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The .DOCTOR Quarantine

Jon Nevett

ICANN should reconsider its decision to quarantine .DOCTOR, given that it's not even sick.

In an utterly surprising move, ICANN staff and the Board's New gTLD Program Committee ("NGPC") recently informed the applicants for .DOCTOR that it has singled out the gTLD as a test case for controlling content and limiting speech on the Internet.

In the epitome of top-down policy making, ICANN issued an edict that it will implement nearly year-old advice from the Government Advisory Committee ("GAC") differently from all other similarly situated gTLDs and in contravention of subsequent GAC advice. This major difference would require that all second level names in the .DOCTOR gTLD "are ascribed exclusively to legitimate medical practitioners."

This arbitrary move — which would suddenly impose prior restraint on the wide possible expressive uses for the gTLD — is far from rooted in bottom-up consensus and occurs more than a year into the availability of new gTLDs and after "regulated" and "highly regulated" strings had been identified and sorted out. It is shocking that ICANN changes the rules yet again at the last minute.

It's confounding for ICANN to pronounce that the generic term "doctor" cannot be trusted with anyone but one limited group of potential users. ICANN does not require discrimination against legitimate and lawful uses of other "regulated" or "highly regulated" TLDs, such as .LAWYER, .ATTORNEY, .DENTIST or .SURGERY. Why is .DOCTOR being singled out this way, particularly considering the wide variety of uses of the term?

ICANN now has the opportunity to reconsider its mandate that registrants in this gTLD be "by invitation only," with ICANN issuing the invitations.

The ICANN Board should correct this wrong and prove to all of us working on new ICANN accountability mechanisms that it can rectify its mistakes, that it won't single out one gTLD for disparate treatment, and that it won't discriminate against categories of legitimate registrants and uses of a generic word.

ICANN: Conferring a monopoly, controlling content

If this edict is allowed to stand, "doctors" of all stripes — except for those ICANN finds worthy — would be frozen out of a useful gTLD. Juris doctors, doctors of dental surgery, Ph.D.s of every sort, even veterinarians… all could be censored on the Internet because they earned the wrong version of the title.

Such is an amazing monopoly for ICANN to confer, a monopoly no national or international law awards medical doctors. ICANN should not attempt to create new rights in cyberspace — for a limited class that it selects — that aren't already enshrined in law. As ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade recently testified before the U.S. Senate, ICANN is not in the content control business, and therefore does not determine who can speak on the Internet:

"Let me first be clear that ICANN has nothing to do with content. We do not deal with content. Our work is very limited to the names and numbers and the protocol parameters which are way down in the plumbing of the Internet."

Yet this last-minute attempt to do exactly that would confine the content of the .DOCTOR gTLD to only medical discourse by those that — through no defined process of determination — are "legitimate medical practitioners."

This requirement sets up a preposterous scenario where any medical doctor could register MATHEMATICS.DOCTOR, but a Ph.D. in mathematics could not; where a pediatrician could register JURIS.DOCTOR, but a lawyer or judge could not; or where a nephrologist could register DNSPOLICY.DOCTOR, but Drs. Crocker or Tonkin could not. By this same logic, the next step would be to require the landscaping company "Lawn Doctor" to change its corporate name.

Even some on the ICANN Board find this absurd. At the Buenos Aires meeting, Board member Chris Disspain convincingly reasoned that the term "doctor" is generic and should not be restricted:

"...in many, many countries, the term "doctor" is used as a name of businesses. A computer doctor. If you — There are often — It's a term that is used. It's not a regulated term. It's a term that is used in business names, in company names for people who fix things. And there is no prohibition on the use of that term. It is an open term. And the reason is because it's actually a medical doctor, and the — I mean, there are all sorts of reasons."

Mr. Disspain is correct — the generic term simply has wider utility than its application to just medical practitioners, and such alternative uses are perfectly legitimate and should not be the subject of discriminatory restriction.

Consumers can be protected without ICANN engaging in discrimination

We've already been through this debate and vetting. No one disputes that .DOCTOR should be subject to all the requirements of "highly sensitive" strings that are required by other gTLDs identified by the NGPC and the GAC. It defies logic, however, that .DOCTOR is sequestered from other highly sensitive strings that already are in the market and have a set of protections in place.

