Impressions from ICANN 51

By October 16, 2014Conferences, ICANN, Registrar

Greetings from Los Angeles where I have spent the last few days at the ICANN 51 conference. While much of the content is the stuff of policy wonks, I found it time well spent. As the CEO of an ICANN-accredited registrar, I believe it is important to be active in the dialog around the future of the naming system and to develop direct relationships with the stakeholders and decision-makers from around the world.  I greatly appreciate that ICANN hosts these meetings.

The US Government is all-in with ICANN — but does that really matter?

The headline event of ICANN 51 was arguably the formal statement by US Commerce Secretary, Penny Pritzker, that the US will hand over formal stewardship of the Internet to “global multi-stakeholder communities”.

While some US stakeholders may be appalled by this policy of apparent abdication by the US of hegemony over the Internet,  I believe there is more to this move than meets the eye.  The US policy-makers like a free and open Internet.  Some might say that a free and open Internet is the ultimate global platform for public influence and, in the extreme case, subversion. A study of the history of US intelligence apparatus reveals that the US is the most advanced country when it comes to monitoring global telecommunications, e.g. via ECHELON/PRISM infrastructure.  The Internet is a battleground where the US is, and will be for the foreseeable future, the best equipped.  As such, it makes sense that the US will support a public policy which leads to a continued free and open Internet with minimal censorship.

Fadi Chehade is a professional

The conference opened with the multimedia-enhanced musings of ICANN Chairman Stephen Crocker and was followed by the keynote by Commerce Secretary Pritzker. Immediately thereafter, ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade took the stage.  Fadi’s presentation laid out a well thought-out vision and strategic plan that balances top-down strategies with bottom-up consensus building. Fadi comes across as a focused technocrat who is amply capable of navigating the requisite technical, commercial and public policy circles that are central to his role.

Fadi has already presided over the massive gTLD rollout, which despite delays has gone off without a significant hitch.  Another area that deserves highlighting is the enforcement of compliance, particularly among the 2013 RAA signatories.  While the periodic audits and ad hoc inquiries from ICANN’s compliance team can at times be a nuisance to the registrars, the compliance enforcement efforts serve an important function, namely to bring the registrars to a unified standard of operating competency.

Consistent with Fadi’s consensus-building leadership style, during ICANN 51 Fadi announced the rollout of a new quarterly live conference call with stakeholders to review progress against plan and to invite input from the growing number of stakeholders.  While the addition of these conference calls may seem like overkill, keep in mind that ICANN has to contend with public and private stakeholders from around the world while protecting the interests of registrants and consumers that do not even know ICANN exists, and must do this in an environment where technology is in a constant state of flux.

ICANN is very flush with cash and this is not necessarily a good thing

The new gTLD rollout was a windfall for ICANN, which now has a warchest of approaching $400 million in cash and investments.  The current headcount of approximately 300 is projected to now hold steady. However, even at 300 persons, the organization is now large enough to have multiple layers of management distributed across multiple locations.  In my personal experience as Founder and CEO of Global Market Insite, a business that grew 100% per year for 7 years to 300 persons, it was the time between employee 200 and employee 300 when the greatest cultural risks emerged. This is the point in time when a 3rd (and sometimes a 4th) layer of management is added and when the CEO no longer knows every team member, and no longer presides over every hiring decision.

Domain Tasting needs to come back into the industry

As some of our customers know, Epik has developed some capability in the area of domain tasting, i.e. the practice of registering domains and then deleting the majority of them within the 5 day delete window. Earlier this year, domain tasting capability was made accessible to approved customers.  One major challenge of providing domain tasting services is that the registries are now enforcing a maximum delete rate of 10%, meaning that any significant volume of domain tasting quickly translates into onerous penalties for the sponsoring registrar.  While at ICANN 51, I had the opportunity to sit down individually with Pat Kane of Verisign and Akram Attalah, President of Global Domains of ICANN to more deeply understand the respective positions on the subject of Domain Tasting.  In short, the registries want tasting.  It is ICANN, presumably serving as a fiduciary, that is holding domain tasting back.  Mr. Attalah questioned the benefit of domain tasting, implying that it mainly benefits speculators rather than long term operators. I respectfully disagree with ICANN on the matter of domain tasting. The draconian policy now in effect is a disservice to the industry.  I look forward to a continued constructive dialog with the registrar stakeholder GNSO on this topic, in the months leading up to ICANN 52 in Marrakech, and will be initiating a formal Policy Development Process (PDP) to revisit the topic of Domain Tasting. The binary decision to kill tasting was arguably the appropriate reflex response to stop egregious abuses at the time.  However, the time has come to find middle ground.

Stewardship of WHOIS  is setting up to be a strategic area of importance

One of the topics at ICANN 51 was the emerging discussion of centralizing WHOIS.  The initial steps being taken by ICANN in the area of WHOIS are harmless and indeed useful, e.g. the launch of an ICANN-managed WHOIS search tool.  While further work on WHOIS centralization appears to be preliminary, these projects have a tendency to take on a life of their own once staffed and funded.  A significant change to the WHOIS framework has now gotten additional ICANN air cover by voluminous analysis by an Expert Working Group. During the meeting with Mr. Attalah of ICANN, I took the opportunity to state my position on the WHOIS centralization topic, namely that I am not in favor of a globally centralized WHOIS model and will advocate against it.  For accredited registrars that are in compliance with their RAA, they must have control over the WHOIS record as they are singularly accountable to the registrant to safeguard the record of ownership of the domain, regardless of whether the WHOIS information displayed is public or is a privacy proxy authorized by the registrant. The authoritative WHOIS record should continue to come from the WHOIS server of the accredited registrar. In other words, WHOIS, just as DNS, should remain federated not centralized.  There are WHOIS data quality standards.  These standards can and should be strictly enforced through the established compliance and enforcement processes.  The existing solution is not broken.

Many thanks to the ICANN team for putting on ICANN 51. Safe travels home for the participants from around the world.

 

 

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