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Thursday, November 05, 2009

Queuing for IDN gTLDs in Seoul

Early last week, still jetlagged from the long flight in from the US, I had the chat with some of the Emerging Markets delegates to the Seoul ICANN meeting. And, on the basis of that conversation, I drafted my article about Kenya’s struggle to sell tea to its markets in the Middle East on an all-Arabic website and the need for IDN gTLDs ( What I didn’t know was just how much support there was for the idea of IDNs generally and for IDN g’s. But now we know.

At the “Public Forum” part of the meeting on Thursday – a kind of organized “open mic” period for those of you that have never been to one of these jamborees – no fewer than TWELVE different people rose to speak on behalf of moving forward with IDNs. Moreover, ten of them – nearly all – urged ICANN to finish the job by making IDN gTLDs available too. Amen and amen.

The list of speakers was impressive and diverse. There were comments from the French government representative talking about the need for equity in the IDN space. There were Chinese registrars almost begging ICANN to help them give their “netizens” a chance to use all-Chinese domains. And there were private sector firms from Korea, to Israel to Austria explaining how gTLDs – the vast majority of sites in the world – needed to be made “IDN available”, so businesses could maintain and grow their operations in a globalizing world. Of course, I rose to talk about Kenya and again stress the economic development benefits of IDNs and gIDNs in particular.

There’s no doubt that the IDN train has momentum. Work on the limited number of fast-track of ccIDNs is meaningful… as far as it goes. But there should be no more haggling about the rest of the IDN space. We’ve gone past the point of wondering if this can work technically. In Seoul and over the last decade we’ve answered the question of whether or not people care. They do. People representing all kinds of businesses large and small, governments and other stakeholders.

Congratulations, sure, for ICANN. A lot of work went into getting this far. Still, this is serious business for parts of the world – like India, China, Pakistan, and yes Kenya – that are just coming on line in large numbers. The age of a US- and English-centered Internet is coming to an end, as it should be. Building out the IDN space, especially IDN gTLDs is the next step.

Time to finish the job.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Shouldn’t tea time for Kenya mean IDN TLDs?

Anyone who knows Kenya knows it is famous for tea. And while I can now get Kenyan tea online from US companies like Starbucks, Caribou Coffee or any number of other re-sellers, like most consumers I would vastly prefer to cut out the middle man and buy my tea direct from Kenyan companies. Why not?

But here's the rub. Besides me and a significant number of Brits, who buys Kenyan tea? According to Kenya's Department of Agriculture, after the UK the three largest buyers of Kenyan tea are Egypt, Pakistan, and Sudan. In fact, the Arabic speaking Middle East accounts for about 25% of world tea purchases.

To reach these customers directly, Kenyan tea producers really need the ability to "speak their language" on the web—to provide websites and web addresses that are all in Arabic or Urdu. However, since today's internet doesn't allow website names in anything but Roman characters after the dot, we've got to wait for ICANN to enable these Internationalized Domain Names (IDNs).

Monday night here in Seoul ICANN held a reception to celebrate the coming of IDNs for country code domains (like .eg for Egypt). It was a love fest, complete with cocktails, slide shows and commemorative t-shirts. And it's true, ICANN should be complimented for this advance—however belated.

Still, as I sat there talking with delegates from Kenya I was struck by just how limited a victory this will be—and what a missed opportunity it is—for existing and potential e-businesses. Even to reach their best Arabic-speaking markets with an all-Arabic website, no Kenyan company is likely to go through the trouble and expense of buying IDN domains in more than 20 Arabic-speaking countries.

So where does that leave the Kenyan tea industry? If I were the Kenya Tea Development Agency, Ltd I would want to keep it simple. What I would really want is the Arabic version of the website I already have—

In the end the issue of IDNs shouldn't be about linguistics or politics, but about economic growth and development, about making the Internet more accessible for the billions of new users and businesses coming online every day. Now that ICANN has committed to make IDN ccTLDs available, why not make the most common existing TLDs—like .com—next in line?

If, as the proverb goes, "tea is liquid wisdom" then ICANN should have a cup or two… then get about the business of bringing global TLDs to the IDN space.

ICANN's Positive Affirmation: Good News for Africa and Emerging Markets

Originally submitted October 8 on CircleID

Andrew Mack

Sometimes you get what you are asking for. And this seems to be one of those occasions… and the US government can give itself a pat on the back for having listened to other stakeholder opinions.

