New Year, New ICANN?

FairWinds Partners —  February 1, 2013

The ICANN staff has had a very busy month, jetting around the globe to meet with various stakeholders, constituencies and other groups. These meetings not only bridge the long gap between the most recent Public Meeting in Toronto, which took place back in October, and the next Public Meeting in Beijing, which will be held in April, but they come at a fairly crucial time in the new gTLD process.

ICANN staff, including President and CEO Fadi Chehadé, met with a contingent of representatives from registries and registrars last week in Amsterdam, shortly following a fairly contentious webinar where ICANN revealed that the publication of new gTLD Contention Sets would be pushed back to approximately March 1. The meeting covered some important discussions about the New gTLD Registry Agreement, the contract that all new gTLD owners will have to enter into with ICANN in order to run their new gTLD registries. Specifically, participants expressed concerns about Specification 9, which currently states that all Registry Operators must sell domain names to third parties (brand owners and other operators would have to apply for an exemption from this specification to operate “closed” or restricted registries). This is a topic that we’re likely to see discussed in further detail leading up to the Beijing meeting, as the first new gTLDs are likely to begin delegating shortly after that meeting.

But perhaps the more intriguing development from Amsterdam was the surprising candidness of ICANN’s President and CEO. Chehadé openly admitted that he believes ICANN is not yet prepared to handle the extreme challenges of the new gTLD application evaluation and delegation process – the “foundations,” as he put it, are just not there. In fact, he went a step further to say that if given the choice, he would delay the whole Program by at least a year, though he assured participants that he will not do so. (Domain Incite actually posted a full transcript of this speech here.) He did assure meeting participants, however, that ICANN is moving very fast to fix things. Unfortunately, he admitted, that speed sometimes leads to mistakes, including on his own part.

This openness and humility on the part of the President and CEO carried over into the intersessional meeting of ICANN’s Intellectual Property and Business Constituencies that took place earlier this week in Los Angeles. One of the major themes that echoed throughout that meeting was ICANN’s commitment to improving its engagement with all stakeholders; this was underscored by ICANN’s announcement that it has identified a provider for Uniform Rapid Suspension (URS) services that is willing to charge less than $500 per complaint.

These two meetings raise an interesting question, which is, are we witnessing the beginnings of a more responsive, engaged and professional ICANN, one that is capable of moving quickly while still meeting the needs of its diverse stakeholders? None of the developments from these past two meetings is individually conclusive, but taken together, it is possible to conclude that ICANN as an organization may be turning over a new leaf. With the New gTLD Program ushering in hundreds of new stakeholders and constituents, particularly those from the business world, this change could prove very timely. What we can say for certain now, however, is that it will be interesting to continue to watch this process unfold.