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Islamic TLDs and the Challenge of Good Governance

Stéphane Van Gelder

As governments ask themselves whether they should not be the only ones in charge, and everyone else is more determined than ever to stay involved, Internet governance is now a front-page topic.

But away from the theoretical debates about which model is best, one real-life situation may end up looking strangely like a vindication of the multi-stakeholder model by governmental organisations.

The situation in question is that of Islam and Halal. Two applications that look like they are caught in a kind of new gTLD program groundhog day.

Applied for by Turkish company Asian Green IT System (AGIT), both TLDs have passed ICANN's Initial Evaluation and should be in the contract-signing phase by now. At 564, Islam's priority draw number is actually quite low (Halal's draw number is much at 1695). So in theory, Islam could have been one of the earlier new gTLD launchers.

Instead, every possible spanner has been thrown in the Islam and Halal works by what appears to be a minority group of countries led by the United Arab Emirates. In a December CircleID article, former ICANN Board member Katim Touray gave a detailed account of the numerous attempts to get the two applications thrown out.

In short, every possible avenue the new gTLD program offered, from the standard objection process to the Independent Objector, GAC Early Warnings and GAC Advice, was tried. To no avail. The objections were overturned and the GAC did not issue formal advice against Islam and Halal.

Odd resolution

So now the two TLD's detractors have brought out the big guns. In the ICANN universe, if you want anything done, you get a major international organisation to write formal letters to the GAC and the Board. Self-described as "the second largest inter-governmental organisation after the United Nations” and as the "collective voice of the Muslim world”, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) certainly fits the bill.

Late last year, the OIC started writing to the Board and the GAC urging both to put a stop to the Islam and Halal new gTLD rollout. Then, just before the end-of-year Buenos Aires ICANN meeting, the OIC joined the GAC as an observer. Finally, at the organisation's 40th session of the Council of Foreign Ministers held in Conakry, Republic of Guinea, from December 9 to 11 2013, a resolution was adopted requesting its General Secretariat to "communicate with the concerned party ICANN in order to file an official objection to the use of gTLDS .Islam and .Halal” and also urging "OIC Member States members to ICANN to support United Arab Emirates' position and the measures it took to block the sale of the two domains 'Islam' and 'halal' or any other domains which concern the entire Islamic Ummah.

To proponents of the multi-stakeholder way of doing things, the OIC resolution might feel odd. Asking for an official objection to be filed even though the new gTLD program's objection process closed a whole 9 months before on March 13, 2013 shows either strong misunderstanding of rules that were arrived at by community bottom-up consensus, or blatant disregard for them. But those used to the multilateral model, considering a governmental position to be above anything decided by anyone else might not feel so unusual.

Misunderstandings

Still, giving OIC the benefit of the doubt, it does seem as though the resolution stems from a limited grasp of all the issues involved. A concept paper drafted in preparation for the Conakry meeting shows that if the OIC was based on a model where all stakeholders had a voice, it might have avoided what at first glance looks like a hasty decision.

The paper was provided to OIC member states as background information to help them determine their position on the anti Islam and Halal resolution. It shows that out of the 57 OIC member states, only UAE, the Kingdom of Jordan and the State of Qatar appear to have strong feelings against the two TLDs. 3 out of 57 is hardly a majority. It's not even a strong minority. Yet in the Conakry resolution process, this minority view apparently went unchallenged.

Although the paper goes into quite extensive detail on the reasons given by UAE, Qatar and Jordan for opposing the TLDs, it is surprisingly light on information about the applications themselves.

OIC members therefore had to determine their positions based on one, very limited side to the story. The paper is very vague on who applied and what's in the actual applications. The paper just tells OIC member states that "certain private companies have registered two Islamic domains (Halal and Islam), which has attracted broad rejection and objection from certain OIC Member States at the level of ICANN.

So on a resolution that probably seemed minor on what was otherwise a very full agenda, it's not surprising that Ministers and their teams did not question the picture being painted for them.

That not one, but several, companies were after Islam and Halal. And that these TLDs were not in the process of being applied for, but had already been registered. No mention of AGIT, a company from a Muslim country, as the sole applicant for both TLDs. An applicant working to the same proposed model of a "multi-stakeholder governance mechanisms designed to allow a wide variety of significant Muslim community stakeholders to take part in determining how these TLDs should be administered,” as AGIT MD Mehdi Abbasnia wrote in a December 30, 2013 letter to ICANN Board Chair Steve Crocker.

Good governance

Islam and Halal are understandably extremely important to the Muslim community. And equally understandably, parts of that community feel threatened by the possibility that new namespaces might open up. But isn't the best way to dispel myths and avoid scaremongering based on incomplete information to give everyone that's involved a chance to give their side of the story?

The irony of the Islam and Halal problem is that although born of the multilateral world where only governments have a say, it is governmental organisations who have pushed it over to the multistakeholder model to solve. "The ball is now in the ICANN Board's court,” Abbasnia argued in his December 30 letter. "If it bows to the OIC's pressure and blocks our TLD applications, not only will Muslims the world over be prevented from claiming their very own space on the Internet, but I believe it will also be dealing a blow to the new gTLD program's credibility, and to the credibility of ICANN as a multi-stakeholder governance organization.

Maybe the way Islam and Halal end up being handled will show that having an environment where all voices can be heard is the best way to ensure that the truth does not get obscured by partial information and vested interests. Surely that's what anyone would call good governance.

By Stéphane Van Gelder, Consultant
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