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Why the new gTLD process is going off on another wrong tangent

Category : Domain names, ICANN, Internet, Internet governance · by Dec 28th, 2009

I’ve just submitted a response to an ICANN public comment period asking for feedback on a model that would allow people to send in “expressions of interest” for new Internet extensions like dot-com or dot-info.

Broadly, ICANN is putting a system in place that would allow anyone to apply for their own Internet extension (known as a “generic top-level domain” or gTLD). So long as you follow the rules you will be granted one. As you might guess, this is not a simple process to put in place and so after a few years of work, we are currently at the stage where there are a few issues left to decide and the organization is looking to gather as much information as it can on those that are going to apply so it can prepare.

The reason I’ve sent in a response is because I think its latest model of asking people to send in “expressions of interest” for new extensions has a few flaws that could cause further delay and problems. I also think the organisation itself needs to re-evaluate its approach to risk. So I’ve sent in my thoughts and outlined suggested changes along with my rationale. I look forward to seeing how ICANN responds – here’s hoping the organization has got better at demonstrating that it reads people’s responses.

Anyway, response is below and on the ICANN website. For more information on this particular part of the new gTLD process go here. To see others’ comments go here. To send in your own response, go here and go to “Add Comment”.

Response to the Expressions of Interest new gTLD model

In general, I think the community-supplied solution of allowing for potential new gTLD applicants to put forward “expressions of interest” before the Applicant Guidebook has been finalised is a useful compromise.

However, the mechanism outlined in the model published for public comment contains a number of flaws that may end up creating more problems further down the line.

If the model is going to work effectively as a measure of interest in new Internet extensions, it needs to be flexible and nimble. As it currently stands however, the model risks introducing bureaucratic strain and further delay.

In particular:

• The model appears to be an effort to reduce the risk of developing rules for new Internet extensions to as near zero as possible. We can all understand the desire to reduce risk but in a situation where the core goal is to increase competition in a market, this is not only an unrealistic goal but may end up undermining what the model is trying to achieve. ICANN staff and Board need to become more conversant with effective risk management techniques and write them into the process rather than try to devise ways to avoid risk.

• ICANN needs to recognise that there is a far greater community of Internet users out there that will have a strong interest in new gTLDs but are currently unaware of these preparatory steps. As such, making it compulsory for someone to file an Expression of Interest at this stage is an invitation for further delay and tension in the whole process. The logic of making it compulsory for people to sign up to a process before that process’ own rules have been finalized is also questionable. Expressions of Interest should not be compulsory for the first round of new gTLDs.

• The application fee of $55,000 is high and will only work if expressions of interest are compulsory for first-round consideration. However, this combination of early compulsory application and high fee is effectively a self-selection exercise within the existing ICANN community. ICANN has a duty to look beyond the few thousand individuals, companies and organisations it frequently interacts with and serve the broader Internet. The application fee should be reduced to a figure that will not trigger formal approval processes within organisations so that the expressions of interest model itself does not contribute to further delay and tension. A figure of $10,000 to $25,000 would be more effective.

• ICANN should supply a number of benefits to those that provide Expressions of Interest, rather than use such expressions solely as a cut-off to the process. For example, regular applicant-only update sessions by staff; a promise that questions asked by applicants will be answered directly; advance notice of papers and/or meetings; exclusive access to the application software and algorithms, and so on. If ICANN were to supply a high level of customer service to those that submit a formal expression of interest (and fee), it may overcome most potential applicants’ reticence to making their plans known as well as avoid the problems inherent in a compulsory model.

• The details of the “communications campaign” are dangerously sparse considering its vital importance in making the Expressions of Interest model legitimate and effective. The timetable outlined in the model foresees Board approval of the campaign in February, giving far too little time to develop it effectively. Even with a fully equipped communications team (and there is currently an open position for vice president of communications), this would be a tall order. There are also no metrics attached to the campaign to ascertain whether it has been sufficiently successful to allow the Expressions of Interest model to proceed effectively. Much greater attention needs to be paid to the communications campaign.

• The model misses a vital opportunity to gather useful data that could be made anonymous, analysed and published to give everyone a better overall perspective of the new gTLD process. For example, asking applicants to say how many registrations they expect for the first three years; how much they expect to spend on registration systems, registry systems, marketing, and so on; how they perceive their applied-for gTLD (mass market, niche, community, etc); what their greatest concerns are with the process (uncertainty; cost; name conflict); what they see as the greatest opportunities that the process represents. And so on. All this information could be compiled – removing any identifiable material – and published, giving everyone a better idea of what the nascent market for new Internet extensions looks like.

Those are my broad observations. Below is some counter-argument to assumptions included in production of the current model in an effort to demonstrate why the suggested changes above are not only achievable but also an improvement on the current approach.

Compulsory nature of the model

The paper represents the Expressions of Interest model as being either a “firm” (compulsory) or “soft” (non-compulsory) approach. The paper argues for a firm, i.e. compulsory process.

The “soft” option is represented as “containing minimal data” and having only the “perception of movement”. The approach, it is argued, “will provide no certain data and will consume additional resources (time and money) on the part of both ICANN and potential participants, with no real value added.” Finally the non-compulsory approach “could also result in a perceived bias toward EOI participants in the eventual application process.”

