June 22, 2011

As was widely reported, on 12 January 2012, the first three-month window opens for applications for the new generic top-level domain (gTLD) program. Any established institution can apply to operate a gTLD of its own choosing. The process could lead to hundreds of new gTLDs by 2013. In addition to familiar TLDs such as .com, .org, and .net, Internet users could potentially see new domain name extensions made of almost any word, in any language. It is a genuinely exciting idea. It is not all plain sailing from here. ICANN acknowledges some outstanding issues, including trademark use requirement issues, issues relating to registry-registrar cross-ownership, and the need to add to the list of reserved names that cannot be registered as a new gTLD string. While I have seen some comment doubting the success of the plan because the .com model is so well established, I do not doubt that the market and the online public will readily adapt and that .coke and .barclays will be well used and hungrily consumed.

There was just a hint of sadness on my part about the plan, which has been long awaited, and it was not because Dot Eastham is my aunt and I cannot apply personally as she is ‘confused’ enough as it is. This latest big new initiative from ICANN has one shrieking flaw. In order to be part of this exciting scheme – in order to apply for, say, .scl – the applicant has to stump up the princely sum of $185,000. That is almost enough to fund the Beckham family hair cuts or to run BAILII (have you donated yet? – to BAILII not the Beckhams) and is well beyond SCL’s means. It is presented by ICANN as the cost recovery amount – which is either baloney or a case of them planning on paying some extortionate fees (how do I apply to get the fees?).

ICANN ‘is a not-for-profit public-benefit corporation with participants from all over the world dedicated to keeping the Internet secure, stable and interoperable’ or so its mission statement claims. The trouble with any such statement is that you could shift a few words and you could be talking about FIFA (I trust that isn’t defamatory). ICANN has a great record of prioritising third world accessibility, focusing on technical issues and not letting the politics dictate its decisions. It seems to me to be an admirable organisation.

Even though I suspect that this ‘cost-recovery’ fee includes a large subsidy for ICANN’s admirable outreach programmes, I worry that it has two effects. Firstly, it effectively blocks small organisations from applying, and that is bad enough in itself. Second, and much more important, once you get into bed with the big money people, they can start to dictate the agenda – I say ‘can’ but I mean ‘will’. The FIFA example is an instructive one – established as an admirable organisation by people who loved football (no, {i}really{/i}), the money started to matter and then the money began to dictate, often because worthy and precious projects to help the poorer nations would go to the wall without it but also sometimes because those working in that ‘not-for-profit public benefit’ field are human and can lose sight of their principles and football’s (or the Internet’s?) interests and start to focus on the principal and interest in their bank.

Let’s hope it never happens at ICANN.