US Senate to hold new gTLDs hearing next week

The US Senate will hold a full committee hearing on new gTLDs next week where it will "examine the merits and implications of this new program and ICANN’s continuing efforts to address concerns raised by the Internet community".

The hearing will be at 10am on Thursday 8 December in Washington DC and will be webcast. [More info.]

There has been speculation about a hearing by the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation for some weeks following reports of heavy lobbying by the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) and related US business associations and corporate interests.

Nevertheless the fact that the hearing has been scheduled and is going ahead reflects badly on ICANN and its strategic decision to ignore growing concern from corporate America about the plan to create hundreds of new Internet extensions. It also demonstrates that ICANN has failed to make any serious headway in Washington.

The program is due to open on 12 January with applications received for three months at which point the application period will close for an unspecified period of time. It is highly unlikely that the Senate can do anything at this stage to prevent the program from going ahead but a critical hearing is likely to undermine confidence in both the program and in ICANN and cause problems later on.

The Committee has yet to reveal who will appear in front of it although based on past experience, it will be weighted against the gTLD program and ICANN's representative can expect to be given a hard time.

What does corporate America want?

ICANN's staff typically writes off criticism of the program at this time as a mix of being too late to the game, ignorance, and trying to squeeze last-minute concessions.

The situation is more complex than that however and the anti-gTLD campaign has some serious concerns which it will make sure the Senate Committee members are fully apprised of.

Those concerns were most clearly expressed at ICANN's recent meeting in Dakar where Steve DelBianco from the organization's business constituency outlined four issues that were unresolved:

  1. Terms of use compliance: the requirement for applicants to use new registries the way that they publicly state they will is not written into the current contract and so ICANN would be helpless to act if companies subsequent change their approach.
  2. Applications for gTLD IDNs: the biggest positive benefit from the program will likely come from the creation of Internet extensions in languages other than English. The highly US-focused ICANN has failed to recognise that value.
  3. Trademark protection: there are no less than three new IP rights mechanisms in place for new gTLDs, but an applicant is currently in a position to turn one of the most important off as soon as they launch.
  4. Registrar code of conduct: there are a significant number of concerns over how registrars - the companies that sell domains - act and what they are obliged to do. ICANN continues to resist efforts to improve the situation.

What will corporate interests ask for?

It is almost certain that there will be a strong call for ICANN to do one of two things. Either:

  1. Postpone the program until remaining concerns have been tackled, or
  2. Limit applications in the first round to either very safe applications or a limited number of new extensions.

There will also be a strong demand for ICANN to announce a date for when a second round of applications will open.

What will ICANN do?

If past behavior is anything to go by, ICANN will put up its Senior Vice President of Stakeholder Relations, Kurt Pritz to take the heat (ICANN CEO Rod Beckstrom is famously poor on detail and weak under pressure).

The organization will refuse to make any concessions, calculating that it can make its way through the hearing and still launch.

You can also expect ICANN to:

  • Adopt a defensive pose and point to the years of work done on the program, implying that the ANA and others are unfairly trying to force concessions at the last minute
  • Say it will look at making changes to the registry agreement (and then likely do nothing)
  • Point to the (secret and closed doors) discussion between ICANN and registrars on reviewing the contract between the two - the RAA - as dealing with registrar concerns, and
  • Talk about some kind of new announcement (watch for it to appear early next week) about supporting applications from developing countries as proof of the value of the program and the efforts ICANN is taking to make it a global success

What should ICANN do?

  • It should take each of the four points raised by the business constituency and take serious, solid efforts to address them and then be public about what it is doing and the fact it is doing it in response to the BC's feedback (DelBianco will most likely be one of the witnesses that the Committee calls).
  • It should apologize for not having communicated sufficiently clearly about the program and apologize for not communicating directly with the ANA about its concerns.
  • It should provide a date (1 January 2014?) for when the next round of applications will open.
  • It should say how it is going to handle application requests (including the issue of batching), and
  • It should promise to voluntarily update the Committee on progress of the program and offer to appear in front of the Committee in June 2012 after the applications are public to answer any questions.

Will it do that? No.

And so we will get to watch yet another embarrassing Senate Committee hearing on new gTLDs.