In those TLDs, ICANN did not limit the gTLD based on the usage of a generic term (e.g., .LAWYER has not been targeted for restriction only to "legitimate legal practitioners"). ICANN cannot and should not single out .DOCTOR for disparate treatment, especially without community support or any basis in law.

Such discrimination disregards GAC advice offered subsequent to the Buenos Aires meeting. In London, the GAC advised, in the context of Category 2 gTLDs, that "applicants . . . should not provide undue preference or discrimination against domain name registrants." The same should be true in this context.

ICANN's and the GAC's goals are laudable, but the current mandate goes too far. They are trying to prevent consumers from being confused into thinking someone offering medical advice under a .DOCTOR name is licensed when he or she is not. Deception of the type ICANN is raising already is prohibited and would be prevented by existing safeguards. Moreover, any nefarious registrations in .DOCTOR already are prohibited by law (in multiple jurisdictions), and any such names would be taken down under the mandatory terms and conditions of use of the gTLD. The new requirement, however, deserves a more reasonable touch — as is the case in other highly sensitive strings. We shouldn't ban broad categories of speech to address one potentially problematic use that could be addressed specifically.

While a registry might choose to limit its customer base to a specific group as part of its business plans, we didn't make that choice. A regulatory mandate banning speech by all but a subset of speakers would violate the tenets of the United States First Amendment, as well as various other international rights to freedom of expression.

We have filed a request for reconsideration of this action, and expect that reason will prevail. In the meantime, this overreach is bad policy — it's clear to us and we suspect it's equally clear to ICANN. It enjoys no equitable basis in process, law, or even common sense. We call on the ICANN Board to reverse this decision, thereby proving current accountability mechanisms could actually work and ICANN is truly ready to be independent.

By Jon Nevett, Co-Founder, Donuts Inc.
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Nutty flavors Volker Greimann  –  Mar 13, 2015 9:55 AM PDT

I fully agree with the author that this decision sets a very bad example and is unnecessarily restrictive. This decision should be scrapped as soon as possible.

"We shouldn't ban broad categories of speech Robin Gross  –  Mar 13, 2015 11:29 AM PDT

"We shouldn't ban broad categories of speech to address one potentially problematic use that could be addressed specifically." Well said.  ICANN moves closer to content regulation every day.  It is a slippery slope.  And when did the GNSO approve this policy?  It wasn't in the new gtld policy that the GNSO Council approved.

Further Restrictions on .DOCTOR Completely Unnecessary Statton Hammock  –  Mar 13, 2015 12:29 PM PDT

Rightside launched .ATTORNEY and .LAWYER more than 6 months ago and has not received a single complaint that its PICs for these strings have been violated. The same is true for .DENTIST. Why .DOCTOR should be treated any differently from .ATTORNEY or .DENTIST is simply nonsensical, especially when the term "DOCTOR" has even broader meaning and used to refer to individuals who specialize in their profession or craft. ICANN needs to hold firm against the GAC and calls by other to regulate content on any new gTLD.

Well, let's see John Levine  –  Mar 13, 2015 7:52 PM PDT

18-wheeler.attorney: page is parked, WHOIS is a construction firm in Austin TX, not an attorney
bankruptcyhelp.attorney: registrant is some guy in Connecticut with a series of unsuccessful online businesses, not an attorney, web site is Godaddy generic parked page

These took two minutes to find. How many do you want?

John, there is nothing impermissible about parking Statton Hammock  –  Mar 14, 2015 8:25 AM PDT

John, there is nothing impermissible about parking pages. Parked pages are not a violation of any registry or registrar policy or PIC.

I was more pointing out that the John Levine  –  Mar 14, 2015 8:47 AM PDT

I was more pointing out that the registrants are not even sort of like attorneys.

What universe is the NGPC living in? Antony Van Couvering  –  Mar 13, 2015 12:34 PM PDT

This is an amazing decision that — as Jon Nevett says — goes against all of the previous limitations ICANN has imposed on itself.  Now, apparently, ICANN is a content regulator, setting itself up as a judge to decide who is a doctor, and who is not.  What's next?  Will we find that .football domain names are restricted to whomever FIFA (or their governmental pawns) decides should get one?  Will ICANN decide that it needs to regulate the price of domain names as well?  If this decision confers any weight then all of these things are now on the table. 