By contrast, the firm, compulsory model is represented as providing “data to
resolve, with certainty, demand, operational, and possibly other issues”. It “will be the most time-efficient and allow the most flexibility”.

It strikes me that this is a very one-sided approach to deciding the fundamental issue of whether this model is made a pre-requisite to a process that has been going for years. I would be much more comfortable seeing a list of pros and cons and then a reasoned explanation as to why ICANN staff felt one approach was preferable to the others.

As it stands, the “firm” approach has several significant cons, not least of which is that this is a brand new approach that was introduced at the last-minute at the Seoul meeting and yet it will have a controlling impact over the entire gTLD process.

ICANN appears not to have learnt the lesson of the overarching issues introduction after the first version of the Application Guidebook: that it cannot and should not assume that important actors are following the organisation’s every move.

The firm approach will certainly gather data but in so doing it attempts to bring down a shutter on applications a year before the full details of the process are agreed or published. It is not hard to see how large numbers of organizations across the world will be frustrated and infuriated when they hear about the possibility to apply for new Internet extensions only to be told that they had to pre-apply a year before.

I would strongly question the assumption that the firm approach provides “the most flexibility” when it clearly offers the least flexibility through its compulsory nature. A soft approach would be far more flexible. And no model at all is supremely flexible as it has no rules at all.

The suggestion that the firm approach is also the “most time-efficient” is also questionable. If expressions of interests are compulsory, it seems all too likely that the remaining issues to be decided will be held off until all the information is available. In effect, ICANN would be introducing a whole new part to the process rather than running it in parallel to ongoing discussions. In that respect, it is in fact the least time-efficient.

The soft approach

The assumptions applied to the soft approach also do not stand up to scrutiny. This approach would provide “minimal data” the paper argues. But that assumption itself makes the assumption that the majority of those that already have plans for new gTLDs would not provide an expression of interest unless it was compulsory. There is no evidence to back up that underlying assumption and, in fact, it was the potential gTLD applicants themselves that put forward the idea of expressions of interest to ICANN.

It seems strange to assume that a process requested by applicants themselves would be ignored by those same people, especially when the approach has already been seen to work in other areas of ICANN’s work (registrar transfers; IDN Fast Track; and others).

The soft approach, the paper argues, would add “no real value”. Again, this presumes that potential applicants will not provide an expression of interest unless compelled to do so.

And lastly, a non-compulsory approach “could also result in a perceived bias toward EOI participants in the eventual application process,” the paper argues. It is easy to turn this argument around the other way and point out that there would be advantages for those that send in expressions of interest – and then clearly list what those advantages are. That way, ICANN provides a useful additional service, rather than attempting to push the global Internet community into a pre-formed box.

The advantages to the soft approach are also overlooked. First, and most significantly, ICANN as an organisation has learned time and again that any effort to impose strict rules at short notice and without the full buy-in of the broader community invariably end in failure (or years of temporary fixes).

The soft approach has the very distinct advantage that it allows for the accumulation of data – which should help in working through the remaining overarching issues and in developing the application process – without imposing a rigid rule.

The important thing to focus on would be to provide incentives to potential applicants to apply. And that is where a public comment period could prove extremely useful – asking potential applicants themselves what would be most useful to them. This is an approach that worked for example in asking registrars about changes to the Registrar Accredition Agreement. There is no reason to believe it wouldn’t work for gTLD applicants.

Broadly, I think that ICANN’s staff has been seduced by the procedural advantages that a compulsory model would have, but without looking at it in the broader context of the new gTLD process.

It is understandable that having fixed and known quantities would make things easier from a planning perspective but it ignores the wider reality that the gTLD process is not something that affects only those that closely follow ICANN.

Of course, ICANN may still wish to continue down this path, but if it does so, it would be well advised to do a much better, and less biased, job of explaining the rationale behind that choice.

Risks and risk management

There is a section in the paper that covers “Risks considered” and then runs through a number of different scenarios in a similar way to companies outlining risks to their business models in an Initial Public Offering.

It strikes me that the paper – and the model itself – is confused between identifying risks and risk management. The paper highlights possible issues that will arise as a result of the process and then seeks to promote future solutions for each.

What this approach fundamentally fails to recognise however is that there will always be uncontrollable risks in this process, since it is an expansion of an unknown market. If ICANN seeks to introduce a different procedure for every aspect of risk that appears, or attempts to produce a new rule for each new issue, it will end up with a heavily delayed and hugely over-complex process that stifles the very competition it seeks to introduce.

Rather than provide hundreds of rules, a more efficient and effective solution is to introduce systems for managing risk. In essence, ICANN needs to recognise it cannot know the unknowable.

The October 2009 edition of Harvard Business Review advertised itself as the “Spotlight on Risk” issue. In one of its articles on risk titled “The Six Mistakes Executives Make in Risk Management”, the authors noted in their introduction:

“Risk management, we believe, should be about lessening the impact of what we don’t understand – not a futile attempt to develop sophisticated techniques and stories that perpetuate our illusions of being able to understand and predict the social and economic environment.”

The compulsory model proposed in this paper, and the risk-identification rather than risk-management approach taken, could very easily be seen as one of these futile attempts to “understand and predict the social and economic environment”.

