydney.

Re: your point about timelines and the launch of the gTLD process. I think you’re being a little disingenuous. ICANN staff works as the secretariat for the community and while it does have significant influence on the timing of most things, something like the gTLD process is beholden to the community itself.

The staff’s best guess is that the gTLD application process will go live in Q1 2010 - but that is assuming that things go smoothly between then and now. There is no reason to believe they won’t, but also no reason to believe they will. It all depends on what the community decides and agrees upon between now and then.

The problem from the staff perspective is that you are caught between a rock and a hard place: part of the community is demanding, for obvious reasons, a clear launch date; while at the same time other parts of the community are still not 100 percent happy with the process as it is and so want longer to discuss and review.

I think what you’re also saying above is that when that deadline is announced that ICANN staff then becomes rigid and tries to fit everything with deadlines attached to the end date. I think a certain amount of planning and pre-planning to hit a given date is not only important, it is vital if ICANN is to respond and react as a professional organization. And so, yes, there will certainly be resistance to constantly shifting deadlines. But I think that ICANN’s staff has demonstrated time and again through this process that it possesses a huge amount of flexibility and bends according to community need.

The IRT and trademark issue you refer to above is just one example of where, once the community made it clear that it had concerns and wanted to take longer to review things, ICANN’s staff immediately reordered a whole range of plans in order to allow for focus on that and the other overarching issues.

From my perspective as general manager of public participation, I wish there was less movement because it makes it very hard to get people that don’t closely follow ICANN involved - you can’t give clear dates for things and there is very little or no planning time.

But back to announcements: ICANN’s staff does the same thing in each announcement when it comes to timelines -  it says when it thinks the process will go live, using time periods such as Q1, Q2, to give some leeway and words such as “anticipated” in order to try to make clear that it is not all within the staff’s control.

That’s the model of decision-making that ICANN has gone with - where the community is the key decider and where community-wide consensus is the measure for moving forward. On the downside, this approach makes keeping to timelines very dfficult, but on the plus side, once there is agreement, it is across the whole community.

Kieren McCarthy
General manager of public participation, ICANN

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