Discussions at annual meeting of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) in Costa Rica have been significantly dominated by the requests submitted by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement regarding the special protection of their names at the top-level domain name. This issue has actually been at the ICANN’s agenda for quite some time now, but it reached its pinnacle yesterday (March 14, 2012), when, at the request of the Non-Commercial Stakeholder Group (NCSG) the issue was deferred, a move which meant that the Generic Names Supporting Organization (GNSO) Council was unable to vote on this issue. For many, this move signaled the end of ICANN, as we know it, an apocalyptic end to the Internet’s biggest investment – the new gTLD program.
Being present at ICANN 43 and a member of NCSG and of the Drafting Team that has debated on this issue, I feel the need to clarify some things. First of all, the world is not going to come to an end and the new gTLD program is not in jeopardy. It would be outrageous to even suggest that a process, involving a debate of more than six (6) years is dependent upon granting these special protections. This scenario would send a bad signal to the rest of the Internet world and its institutions as to where ICANN’s true priorities lie. And, the world is watching!
But, more importantly, one thing that needs to be made clear is that both these organizations are already ‘specially’ protected in this first round of the new gTLDs. According to the latest version of the Applicant Guidebook, the terms of the International Olympic Committee and the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement “are prohibited from delegation as gTLDs in the initial application round”. This is clear. These terms are untouched and have been elevated to a completely different status, in comparison to those of other organizations, intergovernmental or not, that one can argue have a more significant mission, at least compared to the one of the International Olympic Committee. (Think here of UNESCO, WIPO, etc.)
Yesterday, the debate, however, was not about substance – it was about process. The reason NCSG requested the deferral was not about whether these organizations deserve these protections; the reason was simple: the public comment period for the Drafting Team’s recommendations is not over and, thus, the GNSO cannot come to a decision unless the public comment period has expired. It is actually surprising that the GNSO did not feel the need to uphold the public comment period, an issue that constitutes a paramount element within ICANN’s processes and is part of its Affirmation of Commitments mandate. Under the Affirmation of Commitments, the document that establishes ICANN’s bottom-up and transparent model, “ICANN commits to maintain and improve robust mechanisms for public input, accountability, and transparency so as to ensure that the outcomes of its decision-making will reflect the public interest and be accountable to all stakeholders”. In particular, ICANN is to achieve these set goals by “continually assessing and improving the processes by which ICANN receives public input (including adequate explanation of decisions taken and the rationale thereof)”. So, questioning the need for the public comment period to make its full circle by some members of the GNSO Council is what puts ICANN and its processes in danger; it is not the deferral, which is aligned with these very principles.
Plato famously said: “a good decision is based on knowledge and not on numbers”. For ICANN, this knowledge derives from public comments – public comments constitute the only way for ICANN to understand and learn the views of the wider community. So, the idea that we can circumvent such a pivotal process within the ICANN ecosystem and sacrifice due process in the name of speed is not only dangerous but it also sends a very bad message as to the democratic fractions that are supposed to be part of ICANN’s multistakeholder model.
Views are my own and my own only!