ICANN’s plan to open up the domain name space to new top
level domains is scheduled to begin January 12, 2012. This long overdue implementation
is the result of an open process that began in 2006. It would, in fact, be more
realistic to say that the decision has been in the works 15 years; i.e., since early
1997. That is when demand for new top-level domain names, and the need for other
policy decisions regarding the coordination of the domain name system, made it clear
that a new institutional framework had to be created. ICANN was the progressive
and innovative U.S. response to that need. It was created to become a nongovernmental,
independent, truly global and representative policy development authority.
The result has been far from perfect, but human institutions
never are. Over the past 15 years, every stakeholder with a serious interest in
the issue of top level domains has had multiple opportunities to make their
voice heard and to shape the policy. The resulting new gTLD policy reflects
that diversity and complexity. From our point of view, it is too regulatory,
too costly, and makes too many concessions to content regulators and trademark
holders. But delay is only going to make it worse. Stopping now disrupts the compromises that came out of the process which enabled movement forward after a long period of stagnation and artificial scarcity.
Now there is a cynical, illegitimate last-second push by a
few corporate interests in the United States to derail that process. The
arguments put forward by these interests are not new; they are the same
anti-new TLD arguments that have been made since 1997, and the concerns
expressed are all addressed in one way or another by the policies ICANN has
developed. What is new is that U.S. corporate trademark interests are openly
admitting that their participation in the ICANN process has been in bad faith
all along. Despite the multiple concessions and numerous re-dos that these
interests managed to extract over the past 6 years, they are now demanding that
everything grind to a halt because they didn’t get exactly what they demanded,
as if no other interests and concerns mattered and no other stakeholders exist.
What they wanted, in fact, was simply to freeze the status quo of 1996 into
place forever, so that there would be no new competition, no new
entrepreneurial opportunities, no linguistic diversification, nothing that
would have the potential to cause them any problems.
That group’s demands must be rebuffed, unambiguously and
finally. ICANN must start implementing the new TLD program on January 12 as
scheduled. It must keep its promise to those who participated in its
processes in good faith.
To its everlasting credit, the U.S. Commerce Department, the
official governmental contractor and supervisor of ICANN, has not caved in to
the cynical corporate obstructionism. They realize what is at stake. Assistant
Secretary of Commerce Lawrence Strickling is responsible and intelligent enough
to understand what an unmitigated disaster it would be to pull the plug on 15
years of work. Strickling, unlike the more political Senator, knows that the stakes here go well beyond the merits or de-merits of new top
level domains. Any move to delay or pull back on the start date of the new TLD
program is an admission that ICANN does not really make the basic policy
decisions regarding the global domain name system. It is an admission that
ICANN itself is a failure. That throws us straight back to 1997, re-opening all
the instability and turmoil that we have tried to resolve by the creation of a new
global governance institution.
If ICANN blinks, if it deviates from or delays its agreed
and hard-fought policy in the slightest way, the coup d’etat succeeds. Everyone
in the world then concludes that a few corporate interests in the United States
hold veto power over the policies of the Internet’s domain name system. Imagine
the centrifugal forces that are unleashed as a result. Imagine the impact in Russia,
China, Brazil, India, South Africa, and even the EU, when they are told in no
uncertain terms that ICANN’s policy making is hostage to the whims of a few
well-placed, narrowly focused U.S. business interests; that they can invest
thousands of person-hours and resources to working in that framework only to
see the rug pulled out from under them by a campaign by the ANA and an editorial
by the New York Times. The entire institutional infrastructure we have spent 15
years trying to build will be drained of its life.
Of course no one is perfectly happy with the new TLD program.
But no one should be wildly irrational enough to assume that they can have exactly what they want and that the
whole process should be stopped until they get it. Any modification to the DNS
involves millions of stakeholders and dozens of conflicting interest groups. Without
question, we have reached the point where satisfying one group more, will satisfy
other groups less. The idea that the basic conflicts of interest at the heart
of this controversy will magically vanish if we delay things is worse than naïve,
it shows a pathological misunderstanding of social process. To delay now is to give one, very narrow interest group
exactly what it wants (no new TLDs) and everyone else nothing. That is a far
worse solution than ICANN’s flawed but workable program.
ICANN needs to make a statement
that it is going forward on January 12. It must strongly reaffirm its ability to deliver on the
promise of a nongovernmental, multistakeholder, global governance institution. It
should celebrate the opening of its application period. It should throw a big party. Delaying the decision, as Senator Rockefeller requests, will not change the political conflicts at issue one bit, or make the policy any better; it will simply face the same requests for obstruction or delay months or years down the road. Bite the bullet and get it done.