For years the world of Internet governance has been seen as its own special corner of the technosphere, full of arcane acronyms and quiet power deals. Despite efforts to make ICANN and the broader Internet community more transparent and user-friendly, many observers, including many African governments, still saw the stage as too much of an insider's game—with the ultimate insider being the US Department of Commerce. However, with the announcement of new "Affirmation" between DOC and ICANN, it seems a new day is dawning, one full of what should be good news for Africa and emerging markets.

Notwithstanding its strange name (what is an "Affirmation" after all, when you're talking about new policy?), there's a lot to like in the announcement for both businesses and governments in emerging markets smile. The Affirmation talks about the need to move forward with Internationalized Domain Names, a major focus of the Arabic-speaking northern tier of the continent. It re-emphasizes the crucial private sector role in running the net, something that should give confidence to African investors and company owners anxious to do more on line and keep the net open for business. It expands the reporting from ICANN, so that now key information from the organization will be open to governments around the world, not just the US, making the governance mechanisms accountable to all governments. And in some ways most stunningly, it gives those governments that do participate in ICANN a much meatier role, complete with actions and powers to influence policy—as opposed to the simple "advisory" powers in earlier agreements.

Finally and perhaps most importantly in our minds, the Affirmation walks away from the very concept of a "report card", with short term objectives and a short term view. The Affirmation is an agreement in perpetuity, one that specifically addresses the concerns of the international community (notwithstanding the opt-out clause at the end, which seemed out of keeping with the intent and tone of the rest of the document). This is crucial because it is the long term stability and growth of the net—and both are key—that we are all after.

Now the challenge is to us. For years emerging markets members of the Internet governance community have been urging ICANN and the US government to take steps, steps just like these. ICANN has signaled a real willingness to focus to the needs and issues of the next billion users, on IDNs, on stability and on more and better governance. One can only hope that African governments and private sector representatives alike will take up this new opportunity and engage more deeply than ever before. After all the net should belong to all, even Africa.

This post was co-authored with Vika Mpisane, Chairman of AFTLD and General Manager of the .za Domain Name Authority

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

As ICANN Grows, time to focus on Emerging Markets

By Vika Mpisane and Andrew Mack

[NB, this article, co-written with my friend and colleague Vika Mpisane from South Africa, is currently awaiting publication in Johannesburg]

Today, ICANN -- the international group responsible for managing Internet governance -- is growing and taking on more responsibility than ever before. However, as we saw at the recent ICANN meeting in Mexico City, the system is changing fast. The time is now for ICANN to take a more serious look at the changes, to make sure they don’t disproportionately hurt companies and consumers in developing countries.

For example, the organization is proposing to allow a significant increase in the number of generic Top Level Domains or gTLDs (like .com or .org). On the face of it, good news for consumers. Still as we talked with African and Latin American friends, business owners and consumers in Mexico, they expressed concerns about risks from increased consumer fraud, as criminals hijack trusted brand names, send phishing lures and scams using the new, untested gTLDs. They cited risks from the so-called domainers, who by registering well-known brands in the new gTLDs may force brand owners to pay substantial amounts to protect their brands. And there’s the issue of local country code operators (like .za here in South Africa), who fear that the introduction of a large number of new gTLDs could create a wave of competition they could not survive.

Mexico City participants also shared concerns about the introduction of new internationalized domains, the so-called IDNs. Arabic-speaking delegates and others using non-Latin script expressed concern that their languages were not fully available on the web. They questioned ICANN’s plans to move forward quickly with governments while not moving equally fast in translating the existing gTLDs such as .org or .com. They asked openly if ICANN was taking their languages seriously enough.

Finally, there is the issue of accountability. ICANN is working to become more independent and trying to set its declaration of independence from oversight for the coming year. However, we remain very concerned that independence without oversight is a recipe for disaster. Oversight from the US Department of Commerce is no long term solution, but neither is supervision through the UN – which moves slowly and has no real technical capacity. We need true governance that helps the system grow and works to help everyone harness the educational and economic power of the net.

In Mexico we heard some encouraging talk from Africa’s only Board Member, Katim Touray, about creating a working group specifically focused on the issues of developing nations. This is long overdue. And to be clear, our goal is not to slow down the process of gTLDs or of IDNs – quite the contrary. But we need to get serious. ICANN recently unveiled its study of the economic impact of new gGTLDs… and it doesn’t even mention Africa or Latin America. Clearly, we’ve got to do better.

The Internet is indeed a big part of our future, and it is time for ICANN to pay serious attention to countries like South Africa. They must do the homework to understand the economic and security impact of proposed changes for our citizens and companies. Take our voice into account. Otherwise, all this change will – unwittingly perhaps – serve only to increase the digital divide.

Vika Mpisane is a General Manager at the .za Domain Name Authority, a Board member of the African Top Level Domains (AfTLD), and a new member of the ccNSO Council.

