It’s Time for ICANN to Release a Preliminary Applicant Guidebook

Tony Kirsch, Head of Professional Services, GoDaddy Registry
August 11, 2021

Tony Kirsch, Head of Professional Services, GoDaddy Registry
August 11, 2021

At ICANN’s recent virtual meeting I was fortunate enough to join a panel facilitated by the Brand Registry Group (BRG), an association of organisations promoting the use of brand top-level domains, where we discussed the release of the next round of the generic top-level domain (gTLD) program. The fact that I was participating in a discussion like this is hardly news as I’ve been commenting on the policy discussions and debating its role in the digital landscape for years. 

The panel also included representatives from Microsoft who have a range of TLDs currently, and Uber and eBay who do not (but may wish to participate in the next round). In the process of preparing for our session and sharing our individual perspectives, it became apparent to us that the best way to progress the next round would be through the release of an updated version of the applicant guidebook, originally released for the previous round of applications. 
  
ICANN has recently made some good progress toward moving the next round of the new generic top-level domain (gTLD) program forward in 2021, including the submission to, and acceptance of, the Subsequent Procedures PDP Working Group (SubPro WG) Final Report by the Generic Names Supporting Organisation (GNSO) Council. 

Despite the recent progress, for many in the ICANN community, doubt remains as to the next steps, timelines and ultimately in ICANN’s ability to launch this program and that’s exactly where this idea of a preliminary applicant guidebook can help. 

Rather than just vocalising frustration and doubts about the process, the panel wanted to clearly outline a path forward that can work for ICANN, the community and future applicants, along with providing real world insight from potential future applicants. 

For those that missed the session, here is an overview of the discussion. It includes frank feedback provided to ICANN from some of the world’s largest brands, who shared their interest in potentially obtaining their own TLD and their perspectives on the process to date.  

The Community Has Done the Work

Tasked with the challenging responsibility of debating the successes and failures of policy and implementation protocols from the 2012 round, the community-led SubPro WG spent over five years painstakingly working through the key changes required for the next round. 

The report is incredibly detailed and as outlined in the session by Brand Registry Group (BRG) Executive Director Martin Sutton, includes approximately 120 recommendations. 

However, Sutton, a member of the SubPro WG himself, shared that deeper analysis shows that 80 of the recommendations were minor and 33 were moderate in nature, requiring small tweaks to existing processes, agreements or language in the 2012 new gTLD applicant guidebook. 

That means just nine of these recommendations are considered substantive changes to the 2012 process and even within those nine, some key recommendations for implementation were provided to the ICANN Board which reinforces the notion that the work has been done and ICANN should proceed based upon the report without delay or further policy work. 

The Demand Is Real

Having global powerhouse brands such as Uber and eBay on a panel talking about their interest in the next round and potentially owning their own TLD is significant and shouldn’t be taken lightly. 

Most organizations avoid “going public” with their interest due to competitive concerns. Having completed dozens of feasibility studies or preliminary evaluations for organizations interested in acquiring their own TLD in the next round, I can personally attest to the fact that many future applicants are indeed waiting quietly on the sidelines for the opportunity. 

If we consider the public comments from Uber and eBay along with the amount of new businesses, mergers and acquisitions and demand from existing applicants who may wish to participate again since the 2012 round, it is seemingly obvious that demand exists.

Comments from ICANN’s Chair in recent communications around uncertainty on industry demand are indeed disappointing after so much progress from the community. The reality is that exact demand cannot be accurately measured until an application period is opened, but similarly, indicative demand requires ICANN to provide some solid information to the community before that can be obtained. 

The Current State of the Program Is in a Substantially Better Place Than Ever Before

As part of the session, I outlined a historical analysis of the applicant guidebook from the 2012 round. For the purposes of brevity, I won’t discuss every change from each guidebook iteration here, suffice to say that the first iteration in late 2008 was substantially different from the ninth and final version released in January 2012 – predominantly due to the addition of vastly needed expansions on policy and implementation processes such as the Rights Protection Mechanisms, Prioritization Draw and other key topics. 

But what can we learn from a guidebook that evolved substantially, yet still yielded almost 2000 applications for new top-level domains?

Put simply, we must remember that the final applicant guidebook from the previous round is the starting point for the next round. 

We’re not starting from scratch here. We’re taking a very good 2012 program and through the work of the SubPro WG, adding our collective experience of the last round to develop an even more robust program for future applicants and future generations of internet users. 

Summary

Maintaining the stability and security of the internet is one of ICANN’s mission critical roles – but so too is the responsibility of ensuring competition and evolving the internet to create level playing fields for all stakeholders. 

Detailed analysis indicates that the level of changes required in the next guidebook from the work of the Subsequent Procedures Working Group are relatively minor in comparison to the historical precedence of the previous applicant guidebook. When considering this, and the clear market demand for the next round, publishing a preliminary applicant guidebook would overcome many challenges for the community and provide ICANN with much needed market insight and ability to expedite this long overdue program. 

*This article was originally published on CircleID here.