­­­­­­Why I Started Connecting.nyc Inc.

by Connecting.nyc Inc.’s (CnI) founder, Thomas Lowenhaupt

(In this now  ten year effort <as of February 2016> of CnI to foster the development of the .nyc TLD as a public interest resource, there’s been some down time, hence this run-on bio.)

This is the story of how I came to spend several years of my life developing the concept, and support for, a public interest Top Level Domain for New York City. I began this page in 2008 on the advice of a seemingly wise councilor who said “potential supporters will need to know your story” as a prelude to engaging with the effort. While the page began in response to that suggestion, as I’m updating it in September 2013, the initiative has changed from a development effort to one of advocacy. And this page has become a patchwork of “my story” and a history of the .nyc TLD.

For background, I was born in the Forest Hills neighborhood of Queens, NYC in 1947. Other than attending high school in Manhattan, my early life was spent in that neighborhood. Within the then prevailing view of quality locations to raise children, it was ideal. However, by today’s standards, it was totally lacking in diversity. What diversity I did experience was via a 1960’s mashup on the subway to high school – more smashup than mashup, I found it a most unpleasant experience. Many painful lessons were learned later from encounters with an unfamiliar, variegated world, that convinced me of the benefits settling in a more diverse community (Jackson Heights) might offer as a place to raise my family.

With my subway smashups in mind, I headed as far away from the city as I could for college, to a now extinct one situated in the cornfields of northwest Missouri – Tarkio. It was a formative two years during which I learned to study, and that something called political science existed.

My time in the corn fields ended with a junior year transfer to Indiana State University in Terre Haute, having surmised that, while I disliked New York, there were limitations in a small town that were, err, limiting. So ISU was my home for the next few semesters. During these war years I became increasingly aware that cities were where the things I was learning about happened, and I returned to New York, got involved with a political campaign, and after some procrastination, received a degree in government studies from Queens College (CUNY).

I’ve been involved with civic affairs and community activities since the mid 1970’s when I became active with the Charles Street Block Association. Charles Street runs east-west from Greenwich Avenue to the Hudson River, .51 miles as per Google Earth. As president of the Association in the late ’70s early 80s, I was to assure the maintenance of the trees that lined our beautiful street and the tree-surrounds that protected them, and to make the Association’s presence felt through annual street cleanups. On one occasion I was called upon to testify at a hearing of the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals on a proposed building variance. I was terrified of public speaking at the time, and as I recall, my neighbors were poking me in the back encouraging me up to the podium to present the official concerns of the Charles Street Association.

We financed the Association’s efforts through a quasi-annual block party. Block Party is a New York misnomer that refers to events that close residential streets to auto-traffic for a day and enable residents to empty their closets, buy/sell their junk/treasures, eat hot dogs, and meet neighbors. Our last party raised over $5K, used primarily to maintain our tree surrounds. My good friend, the late Mel Goodstein, a Charles Street resident whom we nominated to serve on the local community board, would regularly introduce me saying “This is Tom Lowenhaupt, he’s the local block-head.” An apt description and excellent reminder of my humanity. Thank you Mel.

My civic activities in the 1980’s and 90’s were shared between parent-teacher associations, the school board, and community board. In 1991, shortly after being appointed to Queens Community Board 3 (I’d married and moved to Jackson Heights in 1981), I began to recognize that good governance required effective communication and that local communication in New York City was abysmal. Word of mouth, phone calls, mail, and the occasional flier posted on a street light were the board’s communication channels. I attended my first monthly board meeting in April 1991 and met the person sitting to my left. In May, the person to my right.  A few months later, upon returning from the summer recess, I knew that the Major BBS I’d placed on my shelf several months earlier had a purpose after all. (I’d used it to host QWIX Guide to the Online World, a directory, or perhaps a search engine in today’s parlance, I’d published on Info-Look, an Internet wannabe operated by NYNEX – an earlier Verizon incarnation.) And I began planning a BBS for our community board and an exploration of technologies that might improve the local governance process.

I remember spending a year or so learning the basics about community board process and designing a ASCII-based menu driven system to facilitate its operation. With no known traces remaining, I can safely say it was an unparalleled gem. The first two users gave the system a thumbs up. But as I trained a third board member, Steve, he looked at me and asked, “Where are the pictures?” Steve, a banker, had seen some early web pages and I had to explain that they were not available at this point. After trying to turn back the tide for a few more months, the BBS went back up on the shelf to await a museum’s call. It was 1999 before we were able to start a website at the community board, and 2002 before it could match what that Major BBS could do in 1993. The Net’s two steps forward, one step back was difficult medicine.

