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 it is the compromise output that came out of the process; it paves the way for movement forward after a long period of stagnation and artificial scarcity, and it manages to respond to the concerns of everyone involved.
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. ICANN 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. 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 will be drained of its life.
Of course no one is perfectly happy with the new TLD program. But no one should 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 is socially pathological. 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.
On January 12, ICANN needs to make a statement that it is going forward and strongly reaffirm its ability to deliver on the promise of a nongovernmental, multistakeholder, global governance institution. It should celebrate the opening of its application. It should throw a big party. There is no easy way to satisfy everyone. Delaying the decision, as Senator Rockefeller requests, will not change of the politics 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.