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Will Blocking a TLD Fracture the Internet?

Antony Van Couvering

In his eloquent dissent against approving .XXX, ICANN Board member George Sadowsky talked about blocking and filtering top-level domains. It's a concise statement of a concern that has been identified by various people, including members of the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC), as an impediment to the new generic Top-Level Domain (gTLD) program. It's a thorough defense of a common point of view about blocking TLDs, but while no-one can disagree about the fact of blocking, what is the actual effect?

George Sadowsky's comment is worth quoting at some length:

Fourth, and extremely important, I believe that the future of the unified DNS could be at stake [if .xxx were approved].

I submit that the approval of the application for dot xxx could encourage moves to break the cohesiveness and uniqueness of the DNS.

In my judgment, it would undoubtedly lead to filtering the domain, and quite possibly instigate the erosion, degradation, and eventual fragmentation of the unique DNS root.

Now, while we know that filtering already exists, I believe that the creation of dot xxx would mark the first instance of an action by this board that may directly encourage such filtering, posing a risk to the security and stability of the DNS.

In my judgment, the board should not be taking actions that encourage filtering or blocking of a domain at the top level.

Further, I believe that the filtering of so-called offensive material can provide a convenient excuse for political regimes interested in an intent on limiting civic rights and freedom of speech.

Further, I believe that such moves provide an incitement to fracture the root, a concern that we've recognized in preparation for
the new gTLD program as a distinct threat to the security and stability of the DNS.

There can be no doubt that .xxx will be blocked by some countries: the government of India has already announced its intention to do so. The .xxx domain exists in order to be filtered — that's almost the entire point of it. It is premised on segregating content into adult and non-adult categories, so that people can find it easily — or avoid it. So no-one could disagree with George's assessment of the likelihood of .xxx leading to filtering.

Widespread Blocking of the Internet Exists Today

As George Sadowsky points out, filtering and blocking already exist. Not just at the second level (individual web sites) or the top level (TLDs), but also of the entire Internet. Consider this graphic from a recent presentation by Packet Clearing House showing Internet traffic in Egypt:

This is filtering on a massive scale, done by a regime that didn't want its citizenry to have any information that conflicted with its message.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton presented the U.S. State Department's annual report on human rights, running to 7,000 pages. The Associated Press writes:

More than 40 governments are now blocking their citizens' access to the Internet, and the firewalls, regulatory restrictions and technologies are all "designed to repress speech and infringe on the personal privacy of those who use these rapidly evolving technologies."

Second-level domain names are blocked almost as a matter of course in large parts of the world. The most-blocked site is Facebook, followed by YouTube, Twitter, and a host of other sites that are hugely popular — some of them porn, but many of them not.

Basically, the governments of the world engage in blocking and filtering on a massive scale. They are blocking second-level as well as top-level names, and sometimes they just block the entire Internet. They block based on content: porn, political statements across the ideological spectrum, religious speech of all kinds, and they also block just on the basis that they don't want people sharing information. This kind of governmental action is not new. Monopoly of information has long been a goal of many governments: until recently, one of the major goals of a coup or a revolution was to capture the TV and radio stations.

Will TLD Blocking Fracture the Internet?

Blocking of Internet content is pervasive, and the creation of new TLDs which are offensive to someone, somewhere, will probably increase it. But will it fracture the Internet? That's where I think George's fears may be out of place. The current blocking is so widespread, so thorough, and so invisible to those who don't have to deal with it that it's just part of life in much of the world. Why hasn't blocking already encouraged a fracture?

For one thing, an alternate root by itself is not a fracture. There are already many TLDs on alternate roots out there, from Karl Auerbach's .ewe to the semi-autonomous Chinese-language TLDs. The threat to the single root doesn't come from just the fact of setting it up, it comes in the form of a viable alternative that threatens the current Internet by gaining users and adoption at the expense of the current favorite (think MySpace and Facebook). Karl's .ewe is not getting a lot of takers, and in China you don't really have a lot of choice — no-one is "choosing" any of the alternatives. (The only alternative use, in this sense, has come from new TLDs/roots in non-Latin scripts, and ICANN's push to delegate new IDN ccTLDs has done a lot to alleviate that pressure.) So blocking .XXX (or any other new TLD), as long as it doesn't threaten to create a competing root, is just more of the same old blinkering of its citizens that governments are addicted to and will never stop unless their people insist on it.

