More Than Just Words – ICANN Comment Periods, Paper Tigers, and How to Achieve Results

Josh Bourne ⬥ 17 March

Since we cofounded the Coalition Against Domain Name Abuse (CADNA) in 2007, the non-profit has been dedicated to both building awareness and taking active steps to prevent cybersquatting and other online infringements. One of the main avenues for achieving these goals has been to engage with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the international regulatory body that coordinates the Domain Name System at the top level. Initially, CADNA focused its efforts on trying to affect change in ICANN within the framework it had established, namely by submitting comments on as many issues as we could to try to get our message, the message of brand owners and consumers, heard.

Eventually it became clear that relying on comments was simply not enough. ICANN is a captured regulator primarily beholden to the interests of a relatively small group that doesn’t represent the overall Internet community. As such, trying to seriously alter the policy development process of ICANN through written comments that were ultimately ignored was not a practical way to make real progress. This is not to say that CADNA has ceased participating in ICANN’s public comment periods. On the contrary, CADNA has continued to submit comments to make its members’ opinions known, and also to prove that it is still willing to engage with ICANN. And there is some evidence that the efforts of CADNA and other comment submitters have made an impact: in some recent redlined drafts of initiatives under the new gTLD rollout, there have been references to changes made as a result of public comments. However, ICANN has a history of heeding the recommendations of only select groups when crafting these types of public-comment-driven changes in the past.

What happened with the Expression of Interest (EOI) program is a prime example of this. The idea behind the EOI process was to create a data-gathering model that would gauge if there was a demand among new and existing registry operators for new gTLDs. Though the EOI process was created to respond to Internet users questioning the need for new gTLDs, ICANN first put forth a flawed EOI model and then did not follow through to create a model that satisfied its constituents. Earlier this week, ICANN announced that in order to more quickly launch new gTLDs, it had cancelled the EOI program. Peter Dengate Thrush, ICANN’s Board Chairman, said “we are now so close to launching the new gTLD process that we simply thought it better to move ahead as quickly as possible without adding the EOI element.”

By doing this, ICANN has willfully decided to ignore its users’ concerns in order to quickly rollout a program that will bring in millions of dollars for this “nonprofit”.

It is not my intention to imply that stakeholders should stop participating in ICANN’s public comment periods or to insinuate that CADNA plans to do so; however, I do wish to point out the general ineffectiveness of public comments to encourage bigger action. In order to really make positive steps forward in improving ICANN and its policy development, CADNA has refocused its efforts on working with members of Congress on these issues and working more diligently toward developing legislation to help resolve the problems. Long term solutions to the Internet’s systemic problems that are within ICANN’s control are unlikely to emerge from within the ICANN community, but rather from the governments and its agencies who are ultimately responsible for defending the public interest.

I see other groups submitting comments, participating in ICANN and then simply waiting to see results. Now more than ever, as ICANN is developing plans to drastically alter the DNS and the shape of the Internet as a whole, it is crucial to move away from the paper – to move beyond simply providing comments – and take up bigger, more effective action. The incentives to achieve certain outcomes in the ICANN policy development process are too great for us to assume the outcomes are not predictable – paper tigers will not stop a chaotic introduction of new TLDs and they will not clean up WHOIS or stop all of the registrar abuse. Regulatory action needs to be both domestic and international and the time to act is now. 

Tags: brand owners, CADNA, Coalition Against Domain Name Abuse, Congress, cybersquatting, DNS, Domain Name System, domestic regulatory action, EOI, Expression of Interest, government agencies, gTLDs, ICANN, international regulatory action, Internet, internet community, non-profit, online infringement, Peter Dengate-Thrush, policy development, public comment, public interest, registrar abuse, stakeholders, WHOIS

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