The new gTLD process lives within an unpredictable social and economic environment and ICANN would do well to acknowledge that fact and design models accordingly.

I hope these thoughts and reflections are helpful going forward. I would like to highlight that the very nature of this public comment process means that my response is pre-determined to take a critical approach. As such, I would like to acknowledge the hard work and constant efforts made to find workable compromise solutions to a complex and difficult task both by the staff and the community.

Thanks,

Kieren McCarthy

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(11) comments

Michele
7 years ago ·

Kieren

Some interesting points.

The one that I would take issue with, however, is in relation to projected numbers. To date no applicant in any of the previous rounds of expansion was able to provide figures that were even remotely close to what transpired in reality. So what is the point in gathering this sort of “information”? The potential applicants can only guess, or (ab)use the popularity of “personal URLs” on the likes of Facebook etc., as barometers, but they’d get fired if they worked for the MET office

Michele

kierenmccarthy
7 years ago ·

@Michele: Well, if people are going to apply for a new gTLD, unless they are really stupid, they are going to devise some kind of model for guesstimating out how many registrations they expect in the first three years.

What gathering that information enables you to do is combine all that thought and brain-power in one place, combining the results of different models and giving an indication of what people believe the market will be.

Now, will it be accurate? It seems very unlikely. But it is far better than having nothing at all. It provides something for people to focus their attention on, rather than people making all sorts of other assumptions based on a vague personal notion of what will happen.

One of the biggest problems with the whole new gTLD process at the moment is people’s determination to somehow discover the answers before the questions are even asked. Both ICANN staff and community have to overcome their desire to control things and recognise that their job is to guide rather than direct.

Antony Van Couvering
7 years ago ·

Hi Kieran,

Glad to read your words again; welcome back to the World. Glad also to have a reasonable independent voice, and an interlocutor with whom an argument might yield some good results.

That said, I disagree with just about everything you’ve said, which I think comes from some faulty premises. Or if they’re not faulty, I’d be delighted to learn their factual basis.

First, you say, “ICANN needs to recognise that there is a far greater community of Internet users out there that will have a strong interest in new gTLDs but are currently unaware of these preparatory steps.” This is an assertion that may be a credo for some but has no evidence to support it. I’ve spent the last year knocking on every door imaginable, talking about new TLDs. Minds + Machines — either me personally, or someone who works with me — has made over hundreds of pitches to people we think would be interested in new TLDs. These include businesses, associations, municipalities, and individuals, nearly all of them from outside the domain name world. I would wager that our effort has been the most intense outreach on new TLDs that has ever taken place. The results? People have heard of new TLDs, and understand broadly what’s going on. The question is not, what’s a TLD? Rather it is, “Oh, is that really going to happen?” To me, here on the ground, the issue is not education of the existence of new TLDs or education about how the process works, but clarity about timelines and resolve. So I question the notion that there are tons of people out there who want new TLDs but haven’t heard of them. I don’t see any evidence of that.

Second, you suggest that the “firm” option has many disadvantages, “not least of which is that this is a brand new approach that was introduced at the last-minute at the Seoul meeting.” This dismissal, which I’ve heard before, is alternately hilarious and depressing. In either case, it is meaningless — how can the age, novelty, or originality of an idea have any bearing on its value or feasibility? Is it really so fantastical to assume that a small group of people, who know the field, working together, can come up with something viable? Arguing against an idea based solely on its recent vintage is not much of an argument at all.

You also assert that the “model appears to be an effort to reduce the risk of developing rules for new Internet extensions to as near zero as possible.” I’m not exactly sure what that means, but I can tell you that in the EOI Working Group at least there was no discussion of “risk of developing rules for new Internet extensions.” Could you expand a bit?

In general, I am confused by your risk management foray. Leaving Harvard Business School aside (usually a sound strategy), I’m guessing that the reason staff included a risk identification section is that they were directed to do so by the Board resolution. Also I don’t see anything particularly awful about it: staff identifies risks and possible effects, and then comments on how the risks could be mitigated. I doubt that the Harvard Business School could quibble about that.

I would contend that the opposite of your point, as I read it. I would say that often the biggest risks, which are rarely identified, and are not identified in the staff’s report, are the risks of *not* doing something. There is much analysis of what might happen if things went wrong, and virtually none of what might happen if things don’t go at all. ICANN’s job is to expeditiously put together a program, controlling the known variables up to a reasonable point, then setting the thing in motion. The EOIs are an immensely valuable first step in “setting things in motion.” The biggest risk in the new gTLD process is that of continued paralysis and delay.

The “soft” options you write about are, frankly, a complete waste of time, and no-one would use them. I’d like to state the reasons why.

First, you write that the report assumes that “the majority of those that already have plans for new gTLDs would not provide an expression of interest unless it was compulsory. There is no evidence to back up that underlying assumption and, in fact, it was the potential gTLD applicants themselves that put forward the idea of expressions of interest to ICANN.”

