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Stumbling Forward Means Promoting IDNs

A couple of weeks ago during the 40th ICANN meeting in San Francisco I got up to talk at the microphone.

I spoke about the needs of developing markets on the web, about the importance of focusing on the 56% of the world that doesn’t use Latin character scripts and about the struggles they still face as they go about their everyday lives—chatting, shopping or when pushed, promoting regime change—all using the internet.

I cited North African users like the Tunisians, who use both French and Arabic in all aspects of their lives, and asked simply—why not give them a break? When asking for new generic Top-Level Domains (gTLDs), why not give them the opportunity to submit one application that covers both scripts, a packaged price that addresses both sides of their linguistic identity—as opposed to the current “one-price-fits-all” policy promoted by ICANN? Moreover, to support underserved scripts on the web generally and address the digital divide, why not offer packaged prices so that groups willing to build out in less popular Internationalized Domain Name (IDN) scripts can do so not at a $185,000 premium, but at cost.

There was polite applause when I finished speaking. And I am proud to say that there were others who rose to support this idea of group pricing during the meeting.

However, a wise man once told me that to really make your case often the best way is to bring in the big guns. You know, find a spokesperson with gravitas. The ideal candidate would be someone respected across the community. Someone with a long history of work with the net. Someone with a profound understanding of where the ICANN community has come from, and a vision of where it might go.

Fortunately for me, Bill Clinton happened to be speaking the next day.

Now I won’t for a second claim that the ex-President came to support my point of view. But facts, as they might say in Little Rock, are facts. So let me be so bold as to agree with one of the most eloquent speakers of our time…

In his speech Mr. Clinton focused on three broad themes as far as my notes go. The first was the need to pay more attention to emerging markets, to create a digital future for the whole world—not just those of us fortunate to have heard of ICANN. In his discourse he spoke passionately about the need to harness the power of the internet in development, citing the cases of Haiti and Afghanistan, and also mentioned the recent upheavals in the Middle East. Said Clinton, “One hundred years from now, you want somebody in some God-forsaken place that’s been beat down to be able to do what the kids in Cairo did”. Amen. But if that God-forsaken place happens to be a place that doesn’t use Latin script to communicate, will tomorrow’s “kids in Cairo” be able to get what they need from the web? Package pricing might help ensure access to the content they need.

Secondly, the President called on us to be flexible and creative in the way we approach the future. ICANN, he noted, had changed and been successful in part because of its flexibility. Part of that flexibility from the start had been flexibility around money. At the start of the internet, the Clinton Administration promoted e-commerce by barring taxes on internet access… and billions of dollars and much value in online commerce was the result. The same thing could happen in IDN scripts, which could flourish… if ICANN takes a flexible, creative approach to IDN pricing.

Finally, perhaps the thing I remember most about the speech is when President Clinton in an “aw shucks moment” talked about his four balanced budgets and the need for financial common sense, saying—and this is a bad paraphrase I know—something like “in Arkansas we believe in arithmetic”. Well, I live in Washington where funny math is the rule, but this struck a chord with me since the entire point of packaged pricing is offer a benefit for users around the world at the best price of all: nothing. Packaged pricing—where a second or third IDN would be combined with strings from larger scripts at just the additional technical cost of adding the IDN—still adds to ICANN’s coffers with an annual registry fee, while costing nothing new to ICANN. And it could provide content in languages which otherwise might never appear on the web in any meaningful way. Sounds just like the kind of arithmetic the non-English-speaking world needs more of.

So you do the math. On IDNs I’ll follow the advice of the President. We need to do more to promote the needs of emerging markets. We need to be flexible, even creative around money issues, working with prices to provide access. And we need to approach new gTLDs and the future of the web in ways that balance our vision with a healthy respect for the fundamentals of arithmetic. That President Clinton is one really smart guy.

By Andrew Mack, Principal at AMGlobal Consulting

Andrew Mack is Principal of AMGlobal Consulting, a specialized Washington, DC-based consulting firm that helps companies do more and better business in Emerging Markets. A former World Bank project manager and finance professional with experience in more than 80 countries, Mack is internationally-recognized for his work on Public-Private Partnership, Corporate Social Responsibility and economic development issues—including work on Internet policy and its impacts on the spread of technology to Africa, Latin America and other underserved regions.

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