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The End is Nearly in Sight for New gTLDs

A little over two weeks from now the ICANN meeting in Cartagena de Indias will be over and, if ICANN has the courage of its convictions, the new generic top-level domain (gTLD) program should be on the home stretch, heading towards its official May 30 launch. The ground rules will be clear, the process predictable, and applicants will be able to begin to implement their strategies with confidence. As Elvis Presley once sang, it will be a time for “a little less conversation, a little more action, please”.

Cartagena will undoubtedly be a time for some fierce debate and lobbying, as all those with a stake in the gTLD process try to win more concessions for their positions in the proposed final Applicant Guidebook (AGB). But they should do so respectful of and within the framework of the timetable ICANN has now committed to. To attempt to insert delay into the program now, to stonewall, to stubbornly place barriers to the AGB’s approval, would only serve to erode the credibility of the ICANN process overall, which harms us all.

The AGB as it is now written is good enough—once a few i’s have been dotted and t’s crossed—to serve for the first round of new gTLD applications. Cartagena will provide the community with the opportunity to help ICANN polish the document, not to lobby for a ground-up rewrite.

All launches of any scale and significance inevitably have some teething troubles—look to some of Google and Facebook’s recent stumbles in the social networking space for easy examples. The new gTLD program is ICANN’s biggest “product” launch in many years, possibly its biggest ever. Unlike for-profit companies, however, ICANN’s product development has had the benefit of years of open criticism and constructive input from constituencies with diverse perspectives and diverse goals from all over the world. The gradual development of the Applicant Guidebook may have been one of the largest and most comprehensive user focus groups in the history of the Internet.

It has also been one of the largest exercises in compromise. Views about every possible harmful consequence that can be imagined arising from a perceived failing in the AGB have already been aired, in some cases many times. Those concerns have been taken on board and, where required, measures have been implemented to reduce the likelihood of adverse outcomes. It is true that some constituencies did not receive every concession they lobbied for (and continue to lobby for), but that was to be expected from the outset. The community is diverse; for ICANN to give every stakeholder everything they asked for would have created an untenable AGB, riddled with internal contradictions, that would have been a surefire recipe for disaster if implemented.

What we have instead is a Guidebook that provides some balance between the needs of applicants and the rights of others. Is it perfect? No. Some probable applicants still have concerns about issues such as variant strings and fees. Intellectual property interests continue to complain that the strong rights protection mechanisms in the AGB are not strong enough. Governments are still focused on the treatment of geographical strings. But these concerns and others have already largely been heard, balanced and addressed in the Guidebook. There have been tweaks to policies along the way, and there will certainly be more tweaks in future.

In a compromise environment, creating an untested process, perfection out of the gate is impossible. Some matters may have to wait until the second round of applications before being resolved fully. ICANN’s Chairman, Peter Dengate Thrush, was completely correct when he stated this week “the new gTLD process cannot be all things to all people, and that some issues can be better addressed in successive rounds”. The AGB currently predicts the second application window opening a year after the first closes, which would date it to mid-late 2012 under the current timetable. That will be a year in which reams of useful experience and usable data will be accrued.

What would be now more harmful to ICANN and the ICANN community? The fallout from minor teething troubles with the first new gTLD round, or the perception that the organization has fallen into an infinitely recursive loop of Guidebook drafts, working groups and comment periods? These are the kinds of questions that we all need to ask ourselves as we board our planes to Colombia.

With the timetable announced and ICANN showing an encouraging enthusiasm for getting the show on the road next May, it is now crucial that the organization’s leadership does not back-track or U-turn on its commitment. ICANN should not now cave to pressure from narrow interest groups by reversing its position on the timetable and introducing more delays. To do so could appear to the outside world like something approaching capture, and would certainly harm ICANN’s credibility on the global stage.

To criminally paraphrase John F. Kennedy, Cartagena will be a time not only for ICANN to serve its community but also for the community to serve ICANN. All stakeholders have an interest in a credible ICANN, an ICANN with authority, capable of making strong decisions for the benefit of the global Internet community, and the best way to achieve that goal is to facilitate the Board’s approval of the Applicant Guidebook. At the same time, it is incumbent on the Board to have the courage to recognize which parts of the AGB are in need of refinement and which issues do not need to be reopened, and approve the policy for its planned May 2011 launch.

By Johnny Du, VP, StableTone Ltd

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