Commissioners-Plan-of-1811-map-portion.jpgJackson Hts., New York, March 22, 2011 - Two hundred years ago today the “Commissioners of Streets and Roads” adopted what’s come to be known as the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811. By establishing the basis for Manhattan’s street grid, the Plan served the city well, providing a basis for the city’s safe, organized, and prosperous development. See this great New York Times article for a recounting of the real estate values and transportation and health benefits realized by investing in going through hills and swamps rather than around them.

Today, the .nyc TLD presents us with a decision of similar scope: Do we create a user-friendly city whose resources are available via a variety of intuitive digital pathways? Or do we sell off a key digital resource willy-nilly to satisfy short term interests?

How we resolve the issues surrounding the .nyc TLD’s division and allocation, its integration with traditional systems and resources, how we assure its sustainability (perhaps for generations), and its ongoing governance will determine the city’s capacity to effectively function as a economic and social engine for its residents. As well, our response to these questions will determine our competitive position with other global cities with which we increasingly compete.

Additionally, in deciding on the .nyc TLD’s scope we will be marking our borders. In both the digital and real worlds, strong borders make good neighbors. Should our digital borders be coterminous with existing ones, or do they demand a rethinking to a regional or perhaps a hybrid geovirtual configuration? Only when we’ve established those borders can we can begin to build a governance system within.

Will New York be Ready?

At its recent meeting in San Francisco, ICANN, the entity with primary responsibility for issuing new TLDs, took steps that bode well for the development of its long awaited New TLD Application Guidebook that will enable .nyc’s acquisition. It approved the .xxx TLD thereby unnerving some nation-states, and it confronted ICANN’s Government Advisory Committee, the body representing nation-state interests before ICANN, demanding clarity as to its concerns about the new TLD process. In doing so ICANN expressed its intent not to be subservient to the existing nation-state system. (Indeed, its CEO has expressed a desire to see ICANN recognized as a new nation-state with U.N. membership.) As a result, it now seems that 2012 might see ICANN finalizing its Guidebook and receiving applications for city TLDs. Is New York prepared?

Since the city council tacitly passed oversight to the mayor’s office in February 2009, the administration has taken two steps. In March 2009 it issued a Request for Information, or RFI, seeking ideas on the utility and operation of a city-TLD. It sent the RFI to the Old Boys Network of businesses that made their fortunes by operating organic TLDs such as .com and .org. It didn’t invite the public to imagine the TLDs role in creating a digital city. Not did it invite civic organizations, planning entities, libraries, or our computer science, engineering, and business schools to chime in. Our origin, arising from Queens Community Board 3’s April 2001 Internet Empowerment Resolution, did result in a copy of an RFI coming our way, with our RFI response available here.

Based on the RFI responses, in October 2009 the city issued a Request for Proposals for an entity to assist it with the TLD’s acquisition. In it, the city described the Old Boys Network as the qualified proposers, with their ability to run computers that efficiently sell domain names apparently qualifying them as the city’s architects for a digital era.

Today it is believed that a handful of RFP responses sit at the city’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunication (DoITT). Last month we asked DoITT’s Commissioner Carol Post if the city had made a fundamental decision as to the TLD’s operation: Does the city see .nyc operating as a Standard TLD such as .com and .org, or as a planned, community TLD as we’ve proposed? Or putting the question in 1811 terms: does the city propose going around the hills, gullies, and swamps or through them?  As per Commissioner Post, no decision has been made, but there’s been “much discussion” at DoITT. (See the video of that Q&A here.)

Toward A New Commissioners’ Plan

But DoITT’s decision is being made without any public participation, with city hall apparently ready to forgo the messiness of a democratic discussion. This is understandable as a city TLD is a new issue with little home grown expertise and much misunderstanding ahead. But it we’re to have a world class city-TLD, we’ll need the engagement of all to plan and support its development. 

Councilmember Gale Brewer has advocated modifying the city charter to move oversight of digital resources in line with that of land use, modeled perhaps on the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure or ULURP. We applaud that agenda and note that a TLD, access to a fast and inexpensive Net, and appropriate training are all critical to creating a prosperous and livable city in a digital era. In exploring those Charter enhancements we urge that note be taken of the democratic potentials offered by the Net, including our voters.nyc.

Today’s 200th anniversary of the Commissioners’ Plan offers a propitious moment to begin a multistakeholder exploration by city government, academia, civic organizations, industry, and the public to plan the architecture of our digital city. In early 2009 we had the basis for such an exploration with CUNY and other institutions set to join. But DoITT’s issuance of an RFI convinced those interested that things were moving too fast for reasoned thought. That was two years ago. Each day it becomes clearer that our future will be determined by the availability of critical resources such as domain names, fast and ubiquitous access to the Net, and an aware and trained populace. It’s not too late to begin a thoughtful examination of our digital future. Let’s begin today.

Comment below, email your thoughts to Tom@connectingnyc.org, or help write the study’s charter on our DARPA to CARPA wiki page where we’ve begun to lay out the scope of a reasoned study.

Learn more about our overall effort from our Wiki Pages

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