Let's suppose, however, that it was possible for a mandatory alternate root to be set up, enforced by governmental authority. In a state with just a few major ISPs, the government might compel them to point to the new, alternative, government-mandated root. Isn't that a problem? (Note that this is not currently the case in China, which allows access to the Internet, just not to many of its sites.)

To examine that possibility, let's turn to television, where this situation is common. In Iran, for instance, there is a limited roster of TV stations and they are all closely censored. What happens there?

One of the biggest hits on Iranian TV is not on Iranian TV. A kind of Persian "Daily Show" called Parazit is broadcast by the Voice of America. Parazit is watched by millions of Iranians through their illegal satellite dishes, which are extremely common in Iran, despite periodic attempts by the morals police to get rid of them (satellite dishes can also be used to access the Internet). Parazit is a hit — it gets 45,000 You Tube visits a week, and 17 million Facebook visits per month.

The net effect of Iran's censorship is to make its leaders laughable and hated, but it has not threatened the Iranian TV "root," which goes on broadcasting propaganda. It has not led to a call for an alternate state television either — people simply bypass the restrictions and access the rest of the world.

In the world today, Internet blocking and filtering of all kinds is widespread and deep, and it has not threatened the single root. Censorship is a favorite habit of some governments, and they are not weaned from it easily. Limiting "controversial" TLDs in order to appease that impulse, in the name of preserving a single root, is illusory (alternate roots already exist), not likely to matter (people will get out to the "real" Internet somehow), and it doesn't really make sense.

As Milton Mueller put it: "The idea that it is somehow better for the Internet to use centralized, global administrative mechanisms to block domains from existing in order to prevent a few individual countries from using technical means to block them locally is absurd and dangerous." Or, to quote another ICANN Board member, Suzanne Woolf: "The issue of governments or any other entity blocking or filtering access to a specific TLD is not unique to the issue of the dot xxx sTLD. What we agree is blocking of TLDs is generally undesirable. If some blocking of the XXX sTLD does occur, there is no evidence the result will be different than the blocking that already occurs."

George Sadowsky is a principled person who clearly loves the Internet and wants to preserve it. He gives a clear voice to a fear that many have. But when we look at what blocking actually is, and what it does, I think the fears are unfounded. People will find a way to see what they want to see, and ignore stuff that they don't like. Blocking of a TLD by a local government is not going to lead to the fracturing of the Internet. If the case of Egypt is any guide, it's more likely to lead to the fracturing of the local government.

By Antony Van Couvering, CEO of Minds + Machines. Antony Van Couvering also contributes to the Minds + Machines weblog located here.

Related topics: Censorship, DNS, ICANN, Internet Governance, Policy & Regulation, Top-Level Domains

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Comments

Anthony Van Couvering has made a good George Sadowsky  –  Apr 13, 2011 6:26 AM PDT

Anthony Van Couvering has made a good contribution to this issue by presenting an informative and articulate description of the current state of blocking.  He presents credible arguments why the passage of .xxx by the ICANN Board for inclusion in the root, or for that matter any other similar such action, is unlikely to do damage to the fundamental structure of the DNS.

I think that one major point is missed, however. Heretofore, ICANN has had nothing to do with any decision leading to any existing blocking, while with .xxx ICANN has taken a definite decision to do something that a number of countries, including large and influential ones, will block.  In doing so, ICAN has for the first time disregarded strongly stated GAC concerns about the action, even though the GAC did not have complete consensus on the issue.  I fear that some governments, perhaps many, will begin to see ICANN as not responsive to their concerns, and that this will tilt the balance of their respect for ICANN's actions in a negative direction.  So when the next contentious issue arises in which ICANN is involved, they will be more likely to not regard ICANN's authority over the DNS as definitive, and they may be more conscious of their ability to make their own decisions regarding what should be in the root.  I admit that this may be a slow and uncertain process, but if there is merit in this argument, then ICANN will have overtly and proactively started the slide, however gently, into diminishing authority over and fragmentation of the root.

The ICANN Board has decided to include .xxx in the root, and as a sitting Board member, I am obliged to and do now support this decision.  I hope that my concerns are not valid, but I continue to fear the opposite, that we have not yet seen the unanticipated and unwanted consequences of this decision, and that they could be very significant.  Time will tell.

