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Decision Day for ICANN: the end of the beginning, or the beginning of the end?

I’ve just arrived in Singapore, where ICANN’s board will almost surely vote to launch an unprecedented expansion plan for generic top-level domains (gTLDs).  As the new gTLDs start lighting-up over the next two years, we’ll look back on this week as the “end of the beginning” since it ended several years of planning for the actual expansion.

After the vote the real work begins: evaluating applications, implementing new mechanisms, and contract compliance on a scale far greater than ICANN has ever seen.


Although I’ll continue to work for improvements up to the last minute, I’m also prepared to applaud when the ICANN Board votes on the final plan.


In a year or so we’ll know whether ICANN was up to the challenge.  If it turns out there wasn’t adequate attention to concerns of governments, law enforcement, and global brands, then we’ll look back on this weekend’s vote as the beginning of the end for ICANN.


That’s because a botched expansion could discredit ICANN and its multi-stakeholder model.  Mike Palage likened this to humpty-dumpty falling off his wall and crashing into pieces.  Now, who’d rush in pick up the pieces of Internet governance?   The United Nations and its International Telecommunications Union (ITU), of course.


As NTIA chief Larry Strickling warned ISOC on Tuesday, “some nations persist in proposing such measures as giving the ITU the authority to veto ICANN board decisions.”


But even ICANN’s harshest critics –including Mr. Strickling — aren’t anxious to have the UN and ITU take over Internet governance.  Because as I described here and here, the UN is a body where every government has one vote to trade, while the private sector and civil society get no votes at all.


That’s one of the things I told a US Congressional committee when I testified at an ICANN oversight hearing last month.  I also encouraged the US Government to hold ICANN to its obligations under the Affirmation of Commitments, and to stay deeply engaged with ICANN’s Government Advisory Committee (GAC).   (Actually, those recommendations work for any government seeking a larger role in Internet governance.)


At the end of the nearly 3-hour hearing, one Congressman pressed the witnesses to explain why we needed any new TLDs.  I gave a two-part answer.  First, it’s hard to see how we continue to grow the Internet without ever adding any new TLDs.   Mobile, social, and local are where Internet innovation is happening today, and domain expansion will provide new labels for these innovations.


Second, all present gTLDs are in the Latin alphabet – on a planet where 56% of the population uses scripts other than Latin.   The only way non-Latin script users can enter domain names and email addresses entirely in their native language is to offer new gTLDs in non-Latin characters.


While I still have concerns about the expansion, I have to acknowledge the efforts of ICANN to address most of the issues raised.   As with most negotiations, a lot of the movement occurred only when there was real pressure to bring closure to the planning stage.  It was that kind of pressure which forced ICANN to address legitimate concerns of governments and businesses that rely on DNS integrity and availability.


Recent negotiations with the GAC show that all of us at ICANN are finally learning how to engage with governments.  As more governments get more involved through the GAC and the Affirmation reviews, that engagement will grow.


Although I’ll continue to work for improvements up to the last minute, I’m also prepared to applaud when the ICANN Board votes on the final plan.  Because until we get past the end of the beginning, we’ll never get to work on the happy ending we all want to see.


–Steve DelBianco