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And Then There Was the Issue of Time

June 2008 Paris, France: “The Board of ICANN today approved a recommendation that could see a whole range of new names introduced to the Internet’s addressing system.”

“The Board today accepted a recommendation from its global stakeholders that it is possible to implement many new names to the Internet, paving the way for an expansion of domain name choice and opportunity” said Dr Paul Twomey, President and CEO of ICANN.

“A final version of the implementation plan must be approved by the ICANN Board before the new process is launched. It is intended that the final version will be published in early 2009.”

Today, 28 months after that announcement, applicants continue to wait patiently for all of the “t’s” to be crossed and all of the “i’s” to be dotted in the final Applicant Guidebook and the announcement for the start date for ICANN to accept applications. On one hand, the time it has taken can be explained when viewed through the prism of the detailed work that was needed to ensure a stable and secure process; on the other hand 2¼ years later is a very long time.

Anyone who has been part of the community during its soon-to-be 12-years of existence will be the first to tell you that while ICANN’s intentions are good, its execution, time and again, has been lacking. Unfortunately, the global business world does not and cannot accept only good intentions. Businesses require surety, consistency and clear evidence of stability before they can establish the foundation for their enterprises. And while it should be acknowledged that ICANN has grown in many of these areas during its short history, still more needs to be done. There must be a more efficient approach to provide businesses, organizations and communities contemplating applying to manage a new generic Top-Level Domain (gTLD) with the certainty business and investors demand, while also addressing the essential stability and operational issues.

As we near the point where the final Applicant Guidebook will soon be posted, allowing all interested parties to prepare their applications, it is a good time to take a longer look at what the timeline for new gTLD applications details. According to the current plans, once prospective applicants pay their USD $185,000 and file their application documents, they face the specter of having little to do for the next 11-12 months in a best-case scenario—stretching out past 2-years should challenges arise—until their application is approved and their TLD is added to the root.

What should happen is that ICANN staff should publish a draft of the concrete steps that will be undertaken for the proposed global awareness campaign now for public consideration so that the community could comment on it before the Cartegena meeting. Instead, the ‘4-month global awareness campaign’ that was established back when the GNSO Council anticipated the Board launching the new gTLD process within 12-months of its recommendation is still an open question. Over these past 2 years, many community members have asked when that campaign will kick off and no one from staff has ever been able to answer the question. Yet, as it stands today, once the Board blesses the final Guidebook, every prepared applicant will further submit to an arbitrary 4-month moratorium before they can tender their application.

In point of fact, the ‘awareness campaign’ has been ongoing since June 2008 Paris (28 months)—and well-documented by the global media—so one would hope that the ICANN Board acknowledges this and will consider moving forward immediately on the awareness campaign rather than waiting to start the 4 month endeavor.

Following the proposed four months of awareness building, it appears there will be a 3-month window for application submissions. If I understand this correctly, some 7-months after the final Applicant Guidebook is approved, evaluations will get underway in earnest. And this is just the starting point of what ICANN staff have announced to be an 8-month evaluation process for those applications with no issues, and as much as (and perhaps longer than) 19-months for those that encounter opposition or other such issues. For those of you counting with me, that is a 15-month process for a simple, unopposed application and perhaps as much as 26-months for more challenging ones! Add to that the almost two years (and counting) that the Guidebook drafting timeline has slipped and one starts to see how difficult, costly and encumbering this process is for small business owners, small non-profits and larger enterprises alike.

As I interpret the Draft Applicant Guidebook v4, it appears that all applications will move through the process in serial and only at the end of 5-months will the Initial Evaluation of all applications be complete. If processing is done in parallel, wouldn’t that shorten the timeline? Consider the applicant that uses one of the existing registries as their backend service provider; how long does an evaluator need to confirm that VeriSign, for example, has the technical capability to run a new gTLD? Wouldn’t an applicant using an ICANN contracted backend provider lead to a shortened time frame? These two ideas, along with initiating the awareness campaign now, are examples of ways the timeline could be made more reasonable.

ICANN has missed the mark, so far, of “...provid[ing] a clear roadmap for applicants…”, as noted in the Preamble to the current iteration of the Guidebook. But, in this case, we have the possibility to redress the problem before the final book is posted. The Board and staff have the ability now to look at the timeline more closely and take steps to shorten it in a responsible, pragmatic way that fulfills the mandate for a responsible introduction of new gTLDs.

Practically, certain strings (gTLD names) are raising new sets of questions; for instance the use of a brand name as a top level domain, i.e., .BRANDNAME. Measures could be taken to establish a separate path for brands used as gTLDs whereby every brand that could possibly be applied for (irrespective of possibly being generic words) are provided a ‘safe harbor list’ until such time as ‘Single Registry Single User’ and other possible permutations have been appropriately considered. Certain unique issues arise when an entity holding intellectual property rights in an existing brand name wants to use this brand or prevent others from using it because of IP issues. It is a challenging issue and needs much more consideration. But, as argued herein, the current daunting timeline needs to be considerably shortened, not lengthen. A separate path for .BRANDNAME would support an earlier application date (for non-brand applicants), allow an approach to take a deep dive into issues related to brand names as gTLDs, and instil more confidence in ICANN.?
A second recommendation is to ‘put more hands on deck’. If the community is to take ICANN at its word vis-à-vis all aspects of the new gTLD process are scalable and cost neutral, then staff should scale up on evaluators and reduce the review process to 60-90 days.

With only 10 weeks left in the year 2010, the ICANN Cartegena meeting in December looks to be yet another important milestone in the process of expanding name choice and opportunity. It should be the time the Board sets a date certain for ICANN to receive applications for new gTLDs. Figuring out how to proceed on an initial set of applications that are not affected by the overarching issues would be the best way forward for all concerned. To support the Board’s deliberations, staff needs to review the timelines and recommend a more time efficient process for Board consideration.

By Ronald N. Andruff, President at ONR Consulting, Inc.

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