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ICANN Takes First Step to Becoming a Global Content Regulator

Malcolm Hutty

There has been wide coverage of ICANN's decision this week to adopt a new process for creating new global Top Level Domains (gTLDs). Publishing a clear, transparent and objective process is thought likely to result in a considerable expansion of gTLDs — although nobody really knows whether this means "quite a lot" or "many thousands”.

The decision endorses a 2007 report from GNSO Council, an ICANN structure that makes recommendations to the ICANN Board on gTLD policy.

Less attention has been given to one of the new tests ICANN will use when considering whether to approve a new gTLD, contained in GNSO's sixth recommendation:

Strings [meaning, new top level domain names] must not be contrary to generally accepted legal norms relating to morality and public order that are recognized under international principles of law.

The report goes on to amplify on what it means by "generally accepted legal norms relating to morality and public order":

Examples of such principles of law include, but are not limited to, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, intellectual property treaties administered by the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) and the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS).

Quite why intellectual property is included as an issue of "morality and public order" alongside the Universal Declaration of Human Rights isn't explained, and probably owes more to the lobbying power of the American music and film industry associations than anything else. That aside, not everybody is comfortable with ICANN making decisions on "morality and public order".

ICANN Board member Wendy Seltzer speaking for the At-Large Community (ALAC), that represents ordinary end users, commented:

[ALAC] expressed concern that putting these criteria into the gTLD approval process, even as opportunities for objection, injects ICANN into the business of making morality and public order decisions, or injects that into ICANN's processes in a way that, as ALAC put it, debases the ICANN process. And at-large does not want to see ICANN put into the business of adjudicating or even delegating the adjudication of morality or public order or community support. And so we hope that in implementation, these criteria can be kept sufficiently narrow so that they are both administrable and understandable and so that they do not involve ICANN, the organization, in making, or allowing to be made, determinations about any claim to generally accepted morality principles.

ICANN Board member Professor Susan Crawford agreed, going on to say:

[N]either national governments acting as sovereigns nor intergovernmental organizations acting as representatives of governments should participate in management of Internet names and addresses.


This wasn't done out of enthusiasm for the free market alone. The idea was also to avoid having sovereigns use the Domain Name System for their own content, control, desires. To avoid having the Domain Name System used as a choke point for content. Recommendation 6, which is the morality and public order recommendation, represents quite a sea change in this approach, because the recommendation is that strings must not be contrary to generally acceptable legal norms relating to morality and public order that are recognized under international principles of law. That's the language of the recommendation.

Now, if this is broadly implemented, this recommendation would allow for any government to effectively veto a string that made it uncomfortable. Having a government veto strings is not allowing the private sector to lead. It's allowing sovereigns to censor.

In the formal discussions, these issues are mainly debated in the abstract, but two key examples are bandied about in private: .jihad (which even the anti-censorship USA seems keen to prohibit) and .nazi (which is an example dear to the hearts of some European governments with strict anti-Nazi laws).

Civil libertarians supporting Susan Crawford's line argue that if governments are able to pressure ICANN into prohibiting .jihad (which has perfectly non-violent meanings in Islam as well as the terrorist connotations it has recently acquired in the West), then can a prohibition on .falun-gong be far behind?

Traditionalists among the Internet technical community might be less impressed with the cry to protect freedom of expression in top level domains, arguing that domain names — let alone top level domain names — are intended as identifiers in an addressing scheme, not as a medium of expression at all. However, even on this analysis there is cause for concern about the "morality string criterion"

  • Is it possible for a short phrase such as would be valid as a top level domain name to constitute an incitement to violence, or other generally accepted breach of public order, in and of itself? Does it not depend on how the domain is used? Does the objection to .nazi lie not so much in its identification of content that might relate to Nazi ideology and in history, but that it might be used by people sympathetic to the ideology?
  • Whether or not it is possible for a domain to inherently infringe principles of morality and public order, doesn't such a rule invite ICANN to investigate how such a domain might be used in any case? Surely it is inconceivable that ICANN would not consider the likely use of a domain. Is such an invitation a good idea? Do we really think ICANN is well equipped to perform this role?
  • If we accept that ICANN should consider the likely use of a top level domain, and weigh that against principles of morality and public order — not to mention intellectual property law — before deciding whether such a domain should exist, why should it stop there? Why shouldn't ICANN require the registries of gTLDs (including .com) to do the same at the second level? ICANN can impose terms on such registries by contract; the only thing that restrains it is a view that this is not ICANN's proper role or purpose. If we accept the principle that ICANN can adjudicate globally "generally accepted legal norms relating to morality and public order", why not require gTLD registries to enforce these principles at the second level? And why stop with new domains: wouldn't actual proof of "infringing" use be even more damning than speculation about how a new domain might be used in the future?

The string criteria debate may attract less attention than the creation of new TLDs, and may not immediately affect as many people as the introduction of Internationalised Domain Names. Nonetheless, history may yet come to view this as the watershed moment when the world first acquired a global Internet content regulator.

This article was cross-posted from the LINX Public Affairs blog

By Malcolm Hutty, Head of Public Affairs. More blog posts from Malcolm Hutty can also be read here.

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


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