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After Cartagena, New TLD Timetable Back in Limbo

While ICANN’s meeting in Colombia last week made some welcome progress towards a finalized Applicant Guidebook for new generic Top-Level Domain (gTLD) registries, it was still something of a disappointment for the many of us in the community who had hoped the meeting would see ICANN officially approve the program, in readiness for its previously announced May 30, 2011 launch date.

Now, gTLD applicants find themselves in the same position they did prior to October—without any concrete, official guidance on when ICANN anticipates opening up its first-round gTLD application window. We had a brief glimmer of certainty for the few weeks we had a timetable to stick to, and now it looks like applicants are back in limbo. Is the May 30 deadline still achievable? It does not seem possible, but ICANN has not officially scrapped its previously announced timetable, nor has it replaced it with anything else. Applicants that have already exhibited the patience of saints are being asked once again to linger while ICANN deals with the concerns of hold-out stakeholder groups.

Let us not forget that an application window opening in May 2011 would already have been two years late compared to ICANN’s original plan, which anticipated a second-quarter 2009 launch. This is far from the first time that applicants have been forced to return to their communities to explain that their gTLDs are, once again, on hold (and, no, sorry, they don’t know for how long). In certain cases, companies’ hiring plans may have to be temporarily frozen, investors may have to be educated and mollified, and budgetary considerations may have to be rethought.

Even the ICANN Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC), whose outstanding concerns are the primary reason the process has been kicked down the road again, has acknowledged that the delays have gone on for too long, saying, ironically, in its Cartagena communique last week that, “mindful that many gTLD applicants have made significant investments in their business models, the GAC recognizes that gTLD applicants have had a legitimate expectation that the process for introducing new gTLDs should have been concluded by now.”

But let it not be said that Cartagena was all bad news. Encouraging progress was made. The ICANN Board appears to have locked-down some previously controversial issues, such as intellectual property rights protection mechanisms, root scaling and malicious conduct prevention, and noises from the ICANN Chair suggest that any subsequent changes to these parts of the Applicant Guidebook will now be small. Other problem areas, such as geographic names and morality and public order objections, were identified as being close to completion but as-yet inconclusive.

The main hold-up now looks like the GAC, and the long list of reasons why it is still not comfortable with ICANN approving new gTLDs that it sent to the Board last week. On some of these issues, the ICANN Board may be able to give ground to the GAC without upsetting the carefully (and lengthily) negotiated community position. On others, where the community has already been heard loud and clear and to reopen policy negotiations would add substantial delay to the process, the Board will have to take a strong, principled stance and clearly explain to the GAC why it will choose to overrule it. In its negotiations with the GAC, expected to happen face-to-face next February, the ICANN staff and Board will need to remember to tick all the procedural boxes to ensure that further talks and further delays cannot be demanded due to process technicalities.

Once the GAC and ICANN have settled their differences, the main buffer between the Applicant Guidebook being approved and the application window opening is the four-month communications period that ICANN intends to conduct, in order to make sure anybody who conceivably could want to apply for a gTLD is aware of the program. This means that the only way a mid-2011 application date would be feasible now is if the communications period starts before the Guidebook is approved, or if the period itself is streamlined. That first idea may not be possible, but is the second? Is the length of the communications campaign set in stone at four months?

Could it not be shortened to, perhaps, two months? Remember that the period of the outreach effort was recommended by the GNSO as what it considered a reasonable length of time to educate companies and organizations not active in ICANN about the opportunities the new gTLD program presents. But that decision was made back in 2007. Since then, coverage of the program has been global—articles about it can be found in the mainstream media as well as the technology, marketing and IP trade press. This week, Google News links to dozens of stories from all over the world about the decisions made in Cartagena. There can be few CIOs, trademark attorneys or branding professionals anywhere in the world who are not already aware of the program. Is it not within the GNSO Council’s power to call for a more streamlined communications period, without compromising its original principles?

That may not be achievable, given the varied interests at the table and the short space of time available for debate, but it is surely worth investigating further. If it transpires that there are no mechanisms for accelerating the launch timetable, at the very least ICANN’s leadership should consider making a statement as soon as possible explaining when it anticipates the new gTLD program launching, to possibly reinstate some of the confidence and visibility gTLD applicants have been able to experience over the last six weeks. Visibility into ICANN’s target dates is no substitute for an accelerated launch timetable, but it’s better than no visibility, and will show that ICANN still intends to go live with new gTLDs in an “orderly, timely and predictable” way.

By Johnny Du, VP, StableTone Ltd

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