Welcome to Domain Name Wire Radio. Find Domain Name Wire on the web at www.domainnamewire.com. Now here’s your host, Andrew Allemann.
Andrew: Welcome to Domain Name Wire Radio. I’m your host, Andrew Allemann.
Before we get started, I’d like to thank our sponsor for today’s show, Traverse Legal. You can find out more about Traverse Legal on the web at www.traverselegal.com.
Today we have a great guest, Antony Van Couvering of Minds + Machines. Antony founded the company to help others pursue new top level domains. I specifically asked Antony to come on the show today to talk about the Expressions of Interest scheme that ICANN is considering. They’re considering this scheme to gauge demand for those interested in launching new top level domains.
Antony, welcome to the show.
Antony: Hi, Andrew. Thank you.
Andrew: Well, to get started, Antony, I know you have a lot of history in the domain name industry, so I was hoping you could give us a brief overview of that.
Antony: Oh, sure. I got started in domain names in the 90’s, sort of mid-90’s, when I became aware of these things called country code domains. I was a book editor at the time, and I was working, editing Joseph Campbell’s works. He’s a scholar of myth and religion. He had a lot of fans, and I had set up a BBS for them. But they weren’t happy about calling New York to access files and so on, and the web came along, and I said I’ll do a website. Then I discovered for the fans in Brazil and South Africa that there were things like br and ba, so I got interested in domain names, and I set up a company called netnamesusa and this is one of the first companies that worked with major corporates to get country code domains and deal with them. I had no idea that would be my market, but that’s who was interested. I went to the Internet World in San Jose that year, I forget which year, and I got Intel and Netscape as clients that very day. That’s how I got launched in it. I just sort of discovered something that no one was doing yet. I did that. I sold that company to Net Benefits based in London, and I started a company called Name Engine, which did much the same thing that I sold to VeriSign. I’ve been working in the ccTLD, if you’re in ccTLDs, at least at that time, you’re necessarily involved in ICANN and ICANN policy. I was involved in the thing that was before ICANN, which was called IAAHC or the GTLDMOU, and I ran one of the three bodies there. Then ICANN superseded that. I’ve been involved either right in the thick of it or peripherally ever since.
Andrew: Great. And you founded Minds and Machines when?
Antony: January of this year.
Andrew: Ok, great. Well, let’s get to the topic, the Expressions of Interest. Rather than me trying to describe it, I was hoping you could give an overview of this idea, this Expressions of Interest that ICANN’s considering.
Antony: Sure. In Seoul, we found that, instead of the date that no one believed, that we had no date, which everyone can believe. The process for new TLDs, like many other ICANN policies, is really bedeviled by a lack of information. ICANN, I think to a large extent, has been developing policies somewhat in a vacuum without a lot of the data that they need (a) to (a) make their program to work well; and (b) to give some comfort to those who worry about what’s going to happen. I thought what if we can decouple the actual application part of this from the delegation part, and furthermore, can we decouple within the application part the submission from the actual evaluation? That’s the idea behind the Expressions of Interest, that if ICANN knew just what strings are being applied for and who’s applying for them, these two little bits of information would really help. They would gain a lot of knowledge from that. They’d know how many applications there are going to be, which has great implications for their staffing requirements, hiring evaluators, which kind of evaluators, are there a lot of foreign language evaluators, and by foreign I mean non-English. They’d know a lot of things. They’d know about root scaling. Well, if there’s only 200 applications, then root scaling issues are much less of a problem than if there are 2000. Furthermore, they’d know what’s in contention. If there is 35 .musics, and everyone else is a unique application, that tells you a lot about what then contention process needs to be. I thought, if we could just get these two pieces of information, that would be great for ICANN and it would be really great for people applying because (1) they’d have a date, which would help a lot with raising money. It would help with planning, with having to know how long they need to conserve their resources. It would help a lot with being able to understand who’s out there. Let’s suppose you’re the only one for a particular string. You still have to pass the evaluation, but you have a lot more comfort that if you do that, you actually have a business. Again, you can go out and you can talk to investors, start hiring, you can do all kinds of things. Or let’s suppose that there’s two of you, or three, or four, you can contact those people and say, hey, let’s make a deal. Let’s put in a joint application, or even if that doesn’t work out, at least you know who you’re up against at auction. If you’re up against Nokia for .phone, well maybe you better go home. But if you’re up against someone else, you can say, okay, I can beat that guy. Let me go to my friends and to my investors and assemble a war chest. That’s assuming that you’re not able to reach a deal. There’s just a huge amount of certainty and data that comes out of this very small fossil. That was the idea behind it.
