caught up with ICANN Senior Policy Director Mary Wong to find out more about her first year in this role, the challenges still facing the new gTLD program and what actions are being taken to ensure that trademark owners’ rights will be protected in a vastly expanded Internet.
How has your role with ICANN been going since taking on a Senior Policy Director position last year? What have you found most challenging, most rewarding and most unexpected?
This first year with ICANN has simply flown by. For five years before joining the staff, I’d been a community participant, first as an elected representative of ICANN’s Non-Commercial Stakeholder Group on the Council for the Generic Names Supporting Organization (GNSO—the main policy development body for all generic top-level domains (gTLDs))—and then as a Council member of the Country Code Names Supporting Organization. The most challenging aspect for me has been learning the various technical and operational aspects of ICANN’s work quickly, in the midst of the largest expansion in the gTLD space we have ever seen, in order to better do my job as a facilitator of ICANN’s bottom-up multi-stakeholder policy process. The most rewarding experience has been seeing how my previous work on the two Councils and those relationships are helping to foster trust and collaboration with ICANN’s many stakeholders. What was unexpected was realizing how quickly and easily my work can be reviewed and judged, as every report I write is published for community review!
What has been the biggest obstacle to educating Internet users around the world about the New gTLD Program?
I think that the sheer scale of the program, and the fact that many Internet users around the world still don’t know about ICANN or what we do, have made this extremely difficult.
There are several unforeseen issues prompted by the New gTLD Program that were not addressed in the Final Applicant Guidebook. Can you explain some of the most urgent, how ICANN is dealing with them, and what the timeline is for resolution?
I’m sure everyone you ask will come up with their own list of examples, but some that may be particularly pertinent for trademark owners include the permitted coexistence of singular and plural strings, the possibility of strings consisting of a generic word being operated as a so-called “closed” registry and the perceived inconsistency in dispute resolution proceedings in similar strings by different panels. Although ICANN has a few existing mechanisms for appeal, such as a Reconsideration Request to the ICANN Board, we may need to improve these or add to them in order to more fully address the issues. This is being looked at by the Board, which also has a New gTLD Program Committee that is authorized to act on the Board’s behalf and has been active in trying to find solutions for identified problems. On the staff side, we are starting to evaluate the “lessons learned” from this first round of new gTLD launches, with a view toward ensuring that the Applicant Guidebook (or equivalent rules) for the next process will be as comprehensive as possible. All in all, the Board and the ICANN staff are acutely aware of the need to resolve the pressing issues that have arisen, and we are trying our best to do so in a timely way.
What impact do you think the rise of search engines as the primary tool for navigating to websites will have on new gTLDs?
There’s no question that search engines have changed consumer as well as corporate behavior online, from deploying search engine optimization in marketing to increasing dependency on search results rather than memorizing a URL. That said, every business with an online presence still needs a “home address,” that is, a domain name. Having so many new gTLDs means businesses will need to be focused on what exactly their online needs are (e.g., do I need a “dotbrand” TLD?), their global online branding strategy (e.g., How do I leverage the new internationalized domain names?) and how best they can reach their customers and create a memorable online experience. The New gTLD Program was created to enable innovation and competition, and I’m excited to see how businesses—both new registry operators and registrants—use gTLDs to enhance their identities and markets.
Can you talk about the transition of the stewardship of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) from the U.S. government to ICANN? The process for developing a proposal for transition was launched March 14. Where are we now?
Frankly, the impact on the core of what ICANN does—including policymaking in the gTLD space—is not likely to be significantly affected by this, as the U.S. government’s stewardship role is today basically administrative in nature. The bigger impact, I think, is political, especially in terms of affecting the broader discussion of global Internet governance, which goes well beyond ICANN’s mandate and mission. It’s been very encouraging to see the ICANN community embrace the task of developing a robust transition process that will ensure that it’s the global Internet community, not governments, that will step in in the end. There’s already been a lot of community discussion and work coordinated by senior ICANN staff, and we’re beginning to see certain principles and models start to emerge that I think will be an excellent basis for developing the final process. I’m also heartened by the support and participation that we’re seeing from the technical community and other major Internet standards and policy organizations—that really bodes well for the future of the multi-stakeholder model.
How will ICANN be held accountable for its decisions after the IANA transition, since it will no longer be accountable to the U.S. government?
This is a question that’s being discussed throughout the ICANN community right now, and we’re working on a process that will, we hope, see the community take the lead in developing and cementing principles of accountability. However, we need to remember that ICANN is already accountable to its global stakeholders, and there’s already a regular review process in place to continue to ensure that. That’s where I think we can start, to see how well that is working and whether a change in the role of the U.S. government will mean we need to add to it. The end result of this process should be clear principles that define what “ICANN accountability” means and a trusted mechanism to evaluate them.
What advice would you give trademark owners who may have reservations about the launch of new gTLDs, or those who are considering applying for one?
I’d say, please participate in the GNSO community! I’m glad that INTA is active in that regard, including organizing events that allow some of the ongoing policy discussions to take place with and among different stakeholders and interest groups, and the GNSO’s Intellectual Property Constituency (IPC) has been a vocal champion of the need to protect trademark rights in the Internet domain name system. There’s a lot to do between now and the next round of new gTLDs, and it’s important not just to monitor what ICANN is doing but also to participate as best one can—whether in one of the various Working Groups on policy development
affecting your interests, or through contributing to the many public comment forums that are regularly opened for community feedback.
To learn more about these issues, you can register here for INTA’s conference on “Internet, Innovation and ICANN: The Evolving Landscape of the Net.”
Although every effort has been made to verify the accuracy of items in the INTA Bulletin, readers are urged to check independently on matters of specific concern or interest.
© 2014 International Trademark Association