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Kurt Pritz, Icann: Towards a new internet

Icann is now evaluating 1,930 applications for 1,410 different top-level domains, while also trying to ensure IP rights are protected. And its leadership is in transition. No wonder senior vice-president Kurt Pritz is tired.

Pritz has been constantly in the spotlight over recent months

Kurt Pritz says he is exhausted. In the past few months, he has overseen the application process for Icann's new gTLD programme, dodging heavy criticism after a software glitch delayed the process by a month. With CEO Rod Beckstrom, he was the public face of the launch in London; soon after his role was expanded, as he took on the responsibilities of program director Michael Salazar, who had resigned; two weeks later, he was in Prague for Icann's public meeting, dealing with the varying concerns of applicants, IP rights owners and registrars. This culminated with the Icann Board summarily ditching Icann's much-criticised digital archery system for prioritising gTLD applications.

At the end of the three-hour meeting, having dealt with a line of people wishing to speak to him, Pritz realises he has mislaid his phone and notebook and has to search for them. When Managing IP suggests that a pre-arranged interview be conducted over a beer in the bar of the Prague Hilton, there is no objection.

"It's a recipe for chaos and means that even straightforward decisions can take months or years"

Running the rollout of up to 1,410 new gTLDs and travelling all over the world to discuss the evolution of the internet is a long way from where Pritz started. Growing up in Queens, New York, he says he rarely left the states of New York and New Jersey. A varied career followed, encompassing periods as a physicist and studying in business school, several years running Disney's theme park shows and even a brief spell as a criminal appeal attorney in California, before Pritz joined Icann in September 2003.

His role now focuses on stakeholder relations. This is a vital job given Icann's multi-stakeholder model, which aims to ensure that everyone from IP owners to domain name registries/registrars, internet users and governments are represented, and policies are ultimately made by a representative Board. In many ways it's a recipe for chaos and means that even straightforward decisions can take months or years (the launch of the latest gTLD round being a good example). But it has the virtues of fairness and transparency, and most observers say it is vital in ensuring that the internet flourishes outside of government or commercial control.

Pritz himself has been among the most prominent defenders of the multi-stakeholder model, including in testimony before the US Congress. One of his next big challenges is to develop the Uniform Rapid Suspension system (URS) for straightforward disputes involving domain names and IP rights. This must be in place by the time the first new gTLDs are operational, which could be as soon as spring next year, but Icann has yet to find a provider that can deliver the service at a reasonable cost ($300 to $500). Following a meeting on the topic in Prague, attended by various groups, Pritz said: "I have a high degree of confidence we will find a solution ... It's been amazing how cross-constituency groups come together." Concrete proposals for the URS are due to be discussed further at Icann's next meeting in Toronto in October, and Pritz has a budget to hold a conference on the issue before then.

By the time of conference, Icann's new CEO Fadi Chehade should be in office, having been introduced to the community last month (COO Akram Atallah is in charge in the meantime). Pritz describes the leadership changes as an "evolution" adding: "The mission and the goals are the same." He describes his own temporary role in charge of the gTLD programme (which is in addition to his stakeholder position) as "caretaker" and says there will be more Icann staff "both to improve technical oversight of the programme and also to expand the customer service portion of the programme so applicants have someone in their time zone with language skills". Providing customer service to new gTLD applicants is key, but so is making sure that they deliver on the "series of promises" they made when applying, he says. He admits that mistakes were made but adds: "Icann's changing the way it's looking at the management of the programme technically."

Working for Icann today is very different to when he joined nearly nine years ago, says Pritz. Then there were just 25 staff. Today there are closer to 150 and the Prague meeting had more than 1,800 attendees. The international nature of the work means that he spends much of his 47-mile commute to work in Los Angeles on the phone – to Europe in the morning and Asia-Pacific in the afternoon. "Given we're an internet company, it's surprising how much time we spend on the phone," he adds. He says he was surprised at the number of new gTLD applications in this round, particularly given the economic backdrop: it reflects both "pent-up demand" and a realisation, particularly among trade mark owners, that gTLDs offer opportunities and should not be viewed simply defensively, he says. Icann views the programme as a success, partly due to the level of interest (it brought in $350 million in fees). But the excitement begins now, he adds: "People have turned from arguing about the details of the process to looking at what's going to happen. It's a more fun conversation."

Further reading:

New gTLDs and Icann: what now for IP owners
Google and Amazon lead applicants
Icann may increase protection – Pritz
US Senate hearing

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