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ICANN’s GAC Talks Are Critical For New gTLDs

With Bill Clinton’s appearance at ICANN San Francisco now confirmed to be more than mere rumor, the March meeting will be a very big event indeed. On its home turf, and under the glare of possibly unprecedented global attention, ICANN may feel some pressure to make sure it has some noteworthy news to announce at the end of the week, after its Board of Directors meets. I hope, as do many others, that the Applicant Guidebook will be finally approved and that the new generic top-level domains (gTLD) program can be at last launched.

But there’s one big political hurdle to jump before that is possible, a hurdle that Clinton himself could probably empathize with. That is, of course, ICANN’s upcoming talks with its Governmental Advisory Committee, whose concerns remain the most substantial obstacle to the Guidebook being finalized and rubber-stamped by the Board. ICANN is reportedly pushing for a meeting to take place on February 28 and March 1 in Geneva, although it has not yet officially announced the dates or location.

All stakeholders with a desire to see ICANN survive and thrive should fervently hope that these talks are productive, and not merely a replay of previous meetings, many of which have been characterized by petty bickering and seemingly endless debates about process rather than policy. It’s well-known that ICANN and the GAC have a record of poor communications, so we should all hope that the Geneva meeting signals the beginning of a new era of closer cooperation.

There can be few better recent examples of the consequences of poor communication than the joint meeting of the Board and the GAC in Cartagena last month. How much of that 90-minute session was devoted to discussing the substantive issues—the GAC’s dozen concerns with the Applicant Guidebook? Very little. In fact, more than half of the meeting was eaten up discussing the meaning of “advice”, whether ICANN has listened to GAC advice in years past, what ICANN should do when it rejects GAC advice, whether ICANN sufficiently explains its decisions to reject GAC advice, whether the GAC promised to provide its advice more quickly, and other meta-level concerns that, while important, served primarily to hold up the important business of making decisions and creating actionable policy. Even the agreed agenda seemed to be up for debate after the meeting had begun.

I’m sure the Board, GAC, and many other members of the ICANN community would agree: these brief thrice-yearly encounters should not be consumed by this kind of circumstantial discussion, especially when there are important issues at stake. The Accountability and Transparency Review Team, which published its final report in the final hours of 2010, also agreed that the GAC-Board relationship is currently broken; almost a quarter of its recommendations deal with how to fix it.

Political stalemate of the type witnessed in Cartagena harms innovation and competition in our industry by leaving companies in limbo. The main reason why new gTLD applicants have had to delay their launch plans (but not their ongoing operating costs) by a quarter or more is that the GAC and Board currently have what the ATRT report called a “dysfunctional” relationship. Even the GAC recognized in its most recent Communique that “many gTLD applicants have made significant investments in their business models” and that “gTLD applicants have had a legitimate expectation that the process for introducing new gTLDs should have been concluded by now.”

This is an encouraging statement. It suggests that the GAC will show up at the February meeting with a strong commitment to come to some conclusive agreements about the gTLD program. Both GAC and Board will need to have such resolve if the talks are to be as substantial and productive as the industry needs them to be. Even two days could be insufficient if too much time is wasted discussing process—both parties need to enter talks with a clear understanding of the rules of engagement and their respective positions and the good faith to compromise where necessary and reach agreements that advance the program to its finalization in San Francisco.

When (and if) Bill Clinton takes the stage two months from now, it will be to address the stakeholders of an organization he helped create, an organization that is one of his administration’s notable legacies. ICANN was created by a single government, but it is now accountable to all of us. It was created to create competition and promote innovation in the domain name industry, and San Francisco will be the time for it to finally deliver on that promise. But that’s only going to happen if a comprehensive deal can be made in Geneva.

Will the President be able to talk about an ICANN that has largely resolved one of the greatest issues facing its multi-stakeholder model, or will his keynote be a prelude to another week of counter-productive process-heavy debate? Will he be able to talk about the boost to innovation and competition that ICANN will be on the cusp of enabling? Will the Applicant Guidebook for new gTLDs be just a few days away from approval, or a few months? This will all depend on what happens over the coming weeks leading up to the ICANN-GAC meeting, and on the determination and resolve of its participants. I’m looking forward to hearing Clinton speak, and I hope he has good news to report.

By Johnny Du, VP, StableTone Ltd

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