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.