Andrew: This was introduced somewhat formally at the Seoul ICANN meeting, is that correct?
Antony: Well, what happened is I began to waylay people and say hey, what do you think of this because I thought, man this is pretty easy. There’s got to be some major flaw. I talked to a lot of staff people, smart people within the ICANN community, ICANN Board members, and so on, and I just sort of floated this idea of something that might be good, and I was surprised to find that there was a Board resolution to study it. The Board resolution wasn’t exactly what I would have liked because it basically gave the whole project over to the staff. I thought look, this is going to work best if it’s actually the ICANN community that comes with something. After to Board resolution, even before actually we had a small meeting, but I sort of put together this with Jothan Frakes, who works with me, an Expressions of Interest working group that we had a few long phone calls and a lot of correspondence, and we came up with some recommendations. We looked at things like how much should it cost to submit your Expression of Interest. What kind of data would you put in, and so on. We submitted this as a comment to ICANN, and hopefully they’ll do something with it.
Andrew: What do you think are the most important aspects of this Expressions of Interest idea to make it predictive and accurate when it comes to the number and exact strings of top level domains that people will apply for?
Antony: Well, there’s a lot of people who like to game ICANN. There’s a lot of money been made by just reading the rules very carefully and following it to the letter and ignoring the spirit. We wanted to make sure that this was actually going to reveal real data. We thought if it only cost $10, then why wouldn’t I just put in a whole bunch of applications with my $10. Maybe I’ll spend a few hundred dollars and confuse the world as to my real intentions or stake a claim on something I was only interested in bartering off later. We thought that there needed to be quite a high fee, and the number we came up with was $55,000. The reason we came up with that was if you look at the regular ICANN application process, you have to pay $185,000, but if you pull out early you get $130,000 back. So the difference is $55,000, so we thought okay, this is worth that risk anyway in an application. That seemed like a good number. It’s sufficiently high to deter significant gaming, and it’s consistent with what the fees already were in.
Andrew: And then you would have to do the Expression of Interest if you wanted to apply for a domain, correct?
Antony: Right. The other thing we didn’t want is okay, someone sitting on the sidelines saying yeah, I’ll see what everyone else is doing, then I’ll decide what to do. That’s not going to give ICANN good information either. The second important thing is that if you want to apply later, you have to put your Expression of Interest in now, and the fee is non-refundable. Or more precisely, it’s refundable at ICANN’s option. In other words, you don’t have any guarantee you’re going to get it back. This means that if you do apply and you put in your money, you’re serious. This is just to prevent people from putting in an application and then saying I’d like a refund please.
Andrew: Sure, I can think of a few I’d put in just for fun, just for kicks, if it were $100 or something like that.
Antony: Even if it’s $55,000 and you know you get a refund, then that’s just, you can work out the economics of that.
Andrew: Let’s say people put this money in, which is not chump change. Obviously it shows that they’re significantly interested, and let’s say that the new top level domain program continues to stall and we’re sitting here two years from now and someone still has $55,000 times the number of domains in there, should there be some sort of circumstance where applicants get their money back?
Antony: I think that what we recommended is that if there is no process defined by the end of next year, the end of 2010, then people can ask for their money back, but they don’t have to. If ICANN is still saying, yeah, we’re doing this, we have to cross another “tâ€ and dot another “iâ€, then those who wish to retain their priority could not take their money out. But anyone who is really sick of the whole thing could get their money and go home. We wanted to say, look there’s an end to this nonsense, but it doesn’t mean you have to start all over again.
Andrew: What’s the soonest we could conceivably see this Expressions of Interest process going into effect? By that I mean where they start accepting Expressions of Interest.