ICANN has apparently decided to wade neck-deep into the crowded field of governments and quangos who ignore their own bylaws and constitutions and stated intentions in trying to limit speech and choice.  As usual, they cannot even invoke any actual harm, only hypotheticals that might happen.  Those with a taste for the macabre will savor the irony of ICANN refusing domain names to medics risking their lives to save others on battlefields in favor of those who went to the proper schools. 

It's a terrible precedent, not only for the Internet but for ICANN itself, which has effectively placed a big advertisement in front of ICANN HQ that says "Lobby Me for Special Treatment (If You Are Sufficiently Powerful)." ICANN should expect a long delighted queue of repressive governments, organizations, and self-appointed guardians of morality. 

Everyone who cares about the open Internet should hope that this decision is a mistake, and not an omen of even more special-interest meddling and ICANN expansionism.

Big kudos to ICANN and the NGPC Constantine Roussos  –  Mar 13, 2015 9:39 PM PDT

Big kudos to ICANN and the NGPC for doing this.

Not all TLDs are created equal but it seems some companies believe all string-related communities are the same and consumer perception and expectations are universal. They are not. An open and commoditized .doctor with a lack of health-tailored policies is wrong on so many levels. The excuse that "ICANN is not a content regulator" does not serve the public interest when it comes to regulated strings and GAC was right to do what they did and perhaps they did not do enough.

The only reason why there are not many problems with "open" new gTLDs that denote a regulated sector is because the communities associated with these regulated strings have not adopted the string as a trusted industry standard. Why would they? It may work with .WEB and .ONLINE but any TLD that represents a community from a regulated sector requires special attention and tailored policies that serve those communities.

If you want useful TLDs then you need custom tailored policies with respect to content and usage. You can complain that it is not ICANN's role to determine what these policies are and that it is content regulation but the facts are that consumers will expect legitimate doctors to use .doctor. There are certain expectations that consumers have for certain professions and content, especially in regulated sectors. The rise of both cybercrime and content-related infringement does not help the situation and presents a strong case for better enforcement for such strings.

Why shouldn't ICANN do what makes sense (and expected by users) and serve the public interest by doing the right thing? Why is it bad policy and irresponsible to make regulated sector strings (such as .doctor, .pharmacy, .music, .bank, and others) legitimate to instill confidence and consumer trust? It is never too late for ICANN to do the right thing and I applaud them for taking these steps.

"Nothing that is morally wrong can be politically right." - William E. Gladstone

Constantine Roussos
.MUSIC

Missing the point Volker Greimann  –  Mar 14, 2015 2:13 AM PDT

The question is not so much if certain TLDs may need more regulation than others, the question is why this one, and why restrict it so that other legitimate doctors are excluded from its use?
You may hold any position you want on the safeguard advice, however the way it is implemented here misses the point of what the string means.

Finally, it seems that ICANN is forcing the application into the community mold when neither the applicant has requested this treatment, nor does the community definition chosen by ICANN match the "community of doctors" if there is such a thing.

ICANN messed up again and made policy bypassing the GNSO once again…

Are you actually questioning whether there is Constantine Roussos  –  Mar 14, 2015 1:43 PM PDT

Are you actually questioning whether there is a "community of doctors" or not? So let me ask you a simple question: In the past when you or your friends or family got sick did you visit a doctor that had no qualifications On the same token, if someone had a serious accident then you would expect them to be treated by a qualified doctor? The answer is a resounding yes.

Your argument holds no ground. The consumer expectations under the .doctor TLD are aligned with real qualified doctors. Claiming that .DOCTOR should be open because one could register "computer.doctor" or that .BANK should be open because one should be able to register "sound.bank" is a weak argument because the social costs outweigh the benefits because of reasonable consumer expectation.

We are talking about the public interest and consumer expectations right? Talking about the GNSO etc is a non-issue. I believe the entire ICANN community is accountable for not putting safeguards in place for regulated strings from the beginning and not doing its due diligence for a whole host of issues such as singulars/plurals etc which create consumer confusion.

Constantine Roussos
.MUSIC

Not all Doctors are medical doctors? Volker Greimann  –  Mar 16, 2015 3:21 AM PDT

Constantine, yes I am, at least when the definition is as limited as in this case. Not all doctors are of the medical persuasion, in fact those make up only a fraction of people holding a doctorate.