Andrew Mack is Founder and Principal of AMGlobal Consulting, a US-based firm working with companies, governments, and donors, specializing in work with new technologies, technology policy and Africa.

Monday, October 13, 2008

ICANN – Confidence Campaign or Just a Con Game for Emerging Markets?

I work in Washington, and a week and a half ago the ICANN Confidence Campaign came to town.

As theater, it was a pretty impressive event. A near capacity crowd gathered in the hallowed halls of the National Press Club to hear Peter Dengate-Thrush, Paul Twoomey and various ICANN luminaries talk about the group’s plans to improve institutional confidence. The audience – mostly lawyers and policy types – rose one by one to ask about their particular interest areas. The event lasted for hours, bleeding substantially over the allotted time. Certainly the image of “participation”…

However, as the ICANN staffers and advisors explained their plans for the future, I was struck by one overriding question: What does this have to do with the real people who use the Internet for work around the world, especially the small businesses I work with in Emerging Markets?

The answer? Unfortunately, practically nothing.

As you may know, much of ICANN’s justification for “independence” from the US Government (and its strategic plan) is centered around making the institution more international AND more accessible to a wide international audience. Given this, I expected to hear a different tune, maybe even a more practical one as relates to the BILLIONS of future Internet users.

I expected to hear about practical steps to prepare for and bring in the new businesses and consumers around the world that will someday soon be using the Internet. I expected to hear about progress on Internationalized Domain Names (IDNs), the ability to use non-Roman characters such as Chinese script after the dot (as in the Chinese characters for .org). I expected to hear about increased Emerging Market participation in ICANN events, maybe even about ICANN support for Internet Governance activities in places like Africa, where most interested parties simply can’t afford the price of attending ICANN’s thrice-annual jamborees. Finally, and crucially, I expected to hear how ICANN was going to take its successful private sector focus to the next level, building out beyond the OECD to actively address the hopes of small business persons around the globe.

Instead, most of what I heard was, well, crickets… Of the dozens of comments, only ONE about the interests of the users that will make up the future of the net. Hmm…

So, a small businessperson myself, nearly alone amongst the lobbyists, I asked about an issue important to small businesses like mine wanting to work in Emerging Markets, the introduction of new IDN TLDs. It was a simple question: Can ICANN guarantee that IDN gTLDs (the Arabic version of .com or .biz or .edu) would be available at the same time as the IDN ccTLDs (the .eg for Egypt)?

I asked because stuff like this matters to small business. I have friends who have .net or .com in the name of their business. I have friends that have had to go through the administrative nightmare of setting up a web presence in 10+ jurisdictions in Europe, each with its own different regulations and hassles, and simply don’t have the time or money to set up shop in a dozen Arabic-speaking nations just to do online business there. What they want is to compete for the Arabic version of their .com so they can do business with the entire Arabic-speaking world from a single website.

Finally, on a broader level, I asked because, having worked in economic development for many years, I want to see an open, growing e-commerce space, not one dependent on the whims of often business un-friendly governments.

So I asked my question, and as I got ready to ask the ICANN brain trust the broader point about how exactly ICANN’s plans will help the “Rest of the World”… I got cut off. There were other lawyers in line. I got no answer.

In the end, I can’t tell you what will happen with IDN TLDs. And though outreach to the wider world – which I took to mean, silly me, the actual wider world – is supposed to be a major part of the ICANN 5 point plan, I can’t tell you what exactly they’re planning to do, short of trying to set up a “legal presence” in Europe and an office in DC.

They asked for our feedback, and I was trying to give feedback. I suppose it could be worse – if ICANN were not even asking. But I still remain concerned. ICANN’s focus on building its administrative structure seems well-suited to address the needs of its staff. But setting up offices in OECD capitals to help lobby the US and other Governments is a long way from real outreach to the next billion users. And, as I sat in the room with all the suits, I felt farther and farther away from the small businesses that gave – and hopefully will continue to give – the net its vibrancy.

Last week, one week later, I was asked to speak at the Corporate Council on Africa’s Africa Infrastructure Conference – by coincidence just a block or so from the National Press Club. Our panel was all about the explosion of broadband connectivity on the continent, and we discussed, among other things, what changes access will bring to businesses and government.

The panel – composed of government and business leaders – was unanimous: Prices for service are coming down. New tools from low-power, low-cost computers to hopped up cell phones are making access easier every day. High oil prices and poor physical infrastructure make the logic of Internet based growth compelling. And tens of billions of dollars in planned investment suggest that smart investors see a real future for Internet-enabled business in Africa. The Internet is coming to Africa in a big way, and to other parts of the Rest of the World. It will be THE tool for economic and social development in the 21st century.