The ­­­­City-TLD Emerges

My first close encounter with TLD governance was in 1998 when I submitted comments to the NTIA (the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information A­dmi­nistration) concerning their inquiry into steps that might be taken to manage the newly blossoming Internet. Over the previous few years, as the Internet’s growth quickened, ­oversight had shifted from the Department of Defense, to the National Science Foundation, landing at the NTIA in 2006. One of the questions in the NTIA’s inquiry concerned management of the Internet’s domain name system (DNS). My NTIA comments suggested that suitable “name space” be set aside for entities not currently having access to the DNS, providing as examples Native American tribes and cultural groups. This inquiry initiated my involvement with the Internet’s governance structure.

The following year Queens Community Board 3’s Communications Committee began discussing the prospect of acquiring a TLD for New York City. And in April 2001 Board 3 passed an Internet Empowerment Resolution calling for the .nyc TLD’s acquisition. Official support for the effort grew quickly with the local council members, our congress member, and the borough president supporting the initiative. City Hall showed interest as well. However, the events of 9/11 relegated the effort to a back burner.

2001 also saw the undersigned join the Task Force for Community-Based Planning, a multi-stakeholder effort to improve local governance and the city’s planning process. Initiated by the environmental justice movement, the membership represented community boards, city planners, academia, and community activists. The Task Force worked to support city charter changes that would empowered communities and advance community-based planning.

My community board and Task Force participation enabled me to better comprehend the limits of civic participation in New York City and the broad opportunities a city-TLD might offer.

In 2002, with the ICANN accepting applications for an experimental round of TLD awards, I approached City Hall to suggest that it submit an application for .nyc. I saw .nyc as a natural fit for the post 9/11 rebuilding of our city and used my community board office and skills to get City Hall behind .nyc. When that filing opportunity passed (apparently City Hall thought its 2012 Olympic bid was more important), I reduced my involvement with ICANN-land and the .nyc effort.

The re-Emergence

Three years later I was experimenting with SecondLife.com, a virtual world, to discern ways to make engagement in the governance process “more fun”  when Dirk Krischenowski, the initiator of the .berlin effort, connected to encourage me to re-ignite the effort for .nyc. Dirk indicated that much progress had been made and ICANN would be issuing TLDs to cities “soon” and that while .nyc might not be able to be in the first group of new TLDs issued, the opportunity was at hand.

Having assumed my .nyc responsibilities should have ended with the passage of CB 3’s 2001 Internet Empowerment Resolution, I was reluctant to reengage. The way community boards worked was that they initiate and the appropriate government agency followed through. (This view reflected a weakness in applying my government studies and inappropriately linking theory and practice.) And I began many months of evaluation of ICANN’s intentions, the state of the Net, my lessons from the Task Force, the impact globalization and the .com Net had had on my city, and my other responsibilities.

During my early mullings I presumed my engagement would once again center on encouraging City Hall to lead the effort to acquire the .nyc TLD. But after some months of research, recalling my experiences in 2003, not finding anyone inside or outside government willing to lead the effort, and observing the structure of the .berlin effort, I discussed the options with my family and some local supporters and decided to reengage. And in September 2006, having concluded that, with the Net’s ever increasing pervasiveness, the .nyc TLD could be more beneficial to the city than I’d ever imagined,and I took steps to create a not-for-profit to house the effort. And in late September I appeared before the ICANN Studenkreis in Prague on behalf of the Campaign for .nyc.

At that point I had been developing the BeyondVoting wiki, which examined structural and operational enhancements to community boards and local governance that technology might enable. When the Campaign for .nyc began I did a big cut and paste to the Campaign’s wiki (right here) and began thinking through the possibilities. That cut-and-past is now this 180 page wiki – with a few of those wiki-pages the equivalent of 15 typed pages long.

My insights into the possibilities of a city-TLD regularly evolve. In the first months of the Campaign, with the cost of good .com names steadily rising, my development efforts centered on promoting the advantages small businesses would realize from an entire new set of domain names. Soon thereafter the opportunities and advantages portals would offer to connect residents and visitors to our city’s resources – both traditional and digital – became apparent. With that, the prospect of good jobs for those developing these portals became clear. And then, fluorescent-like, the impact identity and intuitive domain names would have on city life dawned.

