The new CEO of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), Rod Beckstrom kicked this meeting off with an interesting metaphor for the power of the Internet. It was a bit hokey and all the tech folks grumbled about already knowing the power of the ‘net, but it did infuse the sometimes jaded audience with a renewed sense of enthusiasm for the business at hand…exactly what a “new guy” should do.
The hottest issue by far was the introduction of new generic top-level domains (gTLDs) and the status of the rollout. Currently there are a handful of gTLDs like .com, .net, .org, and others. ICANN is well down the process of throwing the gates open and letting anyone with a business plan and the $185,000 fee apply for a new gTLD. For example, .sport, .berlin, .gay, and .eco are all being applied for, among many others.
It is a very contentious issue with a number of different parties approaching it from their own perspectives. To begin with, ICANN has been working on this issue for years, so there is a combination of fatigue and impatience within the community. Fundamentally, the divide breaks down along the lines of those who are concerned about policy and technology – whether the Internet can safely integrate all these new TLDs – and those who see a huge business opportunity and want to seize it as quickly as possible.
The tension between the parties was palpable. Interestingly, one of the most vocal business interests proposed a path forward from the conference floor on Thursday morning that morphed into a Board of Directors resolution Friday morning. I happened to be sitting beside some key stakeholders at the moment the resolution was announced and their surprise was obvious. Who says the ICANN Board does not respond to stakeholder input!
The biggest step forward coming out of this meeting was regarding internationalized domain names (IDNs), more specifically the fast track IDN ccTLDs. This represents a massive change to the Internet whereby language scripts other than Latin character-based languages can be used for domain names, or urls. This is a huge step forward as it will really facilitate those using other scripts to get online, to truly globalize the Internet. Imagine for a moment that if all Internet addresses were based on the Chinese character set how difficult it would be for those of us who communicate in English and French to use the Internet…well, that is the position much of the world is in right now. Arabic, Chinese and Cyrillic based languages, among others, are in this predicament.
The good news is that ICANN’s Board approved a resolution to start accepting applications for new IDN ccTLDs starting on November 16, 2009. The challenge will be to integrate non-ASCII based characters into the root zone servers (and others) as well as the numerous policy elements that are associated with this issue.
The most surprising issue for me? The non-issue of the Agreement of Commitments (AoC), the new contractual arrangement between ICANN and the U.S. Government which barely seemed to get any attention or mention. The U.S. government now has an indefinite contract as the top watchdog for the overall ICANN process and hardly a mention was made of it. I guess it was a testament to the belief that an acceptable balance of tradeoffs was found.
The usual grumbling aside, this meeting was a very positive step forward for the Internet, and a very positive meeting overall for ICANN.