George Sadowsky

Limiting controversial" TLDs in order to appease Paul Tattersfield  –  Apr 13, 2011 9:24 AM PDT

Limiting controversial" TLDs in order to appease that impulse, in the name of preserving a single root, is illusory (alternate roots already exist), not likely to matter (people will get out to the "real" Internet somehow), and it doesn't really make sense.

Anthony the problems are more subtle. At the moment most people are “aghast” that governments could even consider blocking a TLD and this can be used to fight censorship.

The .xxx decision is bad decision because it provides a gift for those who want to censor. Why? Because .xxx gives them a mandate for censorship through a significant and impassioned constituency who will support their actions.

What happens when certain jurisdictions choose to extend it further to say .jew or .gay as and when their censors see fit? It’s a slippery slope and the reasons for setting the world on that slope are primarily a result of ICANN’s failings of process as opposed to good sound reasoning or any social or economic necessity.

@George - I take your point about Antony Van Couvering  –  Apr 13, 2011 9:55 AM PDT

@George - I take your point about ICANN making the decision to knowingly go ahead with a TLD that will definitely be blocked.  To a large extent, that's the fault of the 2005 sponsored round — ICANN making decisions about what's good or bad. The new round, with it's "objective" criteria (mostly) is a step in a better direction.  Under the new regime, ICANN won't be (nearly as much) in the position of "approving" TLDs. Probably if ICANN had to do it all over again, .XXX wouldn't pass, but they don't, and it did, and so my feeling on the vote was that most people felt that it was a "rule of law" issue and that ICANN had to follow its procedures or lose any hope of credibility. 

@Paul - I haven't noticed the least hesitation among "certain jurisdictions" to install censorship regimes at the drop of a hat.  They certainly don't require any encouragement to do so.  I believe homosexuality is a capital crime in Uganda, for instance.  I really don't see the wholesale blocking of second-level domains as being different in kind from a single blocking of a TLD.  At the risk of being unsubtle, let me turn your question around: what happens when the world opts for free speech only up to the extent that the most retrograde regimes allow it?

Antony,I think that your assessment of what George Sadowsky  –  Apr 13, 2011 11:12 AM PDT

Antony,

I think that your assessment of what drove the vote on .xxx is correct, and I agree that .xxx probably would not have made it through the new gTLD process as we now understand it.

At a more general level, my problem is precisely what drove the vote: supremacy of process over probably consequences.  One can either use good and bad as the basis for defining what is right and wrong, i.e. it is right to do things that result in good consequences (and the reverse), or one can define good and bad in terms of right and wrong, i.e. it is good to do things that are right (and the reverse). 

I find it easier to decide whether consequences are good or bad, so I guess you could label me a consequentialist.  I find it difficult to do what is right based upon many different and often conflicting definitions of what is right, often advanced by different groups of people who occasionally go to war and try to kill as many of the other group as they can to solidify domination of their concepts of right and wrong.

Example: a Florida so-called minister burns a copy of the Koran.  Nine United Nations staff members are murdered as revenge.  I don't condone the murders at all, but it was pretty clear that the so-called minister's actions might well lead to what happened.  We have a collision of process (it's his right to do so under free speech principles) and results (nine people killed).

I suppose that such collisions are inevitable given differences between cultures, religions and people, but in making decisions I'd rather be decided by consequences, or even probable consequences than by static process, or the more severe forms of it, such as dogma that claims to be "right" just because it has been considered right for hundreds of years.

Lastly Antony, I apologize for mangling your name in my first post.

George

George,My name is so frequently misspelled that Antony Van Couvering  –  Apr 13, 2011 1:39 PM PDT

George,

My name is so frequently misspelled that if I got upset about it I would be in a madhouse by now.  Please don't give it a further thought.

I largely agree with your analysis. I'm a big fan of looking at consequences as well, as opposed to rote following of procedure or ideological purity.  I suppose where we differ is our assessment of what the likely consequences are — you think that they might be worse than I do. In addition, I like to look at the risks of *not* doing something, because I feel that this is part of the risk equation that's far too often ignored.  In the case of new gTLDs, under the new process, the risk of *not* allowing at least the possibility of contentious strings is in my view much riskier than letting them get some air in public. I think that censorship at the ICANN level is far more likely to cause real ruptures in the consensus for a unique root than blocking at a local level would cause. I do respect the view that you hold, and understand the reasons for it, but from my perspective limiting speech at ICANN is just going to cause it go elsewhere, and that to me is the most likely route to a fractured Internet.