I see the evidence of this every day, and you would too if you looked at the right indicators. The first and most compelling piece of evidence is that number of announced new TLD efforts (see http://www.supportnewtlds.com) is infinitesimal compared to the number of serious application proposals that I personally know about, and that is likely a fraction of the total number. People are being very secretive about what they are going to apply for. They don’t want to be copied (e.g., .eco) and they don’t want to be ambushed by competitors they may not know about. That’s why, of the announced new TLD proposals, most are “community” applications where the pre-announcement is either neutral (because they are geographical communities, where the government decides on the winning bid), or else beneficial (because they need to rally community support).

We also know that there are a significant number of brands that will apply for new TLDs when the time comes. Companies such as Mark Monitor are openly providing application services even as they oppose new TLDs at ICANN. Why haven’t the brands announced their intentions to apply? After all, there is no risk (for most of them) of contention, since they have distinctive trademarked brands. We can ponder their motives, but it’s fair to say that whatever their reasons for keeping mum now, those same reasons will apply in a non-compulsory EOI submission (especially a fee-based one).

You write that a $10K to $25K fee would be sufficient, and that people would pay it voluntarily for some special benefits. “If ICANN were to supply a high level of customer service to those that submit a formal expression of interest (and fee),” you say, “it may overcome most potential applicants’ reticence to making their plans known as well as avoid the problems inherent in a compulsory model.” This sentence is, um, ludicrous. First, a weekly meeting with ICANN staff is like a VIP pass to a paint-drying ceremony. Second, ICANN staff is pretty good as it is in answering questions they are allowed to answer. Third, they are not allowed to give information to one community member but not to others. What then would this high level of customer service entail? All any applicants wants to know is: When is this happening?

When all’s said and done, I don’t believe any rational actor, other than those who need to announce anyway, would participate in a non-compulsory EOI. There would be no benefit to participating; there are substantial risks in announcing; and if you throw in fees the chance of participation goes down to near zero. No potential gTLD applicant is feeling particularly charitable to ICANN at the moment, and those fees are effectively charity.

If ICANN wants to ask potential applicants what’s useful to them, as you suggest, they easily do so without any “soft” option, or $10K – $25K in fees. What would be useful is clarity of process, and a sense of movement. For potential applicants, actually applying is what they exist for. EOIs, as set out by the ICANN staff paper, are the first step in that application, and that is a Good Thing. If EOIs add a few months to the process (which I doubt), that is a mere bump in the road when compared to the enormous benefit of having a clearly defined path.

Best regards,

Antony

Constantine Roussos
7 years ago ·

Hey Kieren,

I believe you are quite flawed with your assessment and I think the biggest problem with ICANN staff is the lack of decisionmaking. It seems that the Board does not even know what decisions are being made or what needs to be done. It seems that everything is put under the category “overarching issues” when noone has the kahunas to make a decision. If I am being paid $250,000 to $600,000 as an executive (yes that is in the 1% of salaries in the USA), then I should make decisions as opposed to hide behind overarching issues and trying to please everyone. Doing nothing is not a solution.

I find this concept fascinating: “ICANN needs to recognise that there is a far greater community of Internet users out there that will have a strong interest in new gTLDs but are currently unaware of these preparatory steps.”

Many of us have made efforts to let the community know eg music community. ICANN has wasted years and I think it is a waste of registrant money for ICANN to go out to advertise new TLDs. Were you hiding under a rock when the IDN ccTLDs came out? They were everywhere. Global. My dad in Cyprus even saw it on national TV. And yes, in those reports were mentions of new gTLDs and ICANN. I thought you worked at ICANN and knew that this type of coverage was made. Sorry to be harsh but I am tired of this lame excuse.

Even if you are right it goes against the very notion of business. You quote a Harvard Business School magazine. I went to Harvard Business School and there is nothing in the real business world that says if something new comes out, every person on the planet should know about it to participate. People do not leave their industries eg manufacturing to enter new industries eg domain names. It is obvious that most new applicants will be people from inside the domain industry/ ICANN community. It is natural for every industry to work like that. I have asked quite a few people I know with deep pockets who just do not know the domaining industry enough to invest in a new TLD. If you are involved in making clothes eg fashion, then would you be fit to run .fashion? Domain names, ICANN and all the rest have nothing to do with the fashion industry. I started participating ICANN since the Paris announcement about new gTLDs. I didnt get a call by any ICANN insider about it. There is a risk for each new gTLD. Chances are it wont be successful. Most of the last gTLDs have proven that eg .jobs

“Asking applicants to say how many registrations they expect for the first three years; how much they expect to spend on registration systems, registry systems, marketing, and so on; how they perceive their applied-for gTLD (mass market, niche, community, etc); what their greatest concerns are with the process (uncertainty; cost; name conflict); what they see as the greatest opportunities that the process represents.”

This comment is again not useful. I have seen and been pitched many business plans. You know how many came out to be accurate? Or even 50% accurate? Exactly 0%. This is not useful. I am quite tired of hearing process concerns . Decisions need to be made and they have to be practical and realistic. Focusing on things that do not make any difference or would make any significant impact is just a waste of time, money and resources.

For example: Vertical integration. Why is this still an issue? This benefits the consumer. If the consumer does not like it and thinks its a monopoly due to high prices etc, they wont buy. Demand and supply. Other example is 2 character IDNs. This one is obvious too. Enough with the traditional concept of 2 character strings are only for countries. Then we have trademarks. We have some mechanism in place or proposed. Vote on them and do them. And the last one of scalability/economic demand. You need an EOI to see this. Economic demand is pending consumer demand. If your TLD is useful and provides a great service then there will be demand. If not there wont be. Why is this an overarching issue?

