The Seoul ICANN meeting is over and my reaction to it is complex. On the one hand, the meeting felt like a fresh start: it was a showcase for the optimistic, likeable and accessible new President, Rod Beckstrom; it marked the end of the Commerce Department JPA; and it put into place a new domain name policy making structure with a revitalized and somewhat more empowered civil society segment (the NCSG).
On the other hand, ICANN's continuing inability to define an ongoing process for the routine addition of new top level domain names, and the multiplication of new obstacles in their attempt to do so, hung over the meeting like a thick cloud of gray Seoul smog. It produced a deadening feeling that we have been on the same stupid treadmill for 10 years, a cycle in which a seemingly endless array of hopeful applicants repeatedly push for access and are repeatedly delayed by a lethal combination of protectionism, politics, and technical FUD.
Let there be no mistake about it: this is a serious problem that calls into question the very basis of ICANN. It's easy to get lost in the details, but take away all the extraneous matter and here is the problem: ICANN administers the root of the domain name system and it still doesn't know how to deal with the most important question a root administrator must answer, namely on what basis should new top level domain names be added, how many should be added, and how shall we decide who gets them?
Can you imagine a radio spectrum authority that was unable to decide, after more than a decade, the basic principles and procedures under which commercial and noncommercial users were licensed to use radio frequencies? What would be said about the Regional Internet Address Registries if they were not able to agree on policies and procedures for handing out IP addresses for a decade?
I don't care whether you think there should be lots of new TLDs or only a few; I don't care whether you like specific applications or policy approaches that are out there. The basic point is that, after 10 years, there ought to be a defined policy and procedure for adding new TLDs. There ought to be a clear path that lets anyone who thinks they want to operate a new top level domain registry know what is permitted and what is not, and how to go about applying for one with a decision expected in a reasonably bounded time frame. There is nothing exceptional about the domain name space technology or economics that makes these problems unresolvable. If they cannot be resolved, it tells us that there is something fundamentally awry with ICANN's institutional structure.
Nature abhors a vacuum; so as long as ICANN can't provide a clear, predictable and rule-based method for adding TLDs, what rushes in to fill that vacuum is an arbitrary series of improvised “special additions” that reflect the worst sort of political lobbying and favoritism. TLDs are dispensed as rewards or payoffs to political power groups. E.g., the European Union gets .eu not because it is a “country code” as they dishonestly claimed, but because they wanted one, they were perceived as powerful and the US and ICANN wanted to buy European support for ICANN. Now, the national monopoly country code registries get to enter the IDN space before anyone else because ICANN wants their political support. In the meantime, hundreds if not thousands of legitimate potential innovators are deferred endlessly, their investors' money burned, their ideas and dreams stranded.
This is a scandal. When will it end? History's verdict on ICANN hinges on the answer to that question.