Antony: That’s the $1,000,000 question. The ICANN Board has got a lot of power. They could vote tomorrow to start the whole process up. They could do whatever they want. That said, I think what they’re looking for, they’re meeting in early December, there’s a Board meeting, they’re looking for something from the staff about feasibility, the risk, and then they will vote to do something with it. Probably if this happens, there will need to be a pretty decent communications period. There’s always the fear, especially from GAC members, that this is sort of an ICANN insiders club and no one knows about it. I think the kind of interview we’re doing now is a good example of maybe it’s not so closed. There’d have to be a communications period to let everyone know this is happening. Then the process itself is relatively quick. You can just send in an envelope with the string you want and your name and contact information and a check. It could be as quick as, it depends on how they want to run the communications period. Let’s suppose that the Board decides that it’s a great thing and they want to get it going, they could say we’re going to start accepting Expressions immediately and the communications period is going to run concurrently. Let’s say they have a three month communications period. There’d also be a three month window and these things could run together. If that were the case, you would have the window closing some time before Nairobi, which is the next ICANN meeting in early March. They could proceed differently. They could study it forever and take three cuts of comments and never decide, and we could be looking at the same situation in the fall. It’s very hard to predict what they’re going to do. The whole point of this is to get the thing jump started, give some comfort to applicants, give some data to ICANN, which they can then publish which will let people, not just ICANN but the rest of the world, know. Let’s suppose you’re a brand or a government and you’re very concerned someone’s going to try and infringe on your brand or somehow take advantage of a city name or something, the information that you got from the Expressions of Interest would allow you to prepare an objection, to get your case ready. The idea of this should be done as soon as possible.
Andrew: Thank you very much for the overview. Let’s just spend a couple minutes talking very briefly about Minds + Machines. There are a couple press releases, well many press releases have come out about top level domains that you guys are applying for, working with people to apply for. Can you give an overview of a few of those.
Antony: What we do is we provide registry services for people who want to do top level domains. Our software is used by a bunch of country codes through COCCA, the Council of Country Code Administrators. They have a shared registry platform. It’s mostly used by smaller cc TLDs, although there’s some big ones too. It’s very easy to use. We recently migrated fm onto the platform over the weekend. Not this last weekend, but it just took a weekend. That’s our platform. What Minds + Machines does is we use that for gTLDs and COCCA pretty much does cc TLDs. We’re working with Fred Krueger and Minor Childers and Clark Landry to do .eco, which is backed by Al Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection and the former Vice President himself, and the Sierra Club and Surf Rider and a number of other big environmental organizations. That is a top level domain that’s going to give over 50% of the profits back to these and other groups who want to do something about climate change. The idea there is that if we actually want to do something about saving the planet, the best way to do is not recycling your garbage, it’s government treaties that really reduce the amount of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. The best way to make that happen is to give money to people who are pushing that. It’s really a fundraising vehicle, but we think that there’s a lot of people who care about the environment and want to put .eco on their website or their email address. That’s one. I’m busy writing the RFP for .nyc, which is something I’ve been working on for a number of years, and the city of New York has decided that they do want to go ahead and do .nyc for a lot of good reasons, and they’re having an open tender bid, which we may win or we may not win. I think that that’s a good process. That’s exactly how cities should go forward. They shouldn’t be blessing people in secret. They should be finding the best people to run their top level domains for them. There are a couple that we’re doing.
Andrew: Great. And if people want to find out more, they can find you online at what web address?
Antony: It’s www.mindsandmachines.com.
Andrew: Well thank you very much for your time and filling us in on everything going on with these Expressions of Interest. We wish you the best of luck.
Antony: One more thing, Andrew. There is a comment section on the ICANN site, if you go to ICANN.org and then click public comments and then look for Expressions of Interest, they’re taking comments on whether people think this is a good idea or not. If any of your listeners think it’s a good idea, or even if it’s a bad idea, they should definitely to and comment and let their use be heard by ICANN because they do have to pay attention to these things.
Andrew: Great. Thanks. I’ll be sure to post a link to that in the transcript as well.
Antony: Thanks a lot, Andrew.
Andrew: Thank you.
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