To quote Wikipedia:
"A doctorate is an academic or professional degree that, in most countries, qualifies the holder to teach at the university level in the degree's field, or to work in a specific profession. In some countries, the highest degree in a given field is called a terminal degree. Many universities award "honorary doctorates" to individuals who have been deemed worthy of special recognition, either for scholarly work or for other contributions to the university or to society."

In Germany, the most important (there are over 50 different kinds of doctor in total) doctor titles are:

Dr. rer. nat. (Natural Sciences, i.e. Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Maths, Computer Science and Information Technology),
Dr. phil. (humanities such as Philosophy, philology, History, and social sciences such as sociology or Psychology),
Dr. iur. (Law),
Dr. oec. (Economics),
Dr. rer. pol. (Political Science),
Dr. med. (Medicine),
Dr.-Ing. (Engineering).

And only one of those is allowed to register .DOCTOR. Clearly, the ICANN decision is too limited, to focused on one particular kind of doctor, too removed from the reality of what this string encompasses to make an sense whatsoever.

For more information on entities that should be able to register domains under .DOCTOR, but can't, please check out the link below:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doctorate

Addition Volker Greimann  –  Mar 16, 2015 3:23 AM PDT

And to answer your rethoric question:

Yes, all of those are real, legally qualified doctors. Just not of the particular field that ICANN felt needed to be singled out for "protection".

uh huh John Levine  –  Mar 16, 2015 8:39 AM PDT

I have a PhD, and I think the world would be a much better place if .DOCTOR only contained actual medical doctors. Really, feel free to exclude me. It's fine.

We all know there are other kinds of doctorates. But where I live, calling yourself Doctor if you don't have a medical degree marks you as a pompous fool.

A very US-centered view Volker Greimann  –  Mar 16, 2015 8:48 AM PDT

John, that may be the case where you are, but over here, holders of Doctorates are usually fiercely proud of their titles. They are even officially considered to be part of your name, regardless of the kind of doctorate you hold.

I think we can all agree that:
a) not all doctors are medical doctors;
b) the current non-GNSO-approved policy excludes all those other doctors.

All of these titles are highly regulated, not just the medical profession. And while there is a special consideration for consumer trust in medical practitioners that may be warranted, this does not mean that a generic TLD string should exclude all other eligible registrants based on this concern. What would be next? Outlawing the use of other doctorate titles with the same argument?

Then use doktor.de John Levine  –  Mar 16, 2015 8:59 AM PDT

That's fine, but I don't see the global social utility in allowing them into a domain which the other 97% of the world will understand to be medical doctors.

The whole thrust of this discussion is that various narrow interests are more important than the global public interest that ICANN is supposed to care about. I couldn't ask for a better example of why ICANN is so broken.

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Again, a very US-centric view Volker Greimann  –  Mar 16, 2015 9:05 AM PDT

You are looking at this in a very US-centric view, I assume. When I mean a medical doctor, I say "Arzt", not doctor. When I say doctor, I could mean all kinds of things, depending on the circumstances.

You are saying that ICANN is broken. I am saying that decisions like this - over the heads of the community and to the benefit of once small group - are breaking ICANN.
When ICANN ceases to be a true multi-stakeholder community and turns to a top-down decision-making, it starts to lose its claim to its special status.

you say ... John Levine  –  Mar 16, 2015 3:31 PM PDT

Once again, this discussion shows how totally broken ICANN already is. The fact that people are making these tortured arguments against the obvious (yes, it really is) public interest use of .DOCTOR is not surprising, but quite painful to watch.

If you want .DOKTOR for all those kinds of German Doktors, sure, go ahead. But DOCTOR is an English word, and English-speakers overwhelmingly understand it to mean medical doctors.

Parochial The Famous Brett Watson  –  Mar 16, 2015 5:03 PM PDT

I have to agree with Volker that the whole thing smacks of US-centricism. Australia has a great proclivity for nanny-state laws, and even we don't have any legal restrictions on the use of "doctor" as a title. Call yourself a "medical practitioner" without the official blessing of the bureaucracy, however, and you're in strife.

So congrats, septics: you've out-nannied us on this one, and in your usual style you think that if it works for you, it's only fair to impose it on the world at large. Luckily for me, I ceased to give a damn about the ICANN circus in general a long time ago, and this particular bit of nonsense merely serves to justify my cynicism. I only keep my at-large membership letter for the irony value.

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