What ICANN is doing wrong

A couple of recent articles have caught my attention because they offer scathing criticism of ICANN.

The first is a long and convoluted article by Kieren McCarthy on the .JOBS debacle. Kieren has basically written a feature that only a seasoned ICANN insider can hope to understand and that’s a pity, because the points he makes appear very valid. Namely that ICANN is incapable of looking at itself in the mirror and admitting when it’s wrong.

The second is an op-ed that makes it clear ICANN often has no-one but itself to blame for the bad press it receives.

Take the long list ICANN directors this article points its finger at as having a stake in the new gTLD game. Anyone not well-versed with the ICANN process would certainly look with some discomfort at the fact that several industry people sit on the Board of the organisation that is approving the Internet’s biggest expansion ever. And, be thankful for small mercies, author David Rowan has apparently not heard of previous ICANN Chairman Peter Dengate-Thrush’s damaging move to a new gTLD firm minutes after he’d led the Board to an approval vote for the program last June. Otherwise he would have surely painted an even starker picture of ICANN…

As it stands, the picture is bleak, and yes it is one-sided. The truth is that the reason the governance model that ICANN embodies is so strong is in part because it involves industry insiders. For that read people who actually understand what they’re voting on! A welcome change from traditional politician-driven governance bodies where the decision makers don’t know the slightest thing about the market they’re looking at.

But ICANN has not been tough enough with itself in the past, and thus left itself wide open to such attacks. Under existing ICANN rules, Dengate-Thrush did nothing wrong. But that doesn’t make it right, because there’s a difference between doing what you’re allowed to do and doing the right thing. ICANN has since beefed up the onus on its directors to disclose potential conflicts of interests and is asking them more clearly not to benefit directly from Board decisions. It should have come sooner.

Up until now, ICANN has also made a very poor job of explaining how it works, and the benefits it brings. Instead, when it doesn’t work, ICANN just gets all upset and sulks, treating critics with at best disdain, at worst outright arrogance.

And that’s a pity, because its public/private sector-led governance model remains better suited to something as fast-evolving as the Internet than some sclerosis-riddled organisation who’s members might sometimes value state control more than individual freedoms or public service.

ICANN’s final preparations for new gTLDs

I think it’s fair to say that ICANN is in a state of near meltdown at the moment. With less than a week to go before the new gTLD program’s first application window is opened, on Thursday January 12, 2012, the amount of work being done is mind-bending.

The ICANN Board held a special meeting on January 5 to determine the program’s state of readiness ahead of the launch. Out of that meeting comes a roadmap showing key dates, major steps already completed, and others still to complete.

Biggest shock to prospective applicants might be that a new version of the applicant guidebook – the program’s bible – is scheduled for release on January 11. The day before the program launches!

And while the application and fee processing systems are now listed as ready, the batch processing mechanism will not be completed until February 29. That’s more than a month into the Jan 12 to Apr 12 application window.

The entity tasked with running the trademark protection database known as the Trademark Clearinghouse won’t be selected until the end of February either. While the governmental early warning system designed to enable states to point out those applications they don’t like will have to wait until the end of March.

However, this is part of the normal launch program and should not give cause for concern. Apart from the late publication of a new version of the guidebook, the other steps can be covered concurrent to the launch window. And ICANN is being very open about these final preparations so that applicants are not taken by surprise.

Bottom line, there can now be little doubt. The new gTLD program will launch on January 12… and ICANN will be ready!

US government shows perfect understanding of Internet governance

Laurence Strickling, US Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information and the NTIA’s (National Telecommunications and Information Administration) Administrator has sent a letter to ICANN Chairman Steve Crocker on the new gTLD program.

The letter is dated January 3, 2012. Nine days before the scheduled launch of the program on January 12.

I am very impressed by the letter.

The US government clearly gets the unique multistakeholder governance model that ICANN embodies. The letter is a statement of staunch support for that model, right down to the constructive criticism of the new gTLD program it puts forward.

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Pressure mounts on new gTLDs

Yesterday evening, the GNSO held its last teleconference of the year. We had invited ICANN’s new gTLD supremo Kurt Pritz to give an update on the recent US Congress hearings.

Kurt was ICANN’s spokesperson in both hearings, and felt that the first was more favourable to ICANN than the second. When I asked him if he thought the launch of the new gTLD program might be delayed as a result of these hearings, his response was a cryptic: "the risk is greater than zero".

Although there are calls for a delay to the program, it was fiercely defended by both Pritz and some American politicians who want to see ICANN’s unique model of non state-centric governance succeed. "The New gTD Program demonstrates the strength of the bottom-up, multi-stakeholder process," Pritz said in his testimony to the US House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Communications and Technology. "The New gTLD Program under discussion today is the implementation of an ICANN-community policy recommendation to achieve one of ICANN’s foundational mandates."

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Needy applicants to pay USD 47,000 for new gTLDs

As part of its drive to open up its new gTLD program to potential applicants that do not have the financial resources to fulfil the full program requirements, ICANN is reducing the fees from USD 185,000 to USD 47,000. A 76% rebate!

But before applicants decide to drop their current business model and relocate to an under privileged country, they should know that there are strict criteria to qualify for the rebate. The first prerequisite: that their TLD serve the public interest and operate in the benefit of the public.

Applicants applying for the support will also have to accept being evaluated later. ICANN needs the extra time to evaluate the requests for support. Those TLD applications that are successful will then be evaluated in the same way as all the others.

However, applicants requesting support and not passing that evaluation would then be invalidated for the whole TLD application process. A logical attempt to discourage those that do not need support from "trying it on".

The amount of applications that can be supported will be limited by the amount of money available in the support fund. So far, ICANN has set aside USD 2 million for the fund, and has called for others to chip in. If no-one does, then a maximum of 14 needy applicants will be supported. That means some applicants may qualify for support, but ICANN may not have the funds to grant it. In such cases, the applicants will be given the choice to either continue as non-supported applicants and pay the full fee, or withdraw from the process.

ICANN’s plan is to recruit the applicant support evaluation panel by June 2012 and to be able to notify those applicants that have been deemed in need of support by November of next year.