Like a clinging, overbearing parent, the U.S. Commerce Department just can’t seem to let go of ICANN. Yesterday Lawrence Strickling, the Assistant Secretary in charge of the NTIA, sent a stern letter to ICANN’s CEO in an attempt to dictate the course of domain name policy.
Strickling called for yet another delay in the implementation of new top level domains. Why? Incredibly, the Commerce Department is claiming that the issue hasn’t been studied enough! Strickling thus ignores ten years of research, deliberation and debate both inside and outside ICANN – some of it commissioned by the Commerce Department itself. It ignores the fact that the current policy process began in 2006 and made a decision to add new TLDs long ago. It asks ICANN to perform a “comprehensive economic analysis” comparing the costs and benefits of new top level domains – as if we were in the earliest stages of policymaking. The NTIA’s claim is so patently absurd and so late in the game that it can almost certainly be written off as a political gesture by the Commerce Department to show the trademark and law enforcement interests who are hostile to new TLDs that it is supporting them.
There is a huge disconnect at work here. From ICANN’s perspective, we are in the end game of a (sort of) bottom up policy process that has been going on since 2006, a process of multiple rounds of comment, studies, revisions and consultations. The process has consumed enormous amounts of time and effort. Certainly there are still legitimate grounds for debate about a few remaining implementation details (such as the censorship issue), but to ask the basic question “do we want new TLDs at all?” at this stage is pretty ridiculous. We’ve been there and done that.
OK, OK, I admit that, so far, no systematic study addresses whether new gTLDs cause cancer.
Let’s pretend that this is a sincere and good faith request from Mr. Strickling. For his benefit, we recommend some homework, a little bedtime reading to bring him and the rest of the NTIA up to speed on the ongoing debate over the economic implications of new top level domains. The following list includes commissioned consultancy reports, reports of ICANN working groups that dealt with economic issues, and reports commissioned by the US government itself. The list below was assembled hurriedly in about an hour in my office; much more could be found.
In 1998 the Commerce Department asked staff economists at the Federal Trade Commission to provide advice about introducing competition into domain name registration; the FTC responded in March 1998. http://www.ftc.gov/be/v980005.shtm
An expert panel that included distinguished economists, trademark lawyers, policy experts, information scientists and technical experts spent four years putting together the study “Signposts in Cyberspace”(authorized by Congress in 1998, funded and commissioned by the Commerce Department and National Science Foundation in 2001, executed by the National Research Council, completed in March 2005) (I served on this panel)
Survey of the usage of the .biz top level domain, Harvard Berkman Center
The August 2004 Summit Strategies report analyzing legal, policy and economic results of the new TLDs created in 2000
Revisiting Vertical separation of Registrars and registries, Charles Rivers Associates International, October 2008.
Michael Kende’s critique of Carleton report, commissioned by AT&T.
A list of ICANN workshops held on vertical integration of registries and registrars in the context of new TLDs
The Salop and Wright study Registry-Registrar Separation: Vertical Integration Options (January 28, 2010)
WIPO reports and discussions regarding new gTLDs
An Economic Framework for the Analysis of the Expansion of Generic Top-Level Domain Names, by Katz, Rosston and Sullivan (June 2010)
To anyone who actually makes their way through this material, it will be obvious that the issue has been debated exhaustively. That is not to say that these studies are masterpieces, but simply that no new consultancy study commissioned by ICANN is likely to have a major impact – either on our understanding of the issue or on the level of political support enjoyed by any option.