Decisions need to be made and should not take years to be made. I understand your views Kieren but your hypothesis (as well as most of ICANN staff approach) is flawed/weak. And dont let me get into other things such as bundling Latin gTLDs with corresponding IDN gTLD of the same string. Seems it is $185,000 to go for .music in Latin and other languages even though there is economies of scale and obvious less costs for running one application for the same string translated in different languages. Want me to go on with some real issues?

Constantine
http://www.music.us
http://www.myspace.com/musicextension
http://www.twitter.com/musicextension

kierenmccarthy
7 years ago ·

Hi Antony,

Very glad you responded. I was thinking about emailing you to see whether you agreed or disagreed with what I’d written. I guess I know the answer now :-)

You make some very good points here. And I’ve given them particular consideration since you are one of the very few people that is actually dealing with the realities of new gTLDs rather than pontificating on loose theory.

I think that it might be helpful to explain where I’m coming from by taking a step back and reflecting on the bigger, historical picture. In 1997, pre-ICANN, the International Ad Hoc Committee (IAHC) sat down and decided that there should be seven new top-level domains to add to the limited existing domains like dot-com and dot-net, and the country-code domains like dot-uk, dot-de.

What has always struck me about the IAHC’s report is how nannying it is. Yes, it was a different time; one where the people that had built the network (engineers) had tremendous sway over its evolution. But even so, the list of banal names they came up with, and the use they decided these names would be put to, reads like a parent’s self-conscious efforts to give their kids some carefully limited freedom.

http://www.gtld-mou.org/draft-iahc-recommend-00.html

You had dot-firm (“for businesses, or firms”); dot-store (“for businesses offering goods to purchase”); dot-web (“for entities emphasizing activities related to the WWW”); dot-arts (“for entities emphasizing cultural and entertainment activities”); my personal favourite, dot-rec (“for entities emphasizing recreation/entertainment activities”), and dot-info and dot-nom.

What is humorous about this approach is that it is a tiny group of people trying to fit the activities of a world full of people into neat, dull, little boxes. It’s the epitome of decision by committee. And we should all be eternally grateful that when ICANN was formed, it created an open market in second-level domains. Otherwise the Internet today would be a pitiful version of what it has become.

Fortunately, the IAHC had the rug pulled under it by the US government when it created ICANN. But, then, ICANN – which did a great job opening up the second-level market – ended up sticking with the IAHC’s paternal approach of only creating seven, safe, top-level domains.

Yes, there were legitimate concerns about what opening up the top-level to the free market might result in, but it was still a very long way from real competition, and all the advantages that that brings.

Then, for reasons too tedious to go into here, ICANN – under pressure to fulfil its mandate of introducing competition – decided four years later to sidestep the problems it saw in opening up the top-level properly by introducing the concept of “sponsored” top-level domains. Again, very few made it through. And one has literally only just made it (dot-post) with another living in a long legal battle (dot-xxx).

This was at a time when Google, Skype, eBay and others were beginning to blown us away with what can be done without artificial barriers.

By the time it came around to this round of new gTLDs, there were no excuses left – the world was living on the Internet and we had seen new, fantastic, purely online services that were changing our lives in unforeseen ways. The idea of anyone paternally deciding what people wanted from the Internet had been shown to be ludicrous – the full force of the free market was in effect. And, with the exception of law enforcement – who had to learn how to deal with a whole new type of crime – the entire world benefitted.

So what has all that to do with where we are now and this discussion about the expressions of interest?

I think it’s because ICANN – and by that I mean the staff and Board but most importantly the community – has to let go of its parental, controlling nature and recognise that it is no longer there to direct or careful manage the Internet. Its job is to guide the future evolution of the Internet while at the same time produce systems that deal with the inevitable problems that are thrown up by the innovation that an open Internet makes possible.

What I see in the new gTLD process – and in particular with the proposed use of expressions of interest as compulsory applications – is an effort to know everything prior to devising systems for dealing with the new expansion. This is putting the cart before the horse. And could be seen as the ICANN community desperately trying to create its version of the Internet, rather than let the Internet form itself.

I’m reminded of Susan Crawford’s words when she left the Board at the Cairo meeting. She finished up by saying: “This is the only thing I want you to take home from this: I hope that ICANN will take in more of the Internet DNA, that it’s okay to let things go, it’s okay to have decentralized sources of authority, it’s okay to let people communicate and not be a gatekeeper to permit this huge flowering of human communication that is the Internet.”

I agree with Susan on this. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that she was asked to be an adviser to the first political group that has really grasped the changes the Internet has brought about – the Obama administration.

Whatever way you cut it, a compulsory expression of interest at this stage in the new gTLD process represents two things:

  1. An attempt to control the process by asking people to sign up to something before the rules have been decided. In fact, some of the rules are going to be decided *after* people have provided the information. I’m at a loss to see why people can’t see this as back-to-front.
  2. An introverted system of moving forward in what will be the largest external impact ICANN is ever likely to have. Only those closely following the ICANN process have any idea this whole proposal is going forward. Even the best communications campaign in the world is not going to be able to bridge that gap in the short time there is available.

