ICANN’s Policies and Human Rights

Recently the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers has gotten some press over its rule changes dealing with generic top-level domains (anything after the dot, e.g., “.com”, “.edu”, “.uk” or “.biz”).  I see 3 timely issues for human rights organizations:

  1. ICANN’s contract with Department of Commerce ends in August and there is a lot of international pressure to make the body international rather than U.S.-based. For example, in 2005 Libya lost access to the .ly domain and had to ask ICANN for help, creating a minor political crisis. It turned our that ICANN had, as far as I can tell, purposefully removed access to all “.ly” websites (like their government websites and national banks) because of a disagreement over payment. Given that the fastest growing group of internet users will be from developing countries (many with repressive and censoring governments) this decentralization could lead to greater limits on the internet speech globally.
  2. ICANN recently agreed to open up top level domain names to a wide variety of words, like .sports, .coke or .happyjoyjoy. There could be three problems with this:
    1. It may create a great deal of brand confusion if an organization does not control all domain names using their name (aclu.aclu, aclu.org, aclu.freedomofspeech),
    2. The cost to apply one of these top-level domains is currently $185,000. This will make it very difficult for non-commercial organizations to compete for .humanrights or .nonprofit. The application process is also a wee-bit byzantian (see flow-chart here).
    3. ICANN came out with 20-something recommendations for applications to keep in mind when applying for one of these generic top level domains (aka, gTLDs). Recommendation 6 reads in part:”Strings must not be contrary to generally accepted legal norms relating to morality and public order that are recognized under international principles of law.”

      My concern is that ICANN will be making content-based decisions about domain names outside of the bounds of protecting intellectual property. This rule exists so that ICANN can refuse to grant someone rights to .jihad or .nazis. But what if the applicant for .jihad is a moderate Muslim group hoping to chill out young radicals, or the applicant for .nazis is the Smithsonian’s Holocaust museum? In my opinion, uninformed as it is, ICANN has better things to do than make content-based decisions about gTLDs (especially since China is now reengaging with ICANN).

  3. ICANN is in the process of approving or recently approved a wide range of languages for inclusion in urls. This is good for people who
    do not read English. Some–in the West–have made the point that urls aren’t in English, they are symbols to accessing information, in the same way that Java is not in English, it is in Java. This new cornucopia of languages may cause brand confusion (google in farsi, cyrillic, and arabic). I am not sure what, if any, negative free speech issues arise from this.

I see two categories of long-term ICANN free speech issues:

  1. Abuse from ICANN of poor or badly organized (see Libya) constituents, and
  2. The larger (and more amorphous) issue of under-representation of noncommerical entities in ICANN’s decision process. ICANN does have a noncommercial constituency, but it appears that they do not have much lobbying power.

Whether gTLDs end up being a big deal is unknowable. Recent gTLD newcommers have been far from popular–who uses .biz or .museum or even .info anyway? Maybe the added confusion of variable text on both sides of the dot will outway potentially simplified urls (e.g., apes.sfzoo.org could become apes.sfzoo). Maybe only companies which can come up with half a million to a million dollars will bother, and we will end up with a two tiered internet.

In any case, human rights organizations may have stakes in the outcomes and should follow developments carefully.

Inspirational Quote:

The first speech censored, the first thought forbidden, the first freedom denied, chains us all irrevocably.” –Judge Aaron Satie (a character quoted by a Jean Luc Picard, a character in Star Trek: Next Generation).

PS: the above quote can be heard in the following video, whose first 30 seconds are one of the best arguments for the 5th Amendment I have heard recently:

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