If ICANN isn’t interested, they should be.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Scrabulous, Scrabble, and Economic Development in South Asia

First published in The Progressive Bangladesh

By Andrew Mack
Friday, 25 April 2008

In February I made my first visit to the Subcontinent, in Delhi, for the regional meeting of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, ICANN. In the main hall there were business and government leaders from around the region. At one of the side events an innovative new registry, dot asia, was launched.

Everything about the event spoke of economic dynamism and to me, of the benefit of an economic system – and longer term economic growth – built on a strong foundation of Intellectual Property (IP) rights. But most entrepreneurs in South Asia and other Emerging Markets (EMs) are still not fundamentally interested in the IP debate. They do see themselves as authors, or artists, or techies, but they don’t see themselves as IP entrepreneurs.

Personally I think this is a tremendous missed opportunity, with long-term implications for economic development.

The rolled eyes phenomenon

Of course if you get into a discussion of IP protection, many people will roll their eyes. Issues of IP are seen in the negative, largely defined by our nearly universal dislike – and this seems to be a global phenomenon – of lawyers. Add to this the general skepticism about the functioning of the courts in South Asia – and most people back away from IP.

However, to my eyes the IP protection debate is not about lawyers at all, but about the very entrepreneurs on whom so much hope is placed. I take as an almost frivolous example the case of the brothers from Calcutta that produced Scrabulous...

The Calcutta brothers who made Scrabulous

Now in the interest of full disclosure, I am a big Scrabble fan. I love playing. I have the computer game on my PC, and I play a lot. I know enough of the two letter words and obscure words beginning with Q that few of my friends will even play with me any more.

The blurring of IP boundaries may not be good for development
So you’d think that something like Scrabulous would have real appeal for me. But I think they should close down the program, and the sooner the better.

There are a number of reasons, of course, starting most obviously with the idea the brothers are hawking, which isn’t theirs to sell. The fact that Scrabulous is for fun and not for profit is irrelevant. It’s no different than piracy of any sort. If I write a book, it’s mine to sell, or license, or give away as I see fit.

Next, you have to consider the Scrabulous phenomenon and ask yourself – is Scrabulous really creating any real value for India? True, in the short term there might be some work for a few lawyers and a PR firm or two. But a few billable hours do not an economic powerhouse make…

Plain fun vs economic value

Compare Scrabulous with the original board game. Scrabble (the idea, using IP protection) has provided value for 50 years. The developers licensed the name to Hasbro, and again to Mattel. Money made, taxes paid, employment provided—the seeds of economic growth. From there the game spread around the world, long before the existence of the Internet. Again, people were hired in manufacturing and promotion in different countries. The game entered into the world’s consciousness. It was a good idea, made possible in part because of IP protection.

Scrabulous, on the other hand, will likely be gone within the year. Not much economic value there for India or the world.

There are many in Emerging Markets that get caught up in arguments around the high cost of IP. And its true, some IP – whether music, or film, or software, or whatever – can be costly. However, if we are really focused on building long-term opportunity in Emerging Markets, a short-term focus on the cost of IP misses the point.

I often hear that Bill Gates or Madonna (or in the case of Scrabulous, Hasbro) won't miss a few rupees if their IP is pirated. Maybe so. However, there is something much larger at stake. Emerging Markets entrepreneurs and government officials talk frequently about their desire to promote investment and growth and protect their own IP and CP (cultural property). They decry the lack of available finance for growth, and complain that they don’t get the best and latest goods and products.

From value to development

South Asia, as well as other Emerging Markets, can't seek to create an environment that will promote rapid, information-based, high-skill economic growth while tolerating loose IP standards. Experience shows that you simply can't have it both ways.

Why? They simply won’t attract as much investment in the long term. They won’t have the same ability to retain good talent. They won’t be able to build wealth. They won’t build competitiveness. And they won’t be able to and create alliances with companies that can give them access to global markets.

So, Emerging Markets need to recognize the role that IP protection can play in economic development, from creating employment, to strengthening the middle class, to ensuring economic independence and cultural preservation.

Requisite for the next IP entrepreneur

South Asians need to demand the kind of business environment that will help them thrive, and the improvements to the courts that will help them protect and leverage their country’s good ideas. In the words of Sourabh Gupta, a Washington, DC-based Indian trade and development analyst, they need to build “a body of case law that is pro-innovation and pro-IP protection to help underpin their aspirations of upward mobility.”

It’s not about today’s Bill Gates. It’s about tomorrow’s Bill Gates, the one who might come from India or Bangladesh or any other Emerging Market.

