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.
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