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.
• 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.