And as Gupta says, the opportunity “will only be as strong as the energies invested by those most materially affected – the vast multitude of small entrepreneurs.”

In the end, if we are truly serious about what we claim to want so badly – investment, jobs, to be taken seriously on the world economic stage, to become economic drivers, not just followers – then we need IP protection.

Because unlike Scrabble, economic development is no game.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Rio, IGF, and Getting IP Right

About a year ago I attended the first Internet Governance Forum (IGF) meeting in Athens. It was a huge techie jamboree bringing together Internet experts and advocates from around the world. And as I sat there in the audience and listened to the different visions of the future presented from the podium, I recall being pretty stunned by the political focus of the whole thing.

Well, I’m happy to report that to a large extent this year’s IGF in Rio seems much less overtly political than last year’s meeting. The keynote delivered by a Brazilian Minister did start the meeting off on a strange note – he effectively called for the end of ICANN and its replacement with he-didn’t-say-what-exactly – but most of the sessions I’ve attended have kept the polemics manageable.

In Rio I’ve participated in a good session on how to increase the net’s linguistic diversity. I’ve heard some worthwhile discussion of approaches to increasing the participation of Emerging Markets voices in IGF discussions. I even attended one panel where NGOs and large firms talked – cooperatively, constructively – about how they could join forces to work on practical approaches to protecting human rights and privacy in cyberspace.

All of this stands in stark contrast to the sharpest critique I’ve heard in any of the sessions in Rio. It came not from the Cuban or Iranian delegates (as in Athens), but from a US lawyer who complained loudly of all things about the recent free trade agreements (FTAs) signed between the US and countries in Latin America and elsewhere. And, while I can’t speak to all provisions of the treaties (and it would be far above my pay-grade to say that I know better than the Presidents of a dozen or so nations who voluntarily chose to enter into these agreements), the argument did strike me as odd.

The panelist said, in essence, that the US government was forcing other countries to accept fairly strict Intellectual Property (IP) protections as part of these treaties. And that this was unfair.

It was unfair, if I understood correctly, because it helped enshrine US technical standards in Emerging Markets. It was unfair because it disadvantages local Emerging Markets tech developers and providers. It was unfair because it limits the independence and development opportunities of countries signing these accords. And since the opposite of protecting IP would, at least on some level, be not protecting IP (and accepting some level of IP piracy?), let me say that on all counts I beg to differ.

You can say what you want about the price of any good – from virus vaccines to virus scan programs. And it is true, not all firms – whether in the Yangtzee Valley, the Rhine Valley, or in Silicon Valley – play by the rules all the time in the ways we might want. Still, nothing in the FTAs that I’ve seen forces me to buy Guatemala’s coffee (even if it is some of the best in the world) or forces small businesses like mine in Guatemala to buy Adobe Photoshop, MSOffice or any other IP product from the US.

Moreover, if I walk out of the store without paying for my coffee – whether that store is in Guatemala or Washington – that’s called stealing. The medium or size of the firm providing the product doesn’t change the principle. The fact, for example, that it’s easier to copy my band’s CD than it is to grow coffee doesn’t make me any less deserving of reaping the rewards from my work if I wrote the songs. Nor does the size of the popularity of the band have anything to do with it. Britney Spears, as much as she makes me cringe, deserves the same rights we would insist on for the cool undiscovered indie group we hope will make the big time some day. It’s not hegemony to want to be paid for your work, no matter who you are. (Note: Thank you clients for sharing this belief!)

In fact, instead of limiting the options of economies, I would argue – as Rwandan President Kagame has over and over – that IP protection is crucial to development. I have heard many companies complain that the lack of confidence in contracts and in the security of their IP-based products – especially in Emerging Markets – limits their investments in these markets. It limits their local hiring, it limits the time spent developing products for these markets, it limits the taxes they pay in country. So if you want trade, and you want investment, doesn’t it just make sense to include IP protection in any trade accord?

There’s not a lot these days that I can say I agree with coming out of my government – either the White House or the Congress. However, in this case it seems we really do have it right. As a citizen and taxpayer, you bet I want to see the jobs, tax revenues and re-investment that flow to the US from music, movies, and software made in the US. And, as a friend of development I want to see it too, because I know that true integration into the “knowledge economy” is impossible without intellectual property.

I think its time we stopped intellectualizing about protecting the “developing world” in ways we wouldn’t think to protect ourselves. Charity is charity, but no Emerging Markets entrepreneur I’ve ever met would think of signing a contract that says they shouldn’t get paid for their work – whether their product is consulting time, a pound of coffee, or a DVD. Why should they? Why should we?