Making sense on the ‘net… after the dot

Sitting here in the dimly lit ballroom of the LA Airport Hilton, I am every day more impressed by the challenges faced by ICANN, the international group that is tasked with making the Internet run. There are issues of safety and security that are at ICANN’s core. And then there are issues of access, issues around the ability to create the online presence you always wanted, about the net as a free speech engine. Monday was all about those issues.

Monday afternoon’s marathon 6 hour session centered the process for approving new general top level domains or gTLDs. You know, the right side of the dot. How should ICANN manage the process if you want to have another word after the dot – instead of .com or .org, perhaps .amglobal? And while not that many people are clamoring for the chance to run the .amglobal universe, the issue is not trivial. In fact, as I learned, it’s pretty tricky in the end.

While many of the original gTLDs like .mil, .edu, .com etc. evolved from early networks on the web, a number of new gTLDs have been approved in recent years. While they may be less well known (like .museum) or nearly unknown (like .aero), there has been a slow, steady movement to open up the space. We have .biz, for example, and .info. And others have been proposed. No one really knows how much demand is out there, but no matter. Some demand exists, so ICANN decided to look into how they could address the issue.

The conversation started with a pretty basic question: What is out of bounds?

While there were a few loud voices arguing that anything should be permitted on “free speech” basis – as always is on any issue in any ICANN meeting – the general sense in the room seemed to be that we’d all prefer a world with some limits. Would the world be better place without a .hitler or .abortion or .pedophile? I’m not a purist. I think so. I can live without .pedophile.

However, when you take away some of the more obvious cases, then what do you do? ICANN is not in the business of making social policy, after all. Even if we know that there are some things over the line, how do we draw that line? Tricky.

The conversation then moved to the issue of competing claims.

Even for supposedly non-controversial strings there is a chance of controversy in many cases. A number of people, for example, might like to own and run a possible .apple or .bank gTLD if it came available. But who would get .apple? Steve Jobs? The Washington State apple producers association? The town of Appleton, Wisconsin? Fiona Apple? Somebody else? Even the hard core free speech shouters agreed that there’s a real need for some dispute resolution mechanism.

Moreover, who would review these objections? And could they do it quickly and efficiently? Also, what mechanism would be used to make the final decision when there’s a conflict – an auction? A lottery? A panel of experts determining appropriateness? Who would sit on this little court? While ICANN has clearly put a lot of time and energy into reaching for consensus, a lot of unresolved issues remain.

Still, in the end, I kept returning to the beginning. The general debate seemed to be missing the point. As I listened to the back-and-forth at the microphone I kept thinking that the simple, underlying question was not really being addressed…

Even if some people want more gTLDs, do we as an Internet community really need them? Is my creativity truly being harmed by the lack of a .mack gTLD? And what role should a gTLD play anyway?

The way I look at it, my AMGlobal website is like a car on the road. If I don’t maintain my car well, it’s my problem. If it stops running, my issue. But gTLDs have a different role, and a different set of responsibilities. gTLDs function like the road itself. They are core to confidence in the entire system, and just as we don’t let just anyone build just any road just anywhere, we shouldn’t take lightly the idea of offering up a new gTLD.

The final process that ICANN arrives at for approving new gTLDs will no doubt be imperfect. It will strike many as arbitrary and without question it will be on some level. Some conflicts will be imperfectly resolved. And, in trying to avoid controversy it will without question limit the number of new gTLDs that are approved.

However, the Internet is more than just an inanimate tool, and certainly much more than a debating society. It is on some level a community. And, while it should provide ever growing levels of access and flexibility, we community members must demand first and foremost that it remain stable and reliable.

The conversation I heard on Monday convinced me that ICANN will be ill-equipped to resolve many of the issues presented if a large number of gTLD applications come forward. It also convinced me that any other current entity would do an even worse job in addressing the issue.

Country code TLDs (ccTLDS) – and the effort to build out Internationalized Domain Names (e.g. the .ru in Cyrillic script) – should get on the fast track, as there are few of them and they are crucial to offering access to new communities. These are real roads that need to be built, and have ICANN support.

However, based on what I saw Monday, it is very likely that getting a new gTLD will remain a difficult process taking months and requiring significant commitment and capacity from the requesting party. It will probably mean that there isn’t a .mack or .amglobal any time soon.

Considering the complexity of the issues and the risks to the system, that’s ok by me.


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