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

By Sophia Bekele
Talk of giving a dog a bad name in order to hang it!
Even though ICANN leaders were busy writing letters to transparently communicate further details of the new gTLD program and convince skeptics and explain the amount of work that has already been done to address the main concerns that were being raised, especially by the Association of National Advertisers, the issue caught the attention of big media.

The Washington Post Editorial Board on the other hand ignores such meticulous transparency on the part of ICANN and calls the Internet governance body "the obscure but powerful organization that manages domain names" and that "ICANN reports to no one." This is a failed attempt to give ICANN a bad name.

ICANN can hardly be described as 'obscure but powerful' as if its Internet governance work and decisions that affects us all are conducted in a secret conclave. ICANN is very transparent, holds regular international meetings on a regular basis, and publishes its entire technical and fiscal activities and works-in-progress and Board Decisions on its web site as behooves an organization that is committed to a transparent model of operation, even as it sits on top of a global multi-stakeholder system that gives everyone a voice in the governance of the Internet. ICANN reports to the global community of stakeholders as it continues to serve a global public interest. It is rather patent that such skewed editorial comments by the 'Washington Post' are aimed at influencing public opinion to go against the ICANN new gTLD program. Another influential American newspaper, the 'New York Times' has also taken cue from the Washington Post and published another critical editorial calling on ICANN to delay the new gTLD program launch date. So far, the vociferous commentaries against the new gTLD program by these two leading newspapers have not shaken the resolve of ICANN.

Furthermore, it is clear that as those who have abiding faith in the multi-stakeholder model and the new gTLD program try to move forward in 2012, there are many who would like to weaken the resolve of ICANN by attempting to portray it as what it is not, and by so doing try to derail the new gTLD program. It is for these reasons that I urge the global community of multi-stakeholders to provide unconditional support for ICANN to enable it deliver the new gTLD program successfully.

Political e-Sovereignty vs. Multi-stakeholder Model - The Battle Royale
Only the new gTLD program guarantees that our Pan-African constituency will get the DotAfrica gTLD based on an open and transparent process. Early in January 2011, as spearhead of the Yes2DotAfrica Campaign, I had written an open letter to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) of the U.S. Department of Commerce to provide support for ICANN, and clarify that the program contained adequate safeguards to protect brands and copyright owners. In the same letter, I had also tried to further justify the need for the DotAfrica gTLD, arguing that as the last frontier for development, Africa sorely needs the new geographical top-level domain name.

Already the battles lines are drawn over DotAfrica. On one side are those who are against the multi-stakeholder model, and believe that political sovereignty over African countries also gives them de facto technological rights over an Internet-based geographical gTLD such as DotAfrica. A recent CNN 'Inside Africa' news story quoted Mr. Moctar Yedaly of the African Union as saying, "[t]he .africa domain represented all Africans in the same way as the African Union flag," and further saying, "[i]t should operate in the 'interests of the community', rather than the interests of individuals in the private sector. 'This is for Africa, and Africa is 54 states.'" Such tenuous arguments which are simply a veiled attempt to use political sovereignty to take over the DotAfrica gTLD are unsustainable since the new gTLD program was not devised by ICANN to enable the AU Commission achieve e-sovereignty over Africa (or DotAfrica).

The goals of the new gTLD program are very clear, and if Africans are to benefit from what the DotAfrica vision offers, then such arguments that are based entirely on political sovereignty, and not on a well-articulated mission and purpose should be jettisoned as ill-conceived. In a true multi-stakeholder model of Internet governance as it applies to the new gTLD program, political sovereignty should not be used as a lever by governments or inter-governmental bodies such as the AU, since each country already has its two-code country-level domain. This again underscores why I am calling on the global community to continue to provide the necessary support to shore up the multi-stakeholder modeled by ICANN.

The new gTLD program needs the multi-stakeholder model in order to achieve its stated objectives. There is a 'battle royale' ahead and I will not shy away from fighting to vigorously defend the multi-stakeholder model under ICANN's leadership. 2012 is the year to defend the multi-stakeholder model so that the new gTLD program will be successful for everybody.

ICANN is not Alone
As we go into 2012, I am encouraged that there are many, including top officials and leaders in Washington DC, who believe in ICANN's leadership of the multi-stakeholder model, and that the organization should be allowed to successfully midwife the new gTLD program. The Honorable Senator John 'Jay' Rockefeller for example was reported in the ICANN Blog as giving his full support: "I think we have to get used to dot-hotels. I think we have to get used to dot-auto." This is an important vote of confidence for ICANN that came from the distinguished Chairman of the United States Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation during the official hearing regarding ICANN's new gTLD Program on December 8, 2011. Further support for the ICANN-led multi-stakeholder model also came from Mr. Lawrence E. Strickling, the Assistant Secretary in the United States Department of Commerce, whose department oversees ICANN's mandate. Assistant Secretary Larry Strickling believes that the multi-stakeholder process is "critical to preserving the model of Internet governance that has been so successful to date that all parties respect and work through the process and accept the outcome once a decision is reached."

ICANN's new gTLD program Readiness Efforts
ICANN on its part has already published its operational readiness matrix for the program by its 12th January launch date. Detailed preparations have been made regarding readying the TLD Application System (TAS), launching a customer service centre, engaging dispute resolution service providers, application fee processing, putting in place a process to provide support to applicants, and many other important activities and tasks that required detailed planning and implementation. Thus, this is one big program management effort on the part of ICANN that is the culmination of many years of committed policy development working on actionable objectives, and it would be self-defeating to either delay or stop the program altogether at this stage. The wise course of action is to continue with the new gTLD program, whilst the only present challenge is how to garner adequate support and encouragement to ICANN to ensure that the program succeeds in the face of strong but uninformed opposition. It is therefore vital that ICANN continues with its gTLD communications plan even as the new gTLD application round commences by 12th January 2012.

Those prospective new gTLD applicants who have made ample technical preparations and financial investments to participate in this current application round would be strongly encouraged that ICANN has decided to continue with its new gTLD program plan of action despite strident voices calling for delays and work stoppage altogether.

It is important that the present new gTLD round succeeds so that ICANN will feel confident enough to move to the next (second) new gTLD round. Failure will have very negative ramifications for the overall future of the Internet, with harmful implications for ICANN's stewardship of a stable and secure Internet based on the multi-stakeholder model, and this must be avoided at all cost. If the new gTLD program fails, the detractors of ICANN will be the first to point accusing fingers, even though they worked against the launch of the new gTLD program in the first place.

On this note I would like to wish ICANN and all prospective gTLD applicants a resounding success in the new gTLD program.
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.