Anyway, so that’s my theoretical explanation. I’ve gone on. I’ll pull my head out my arse and write a second comment responding to your very real-world comments in a sec.

Kieren

kierenmccarthy
7 years ago ·

Okay, so let’s get into the nitty-gritty here (following on from comment above).

I have no doubt that you have banged on all sorts of doors trying to enthuse people about new Internet extensions.

And, yes, you are right – it is hard to get people excited about the possibilities. To pretend that people will come running down from the hills asking about new top-level domains would repeat the same kind of Internet folly that we have seen time and again in the past decade. Just because people *can* do something online does not mean they will.

Why don’t people get excited about what, to my mind at least, is going to be Internet 2.0? I have three suggestions:

  1. They don’t get it. Even within the Internet community, you will find no shortage of people who decry any need for new gTLDs. I find this baffling and short-sighted. But there’s no denying that there’s lots of people out there – and some very smart people that I respect enormously – that don’t see the point of new extensions. This is nothing new. Microsoft didn’t see the point in the Internet. IBM didn’t see why Microsoft’s software approach was useful. And Google doesn’t understand why privacy is such an issue.
  2. The ICANN process is amorphous, confusing and coated in negative intention. You can hardly blame people for not jumping on the new gTLD process. I am one of about 150 people on the planet that has an in-depth understanding of this process but am still completely lost on occasion. What’s more, even the successes grow out of a huge amount of argument and bile. It’s not clear to anyone what’s going to happen next, or even the method by which the path forward will be decided. Anyone that takes even a cursory look at the gTLD process will probably decide to step back and wait until something solid is formed.
  3. We don’t really know what’s going to happen. Only very recently have we seen any moves in the gTLD space away from the dot-com model. We have dot-tel using the DNS is a new and novel way. We have dot-post about to try something new. Dot-mobi still has enormous potential to change how we approach things online. But people will take a look at the existing “new” gTLDs like dot-info or dot-name and wonder whether it’s really worth investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in currently untested new DNS models. I think a lot of people will sit it out and observe others’ mistakes and successes before jumping in (which begs the question: when will ICANN open the next round of applications? It’s impossible to know).

So I would say those three reasons help explain why you’ve had such a hard time convincing people that they should hire you to wade through the ICANN process for them.

I also think that reason three is why everyone is so reluctant to say anything about their plans – and conversely why the policy-making ICANN community are so worried about what *might* happen.

People in the know are pretty excited about the gTLD process because they have a new idea for a top-level domain that doesn’t follow the dot-com model. It’s a new approach and they don’t want to tell anyone because then someone else will steal the idea and they’ll lose their competitive advantage.

I think the reality is that most of those that are excited probably have variations on the same three or four broad ideas. But the downside of this secrecy – reinforced by the ICANN atmosphere of mistrust and opacity – is two-fold:

  1. Very little information is out there; but there are lots of small, secret meetings and mutterings – which only intensifies people’s mistrust, and
  2. People in the know don’t particular want the process opened out – the more people that can jump right in without the years of pre-learning, the less influence and advantage the insiders have. And you and I, Antony, are most definitely insiders in this case

The other broad, but very important, argument I put out in favour of not making the expressions of interest compulsory is quite simple: past lessons.

ICANN has a number of flaws still but its most significant in the organizational sense is its almost-refusal to try to learn lessons from the many past contentious debates. I can only hypothesize that this failure to reflect has come about because of the sheer amount of work and never-ending time pressures on the organisation since its inception.

So I would put three lessons out there from what I’ve seen of what works in the unique multi-stakeholder model that ICANN follows – and what does not:

  • Lesson One: Relative deadlines are more effective that absolute deadlines.
  • Lesson Two: Wherever possible allow voluntary over compulsory contribution
  • Lesson Three: The results of ICANN processes, not matter how broadly structured, represent a minority view

I would say a big reason not to go ahead with a compulsory expressions of interest model is because it goes against what has worked in the past.

But looking into the here-and-now, I agree with you that the compulsory model looks like the best one for where we are on the cusp of 2010. Why?

  • Because gTLD applicants will do it because they have to and because it might just move things forward
  • Because it will makes staff’s lives easier for the moment by providing a fixed data set that enables planning
  • Because it gives the worrying and overly paternal community the sense of control that it desires

It has other advantages too:

  • It should help bring an end to fear-mongering over new gTLDs. The known is far less scary than the unknown
  • It starts making the staff think properly about communicating the process beyond those that turn up at ICANN meetings
  • It puts the ball back in the court of those that have been delaying the process through prevarication

So, yes, from the short-term pragmatic perspective, I think you and the model are right. The problem is that ICANN is constantly putting in place short-term fixes; many of them to fix the previous short-term fixes.

I’m pretty sure that if a compulsory expressions of interest model is introduced, it will just cause more problems that need to be overcome further down the line. And that was my point about risk-management.

I’m sure why you disparage the Harvard Business Review; I think it provides enormously useful reflection. And in this case, I would argue that the main reason that the new gTLD process has been set back and set back and set back so many times is because ICANN as an organization doesn’t grasp risk-management. A new issue crops up and ICANN sets off determinedly to find an answer to it before moving ahead with the overall process. Then another issue crops up. Then another one. Then another one.