As the months (then years) passed I began imagining ways the .nyc TLD might help overcome the historic civic communication gaps that resulted in disaster being the all too frequent first indicator of local problems. My years in Terre Haute and on the community board led me to create a table comparing communication resources in the two areas:

­Local Communication ­Resource Comparison

 

Terre Haute, Indiana Community District 3
Population 105,000 170,000
Television Stations 2 0
Daily Newspapers 1 0
Radio Stations 8 0

 

Yes, NYC is the “world’s communications capital,” and if something out of the ordinary (particularly something disastrous) happens in District 3, it will be flooded with cameras and reporters of almost unimaginable scope. But the mundane daily needs of our community are of little interest to our “capital” media – you can’t call the New York Times or CBS about that pothole outside your building or the hungry fellow down the block. And the “local” media is not quite local. For example, New York City’s “local” TV stations serve an audience of 17,000,000 with an average community district but 1% of the audience. Consequently, local TV coverage of community issues is abysmal. And beyond a few weekly newspapers covering portions of our district, there is no local media.

In the late ought’s I sought coherence between the lessons provided by my Task Force work, the limitations of our industrial era local communications system, and the opportunities a concerted switch-over to a city centered TLD might provide.

Sometimes I dream about a potential windfall that might arise from premium name sales (e.g., sports.nyc) and how it might be invested in digital education. Other times I wonder if neighborhood domain names, e.g., astoria.nyc, bensonhurst.nyc, might provide the organizing power to overcome the local civic communications gap and transform the Net into a more effective local medium.

Inspired by the Obama era, I wonder if quality communication can change the way our city is governed, and if effective local communication can better engage residents and make the grassroots more central in the decision-making loop. Is it too late to change the Internet from a globalizing force that diminishes the proximity and neighborly role of cities to one that uses the Net’s power to addresses local, people oriented needs?

Thee years of research, advocacy, education, and organizing proved fruitful when in June 2008 ICANN approved a new TLD policy that included cities as eligible applicants.

The Bloomberg Administration Engages

Following on a city council hearing by Council Member Gale Brewer, in February 2009 Council Speaker Chris Quinn announced in her State-of-the-City address that the city supported the concept of acquiring .nyc. The endorsement however implied that a standard TLD model was to be followed rather than the community one we advocated. So with the city’s engagement, what we hoped was the finale became the second leg of a triathlon (for those keeping track, the first was getting ICANN to OK city TLDs).

We then began a multi year effort to convince the administration that a TLD operated in the public interest was the optimum approach. My goal in 2009 was threefold: to make sure .nyc was operated in the public interest (90%), that Connecting.nyc Inc. plays a role in its development (9%); and finally, that I am reimbursed for my out-of-pocket expenses. (This last goal is seeming mighty slim as I review this in 2013.)

Following the Quinn announcement the city’s IT department issued a Request for Information. We responded in April 2009 with a document that summarized what we’d learned at the time. And with that submission we initiated an effort to engage the public in a formal technology assessment. But as we were reaching out to to an oversight group, the city announced that a Request for Proposals was being issued, and my co-organizers concluded that time was too short for a through assessment. One positive aspect of the RFP was a requirement that responders provide two separate proposals, one for operating a standard TLD (like .com) and another for a community TLD, as we’d advocated. (See Standard vs. Community TLD sidebar.)

In December 2009 several proposals were submitted in response to the RFP. Although the list of responders was not announced, we believe proposals were submitted by Verisign, NeuStar, Minds and Machines, and CORE.

ICANN Moves Forward

In June 2011, after 13 years of planning and negotiation, ICANN approved a new TLD program providing a process that would enable the city to follow through on the 2001 Internet Empowerment Resolution. ICANN’s new TLD program detailed a filing process and opened a 90 day window for submitting applications: from January 12, 2012 and April 12, 2012. While a glitch moved the date to Jun 12, the arrival of an actual deadline after 12 years of anticipation surprised some.

To activate the city’s involvement with .nyc, in early 2012 we began a countdown clock to encourage the city administration to engage the public and look closely as the challenges and opportunities a TLD would bring.

March of 2012 brought a surprising development, a notice from the city that three days hence a public hearing was to be held on a 5 year contract with NeuStar to market and operate the city’s TLD. With our testimony ignored, a Neustar contract was signed and it submitted an application for .nyc in June 2012.

