In order to better understand the new gTLD program, it helps to know the genesis of the policy within ICANN. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers was created in 1998 to oversee a number of tasks related to the Internet; in particular, its primary responsibility is to ensure the security and stability of the domain name space. At the time of ICANN’s founding, eight gTLDs existed, including .COM, .NET and .ORG.

In 2000, the ICANN Board of Directors adopted a policy to introduce new TLDs in a “measured and responsible manner.” ICANN rolled out 14 TLDs over the next four years, some generic (gTLDs), some sponsored (sTLDs), including .BIZ, .INFO, .MOBI and .TRAVEL. While these extensions experienced varying levels of success, overall, they have not achieved particularly high registration rates. .COM, for example, currently has over 95 million registered domains, whereas .MOBI has fewer than 100,000 and .TRAVEL has fewer than 30,000.

At the end of 2005, the Generic Names Supporting Organization (GNSO), one of ICANN’s key policy-development groups, initiated a policy development process to introduce even more gTLDs. Finally in June 2008, the ICANN Board approved the unprecedented expansion of new gTLDs. Over the next three years, ICANN produced seven versions of the new gTLD Applicant Guidebook based on public comments it received, as well as extensive discussions with its Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC).

There are a few aspects of this progression that are worth noting. One is that, in the Issues Report for the new gTLDs policy development process, the GNSO states that it “should assess whether there is sufficient support within the Internet community to enable the introduction of new top-level domains.” According to multiple statements that ICANN has made, the Internet community did indeed express this support. There is ample room for debate about the accuracy of those statements, however – room enough to fit, say, the 2 billion global Internet users who, for the most part, have no knowledge of what ICANN does or that it even exists.

Another thing worth noting is that, for all its lofty rhetoric about being a bottom-up, multi-stakeholder organization working for the greater good of the Internet, the people that run ICANN are not exactly a band of squeaky-clean altruists. Case in point: not a month after voting to approve the new gTLD program earlier this summer, the former Chair of the ICANN Board left ICANN to become Executive Chairman of a company that is providing consulting services to new gTLD applicants.

The ICANN organizational structure, and as a result, its policies, also tend to favor the agendas of its “contracted parties,” namely, domain name registries and registrars who stand to profit from ICANN’s decisions. This is heavily apparent in the new gTLD program; whereas in the past, registrars had a few dozen gTLD registries to contract with and sell domain names for, with the passage of the new gTLD program, they could now have hundreds.

The point of this post is not to put ICANN through the ringer. Instead, it is to raise awareness among new gTLD applicants of the organization they are about to get into bed with, once they sign the registry contract with ICANN. You may not like, how the new gTLD program came about, but the fact is, you’re going to have to deal with it, and with ICANN. And knowing what and whom you’re dealing with is an important step in the decision-making process.