The answer is risk-management – preparing systems for minimizing the impact of unforeseen issues, rather than allowing every one to sidetrack the whole process.

And finally, as for ICANN and customer service. Well, I think you are beginning to see the start of it with the compliance team and with the registrar team. Much more responsive, devising ways of sharing useful information. I would love to see ICANN treating its community more as different groups of customers and look at meeting their concerns. Would be better for everyone.

I think that covers all the points you’ve raised. I should have used more of your words and responded directly to them. Anyway, would be very interested in your reflections on this and my previous comment.

Cheers

Kieren

kierenmccarthy
7 years ago ·

Hi Constantine

I think I answer some of your comments in the two previous comments I’ve written to Antony. But as to some of your other points:

* I agree and disagree re: staff making judgment calls. I certainly think staff can be more decisive – and then much clearer in explaining what that decision is and why it was made. But I don’t think that should extend to making decisions on points of contention. That’s not how the ICANN model works. I would like to see staff making sharp, balanced and clear arguments for progressing in a certain direction, based only on what the community provides. Those arguments can then be subject to critical analysis. If they hold up, you move forward. If they do not – perhaps by the inclusion of new facts, information of fresh viewpoints – then you revise and move forward.

* Re: making the wider Internet aware of the new gTLD program. I really do not understand your viewpoint. How can we expect anyone to look seriously at the process until there is a finished, completed Applicant Guidebook? Only then will external parties review it and make a decision whether to take part in the process or not. People spend so much time within ICANN’s policy-making processes that they forget that the end result is only the startpoint for the rest of the world.

* Re: business plans. No business plan is accurate. But to follow your logic there would then be no point in creating a business plan. What business plans do is force people to gather information, look at what is out there and analysis what they think is going on and is likely to happen; to test their ideas theoretically. Just by gathering this information and relaying it, I believe it would have an enormously healthy effect on the overly secretive and distrustful atmosphere that currently exists around new gTLDs.

* I do agree with your sense of general frustration (although I’m not sure why you feel the need to direct some of it at me personally). Some questions are being put to the wrong people to elicit answers. And you are being obtuse if you say you don’t know why vertical integration is a hot topic within ICANN – it’s because the incumbent players, who benefit greatly from the current limited and restricted market in gTLDs, fear that changing the rules will enable new business models that will affect their bottomline. It’s pure market and status quo protection.

So broadly I disagree with almost everything you’ve said. How much of that is due to your aggressively personal approach I’m not sure. But do please get back. This is an interesting discussion.

Kieren

Antony Van Couvering
7 years ago ·

I see what you mean now by risk management: the ability to deal with risk in decision-making. I see that one of the articles in the Harvard Business Review is co-written by Nassim Taleb, whom I know and respect. If his books are a clue to the content of the article (which I can’t view, because I’m not a subscriber) then what he says is likely to be that people are extremely bad at assessing risk and that even the best models fail to take into account the most catastrophic risks, precisely because those risks are usually so far outside normal experience. I agree with that, no problem.

But what has that got to do with ICANN? The idea that an organization can somehow institutionalize risk management, which people cannot comprehend as individuals, strikes me as inane. How can you control risks that you don’t understand and can’t foresee?

In my view, ICANN doesn’t have a problem with risk management, it has a problem with decision-making. Nothing at ICANN is ever decided, it is only given the label of “consensus,” which means simply that it’s decided until someone with enough clout decides to undecide it. Nothing at ICANN is ever definitive until it enters into a contractual arena and the law is handy to challenge any backtracking. (This, by the way, is the essential irony of ICANN’s proposal that they should be able to change the registry contract without consulting the other parties. It would do away with the one safe place where people who deal with ICANN can have some comfort that their deal can’t be second-guessed.)

Let’s look at the guidebook, because this where the lack of decision-making and the inadequacy of ICANN’s understanding of risk come into confluence. You say, “How can we expect anyone to look seriously at the process until there is a finished, completed Applicant Guidebook? Only then will external parties review it and make a decision whether to take part in the process or not.”

Leaving aside the oft-cherished fantasy of “external parties,” whatever that means, here are the reasons that many potential gTLD applicants are NOT concerned about the final guidebook.

1. A massive amount of the Guidebook is already finished (unless, of course, someone with clout decides to go “unfinish” it). We have the application procedures, we have the costs (even if they are not particularly credible), we have the contention procedures, we have the contractual procedures. We have most of it. What’s left to be done? Well, that depends on how much the GAC and the IP lobby, and pressure the ICANN staff and board. There is zero (let me be clear – zero nada niente rien nothing) actual risk of any of the terrible things that these bodies are shrieking about to actually happen. I will be happy to go through them one by one, but your comment box might not take them all – perhaps another time. But from trademark infringement to the new and utterly meaningless phrase “fairness” there is not a single issue to be decided in the Guidebook that is not entirely political — including root scaling. Not much new is going to appear in the final guidebook, because if it *were* new there would have to be yet another round of comment.