Antony

Spot on Jay Daley  –  Apr 13, 2011 8:57 PM PDT

Hi Antony
Good article and I agree with your conclusions. 

One point though, the "Chinese language TLDs" that you refer to are no such thing. The technology described is a browser plugin that takes what looks like Chinese language domains in a new TLD and translates them to .cn domains.  Before IDNs in the root this really was the only way people could avoid typing some ASCII characters in domain names.

See this clear denial from the Chinese government:  http://english.people.com.cn/200603/03/eng20060303_247684.html

Jay

Getting out into the "Real Internet" Brian Retkin  –  Apr 14, 2011 3:19 AM PDT

Limiting controversial" TLDs in order to appease that impulse, in the name of preserving a single root, is illusory (alternate roots already exist), not likely to matter (people will get out to the "real" Internet somehow), and it doesn't really make sense.

“Real" Internet?  If I may add the last part of Mr Sadowsky’s Fourth Consideration/Comment (not shown in your post above)

From the point of view of the average person in our larger world of 6 1/2 billion people, it's my opinion that these conversations in ICANN meetings would most probably have been perceived as a meeting of a small exclusive club of affluent people coming from a small subset of the world's population, many of whom have, at best, a superficial understanding of other cultures and with insufficient regard of the potential effects of admitting dot xxx into the root, into societies with different and deeply held cultural and behavioral norms.

The “Real" Internet” is infinitely larger than ICANN.  It is already filled with viable alternatives that ultimately will merge and will coexist - and yes - life will go on as normal. 

Perhaps somewhat of an overstatement, but in the future people may look back on this period of Internet growth and see it as the History of the Infinitesimal.

TLD-euthanasia and self-censorship in the land of the free? Alexander Schubert  –  Apr 18, 2011 5:17 AM PDT

A pregnancy test in the 8th month reveals that -with a 1% probability- the new born will have a very serious illness. Now, as of what I hear Dr. ICANN should strongly support abortion?

London, Paris, NYC, Berlin, Dubai, Tokyo and Bangkok will have their city-TLD's, who of us would volunteer to go to Israel and explain the mayor of Tel Aviv that -we apologize for any inconvinience and thank you for your cooperation- they can't have ".telaviv", because their enemies might block it?

Finally: How would Gay people be affected by a blockade of .gay? They won't. The Gay in San Francisco wouldn't be affected at all. The Gay in Saudi Arabia not as well. Why? Because what ever a blockade of the .gay TLD would be able to block is blocked by content filters today. The Gay in Saudi Arabia knows that very well, and Gays in these countries also know very well how to find work arounds.

This all is a very theorethical discussion and it leads us towards ugly solutions. If the United States would have had that mindset regarding Berlin -a town heavily blocked by enemy forces- between 1961 and 1989 then my second language would not be English but Russian. But Berlin is reunited and remained free all those "blocked" years. It is my wish that .telaviv and .gay get that chance at well, and will not be excecuted by abortion just because MAYBE 1% of their users might be blocked. If the Gays and the people of TelAviv want to kill .gay and .telaviv, thats a different animal. But we can't decide for them.

July 1776: "Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness". Ask yourself, what would Jefferson have said to the notion of not creating new land just because someone might "block" it? If ICANN would have been involved there would not have been a Declaration of Independence?

Come on guys. We can do better than this.

This world is not perfect. The DNS mirrors this world. Think about it.

Alexander Schubert
Co-Founder .berlin (www.dotberlin.com)
Co-Founder .gay (www.dotgay.com)

Freedom is messy and some will get upset Christopher Parente  –  Apr 20, 2011 11:39 AM PDT

Alexander uses some pretty evocative analogies but has a point. You don't appease intolerance by giving in just a little.

Repressive governments hate ICANN and a "free" (or "real" if you prefer) Internet for many reasons well beyond supposedly offensive new TLDs. So often ICANN is stubborn at the wrong times — here it should be.

And to the extent that these new TLDs bring online government blocking out of the shadows and into public discussion, bravo there as well.

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