Resulting in part from a formal Objection filed with ICANN to its .nyc application, in February 2013 the city created a .NYC Advisory Board with the undersigned one of the original 8 members.The Board held 3 meeting during the Bloomberg’s last year. As an indicator of the esteem to which the board was held, the agenda for the second meeting did not provide an opportunity for the board members to speak.

Beyond the .nyc TLD’s Acquisition

In October 2012 Connecting.nyc Inc. qualified as an At-Large Structure within the ICANN governance ecology. If the organization is to continue after the .nyc TLD’s initial development period, it’s possibly within this realm.

The de Balsio Years

In early January 2014 I met with a Senior Advisor to the new Mayor, Bill de Balsio. The meeting was held in a quaint bakery a block from city hall. The advisor advised that the new administration would be looking toward me for guidance with .nyc. While pleased, it came with a notification that there was to be no staff to administer the TLD.

During 2014 we held monthly meeting of the .NYC Community Advisory Board were held, with two new members added. In December the .nyc Community Advisory Board met for its final meeting. We brainstormed about the future governance of the .nyc TLD.

In January 2015 I posted “2015 – Year of the dotNeighborhoods” in a hopeful spirit. But nothing has been hear from city hall. And in February 2015 I concluded that the the administration was not suitably committed to developing the TLD and on the 13th wrote a “cigar box” letter to the Senior Advisor:

It’s been more than a year since the de Blasio Administration took over responsibility for the .nyc TLD. Some early development were quite positive, e.g., the commitment to regular meetings of the Advisory Board and the reservation of the neighborhood domain names.

Currently however, seen from the outside city hall, it might appear that our city’s TLD is being run out of a cigar box: no process for public engagement and no process for allocating the city’s resources – a situation ripe for impugning venial purposes. Some structure and transparency should be put in place.

I’d suggest the following as immediate needs:

  • A governance process that is transparent and engages the public – perhaps COPIC.
  • A process for accounting for and allocating unreleased domain names.

 

Best,

Tom Lowenhaupt

After sending that message I decided to add some thoughts here, to what’s become a history page. My cigar box message was frank and kind. It didn’t note the first year failures: to plan the TLD and thoughtfully allocate names to existing entities. Nor the seeming rudderless operation of the TLD. For example, there’s no process for submitting requests for the 3,000+ unallocated domain names, with the finance.nyc name now to be developed via the same process that enabled the development of the digital.nyc domain name – for the record, I’ve no idea how that decision was made. It seems this path will lead to a stinkeroo. Enforcement of the nexus policy is lacking – although with no access to city data, we might be wrong.

Afterthoughts

Upon reading the above one might conclude that I reluctantly hold my current position. And while early on I held a “someone’s got to do it” attitude toward the .nyc task, over the years its become clear that the role fits my experiences and inclinations perfectly, i.e., governance and technology are my interest and my expertise.

So that’s a whole lot about be. Hopefully I’ve fulfilled that adviser’s charge and have provided enough information to enable an informed judgment about supporting our effort. But, but… we don’t need the support we sought in 2008 and perhaps the delete button is ahead. But it was a great effort. The city has its TLD. So we succeeded in that respect. Personally, it was a trip… Prague, San Juan, Mexico City, Seoul, London, Paris, Geneva, Rio, Vilnius, Washington, D. C., Los Angeles. I never imagined. And many good people assisted along the way. I should note them and their contributions for posterity.

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Unwoven Bio… Mr. Lowenhaupt’s professional career spans the hands-on and policy realms. He has been involved with information technology since the late 1970’s. As an interactive marketing consultant, he provided guidance to firms in the insurance, telecommunications, and banking industries, developed public information kiosks, operated email and listserve systems, and published an early online directory of online services. Beginning in the mid 1980s he provided an innovative Marketing by Diskette service to Fortune 50 firms in the telecommunications and banking industries. He sees “play” as a prerequisite for the public’s enthusiastic participation in civic life and was a founder of Games for Change conferences.

His civic engagements include serving as president of the Charles Street Association, co-founder of the Friends of the Renaissance School, member of Queens Community Board 3 (1992-2006), LaGuardia Community College’s New Media Advisory Committee (current), and other civic positions. In October 2010 he organized a “City-TLD Governance and Best Practices” panel at the United Nations’ Internet Governance Forum in Vilnius, Lithuania.

He earned an advanced degree from the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU – the ITP, and a B.A. in government studies from Queens College (CUNY). Out of college, he worked as a planner for a transportation regulatory agency. He wears a size 10 shoe.