2. Everything will be political, even more than it is. Why should an applicant care about the difference between what DAG 3 says and what the final Guidebook dictates? We are perfectly aware that the final guidebook is going to be something that the GAC and the DoC can bless, and so we can be sure that it will be filled with expensive and pointless “protections” for those who lobby governments — i.e., IP interests. Whether there are more or fewer of these protections matters little.

3. If you are building a house, you know that there will be rain, sunshine, hot and cold temperatures — so you build the house to handle all of these eventualities. There is nothing that could come into the guidebook that would make me decide to not build the house. On the other hand, continued delay could well have that effect, because however bad the house is, we are sleeping out in the open now and eventually we will just go somewhere where we can find shelter.

4. The guidebook is full of nonsense that applicants will have to live with (can you say “Sword Algorithm” or “Initial Evaluation with No Appeal and No Idea Who the Evaluators Are”?), and a little more nonsense isn’t going to change anyone’s mind. Us schmucks will have no input into the final guidebook, which I firmly believe will be a political accommodation. We will, however, be allowed to listen to the self-congratulatory drivel justifying it.

5. Finally, because the BIG risk isn’t what the final guidebook looks like, it’s whether it appears at all.

The reason I like the EOIs is because the EOI process manages and mitigates that last and biggest risk. It gets the ball rolling. That also is the reason that many will oppose it.

Basically, the process is entirely political and the draft guidebooks reflect the political accommodations that have been made to date. I am well aware of the pressure groups, their aims, and their demands. I am reasonably certain that the only changes to the guidebook will be to give greater power to challenge, harrass, and sue (non-ccTLD) registries, and I am also reasonably sure that there’s not much I can do about it.

So, Kieren, I would ask, what exactly am I waiting for? What will possibly come from a guidebook that would make me change my mind — what could be different in a final guidebook that would change anyone’s mind?

ICANN is a traveling nest of low intrigue played out by second-rate vipers and third-rate goonie birds, and yet here we applicants are, standing underneath the nest, straining for reliable information and clarity of process, catching nothing but territorial displays and the odd splat of effluvium. If I can stand this, what changes in the guidebook would deter me?

In any case, the plan presented to the Board suggests not doing EOIs until the Guidebook is finished. So your wish is granted, and the numberless hoards of TLD applicants who would be standing beside me if only they had been properly communicated with can breath a sigh of relief that the final, much-improved guidebook will be in place.

Antony Van Couvering
7 years ago ·

P.S. Minds + Machines has actually not had any difficulty getting clients. What we have difficulty with is explaining ICANN’s procedures to them, and explaining why there is (yet another) delay.

kierenmccarthy
7 years ago ·

@Antony: I think some of this is bordering on a rant. I can understand that – it must be incredibly frustrating for someone who is actually trying to apply for a new Internet extension to have to deal with people pontificating and chewing up month after month.

But I’m not persuaded by your broad argument, I’m afraid. There really is a whole world out there beyond ICANN that is interested in expanding the Internet. ICANN as an organization really needs to recognise that because you are *able* to get involved, it is not the same as saying that if you don’t get involved you are either not interested or not relevant.

Re: EOIs getting the ball rolling. We are in complete agreement. I just don’t think they should be compulsory.

Re: risk management – it’s all about trying to make sure that unforeseen issues have a low impact, rather than a high impact. At the moment, they have a high impact (process delayed until a solution is found). They need to have a low impact – a pre-formed parallel process that is put into action that does not prevent the main process from continuing.

The new gTLD process has seen a number of new structures and processes put in place to deal with different issues. You could look at this as innovative thinking to deal with issues as they appear, or you could look at them as confusing and destabilising. The IRT process for one has not been successful, partly because it was something new thrown into the mix.

It strikes me as well that the registry contracts are in high impact mode. Everything is trying to be squeezed into it – and then a rather bizarre clause that let’s it all be rewritten without approval.

Strikes me that time would be better spent devising a way to incorporating flexibility in the contract. That way, changes and new issues would have a low impact on the overall process.

Anyway, I am sorry that you feel my thoughts on this issue are counter to what you wish to achieve – which is, very simply, actually getting these new gTLDs on the road.

I am with you 100 percent in getting this process underway. The Internet is not going to fall over. The world will not stop turning. ICANN needs to stop fretting and get on with it.

But as a concerned party about the organisation and about the Internet and its expansion, I felt I would post my thoughts to the open public comment period.

Antony Van Couvering
7 years ago ·

Kieran – yes, it was definitely rantish. I have embarrassed myself in the past, and here again now. Sigh. I do hope it’s clear that it wasn’t aimed at you. Now that I’m cooled off, I’d say that rant (and the hundreds of them I’ve had the sense not to send) is a symptom of a strange fact: that ICANN has no forum for those who wish to start new TLDs, i.e., no constituency or other power base of the kind that most have within ICANN.

Even stranger, we have been turned into a kind of bogeyman – “ICANN insiders” are supposed to threaten the organization’s mission, and we are characterized as greedy, untrustworthy, etc. I can think of no other organization where the supposed customers of an initiative are so reviled. Sometimes I get so frothy it just bubbles over.

Oh, one suggestion for your blog – a feature that emails people to tell them that a subsequent comment has been left after theirs.

Best regards,

Antony

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