2012: The Year of the New gTLD Program and the Year to Support ICANN - Part I

By Sophia Bekele

2011 proved to be an unforgettable year and will always be remembered as the year that the ICANN Board approved the expansion of the Internet Domain Name System thus paving the way for new generic Top-Level Domains (gTLDs) such as DotAfrica to be introduced and included in the root zone of the Internet.

The ICANN new gTLD program began today, 12th January 2012, with the application round now open and this important activity will make 2012 a very memorable year. It is expected that a minimum of 500 fresh applications for new generic Top Level Domains will be received by ICANN through the online TLD Applications System (TAS) by April 12 when the round closes, for processing and evaluation afterwards. This promises to be a hectic and engaging period for new gTLD applicants, and also for ICANN.

It is customary for individuals and organizations to make New Year resolutions. In 2012, my New Year resolution is to lead a team to apply to ICANN to win the mandate for the DotAfrica new gTLD and operation of the DotAfrica registry when the application round opens on January 12, 2012.

I believe that the new ICANN gTLD program offers a more transparent method to arrive at a suitable operator for the DotAfrica registry. Many international/inter-governmental organizations (IGOs) including the African Union Commission have already asked for certain new gTLD name strings to be included in the Top-Level Reserved Names List so that such 'reserved names' would be unavailable for applicants. It is important to note that ICANN has so far not wavered and yielded to such impossible and unreasonably imperious demands.

Also, during 2012, we foresee that the debate will intensify for a new global Internet governance architecture to perhaps, dethrone the present governance mechanism led by ICANN. I believe that such moves will be disruptive to the current system and will be championed by those who wish to see greater control of the Internet by governments as they wish to use political sovereignty to forcefully impose their ownership on the Internet and restrict the applicability of the current stakeholder model.

Therefore, whilst we are all enthusiastic for 2012 because of the new gTLD program, we must also be cautiously optimistic and very mindful on account of the difficult battles ahead. ICANN needs support from all those who are genuinely committed to the multi-stakeholder model within the global Internet Community.

The U.S. Government's Interest in a 'Free Internet'
Those who wish to disrupt the status quo argue against ICANN because they see it as a United States-based entity that works to oversight and execute a U.S.-government contract, thus, an agent of the United States Government. Such arguments that mostly emanate from outside the U.S., for example China, Russia, and India, are often aimed at countering perceived U.S. hegemony over the Internet, but also fail to realize that the U.S. gave the Internet to the world. We all seem to forget so soon that the history of the Internet is actually rooted in the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Project Agency Network (DARPANET). Even though the U.S. 'owns' the Internet on the basis of its historical origins, we must all recognize that the U.S. has also tried to maintain the independence of the Internet, since something that was born out of the innovation of scientific and technological freedom, a pillar of American culture, cannot be subjected to unnecessary restrictions that will hinder its further development as a platform of true innovation on a sustainable basis. This is what the new gTLD program aims for — as one of its key objectives — to spur further innovation on the Internet as new Internet domains are creatively exploited beyond what we have currently. It is anticipated that the new gTLD program shall unleash further inventiveness on the Internet platform.

Another reason why the United States government tries its level best to ensure a free Internet is because it serves its foreign policy goals with respect to public diplomacy and outreach at very minimal cost. Internet-enabled protest movements are bringing down undemocratic governments faster than any overt regime-change effort or ideology has managed to do in the past. Judging from the recent experience of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and now Syria, it would have been very difficult for a successful case to have been made for the military invasion of Iraq — but this is 2012 and not 2003 when there was no Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. A contemporary argument would be: "we need not send a large military force to achieve regime change; let the people have their Internet access, and their Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, and let them mobilize, organize themselves on social media and bring about political change themselves."

Special Interest Groups against the ICANN new gTLD Program
Thus, on one hand, a free Internet serves the American interest of promoting freedom on a global basis, there are also forces within the United States that are against ICANN, who do not wish the new gTLD program to proceed such as the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) that are worried about brand and trademark infringements and have actively lobbied the U.S. Department of Commerce and campaigned against the new gTLD program. The new gTLD program is threatened by those who think it is being rushed, but conveniently ignore the fact that the new gTLD policy development process has taken about seven (7) years to accomplish during which period all necessary safeguards and measures were put in place to protect trademarks and brand-owners during the new gTLD application process. The ANA argues that new gTLDs will increase 'cyber-squatting', meanwhile the ICANN new gTLD process has zero-tolerance for cyber-squatting behavior, and any applicant with a proven history of cyber-squatting risks automatic disqualification by ICANN.

The Prolonged Policy Development Process
As a former ICANN GNSO council member who was involved during the rigorous new gTLD policy development process, I believe all these issues raised by the ANA and other corporate brand owners have already been addressed adequately. Such fears, even though valid, are presently unfounded because they have already been taken care of.

In a recent ICANN Blog post, Kurt Pritz who heads the new gTLD Program and recently testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation's hearing on the new gTLD program, wrote:
"I gave the Committee a brief history of the new gTLD program and highlighted the seven years of thorough, transparent and inclusive discussion and debate, including: 2400 public comments from 47 extended comment periods that resulted in over 1400 pages of comment summary and analysis, formation of ten independent expert working groups, and 59 explanatory memoranda and independent reports."
In a nutshell, Kurt Pritz, speaking for ICANN, has successfully argued before the U.S. Senate Committee that mutatis mutandis, the new gTLD program should work for everyone's benefit.
Support for ICANN
It became clear by the day that ICANN needs both institutional support and moral encouragement to proceed with the program in a level-headed manner. Personally I saw the clamors for delays as simply the first step in attempting to kill the program, and pull the rug from under the feet of ICANN. Early in this New Year, Steve Crocker, ICANN Board Chairman was quick to explain that delaying the program would serve no purpose, other than playing into the hands of those who wanted to derail it, and that the critics of the program could not point to any specific aspect where additional time would help in working out further details.
I am glad to see that 2011 ended and 2012 began with ICANN continuing to show resolve in staying the course, and a strong determination to proceed with the new gTLD program and not buckle in the face of ardent political pressure especially from lobbyists.

By Sophia Bekele, CEO of DotConnectAfrica. Ms. Sophia Bekele is a former generic Names Supporting Organization (gNSO) Council policy advisor to ICANN from 2005 to 2007 and is presently the spearhead of the Yes2DotAfrica campaign. During her stint with the ICANN GNSO Council, she contributed to the new gTLD policy development effort.