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Domains and the Freedom to Speak

John Levine

For a very long time, predating the birth of ICANN, there's been a running battle about what should be required when one registers domain names. To oversimplify quite a lot, one side sees domain names as an essential component of free speech, so anyone should be able to register any domain without limit, the other notes that they're primarily used for commercial purposes and they enable quite a lot of mischief, so the more control, the better. This has led to endless skirmishes about the WHOIS service, one side wanting to abolish it or make it as hard as possible to get info about registrants, the other wanting ICANN to enforce the widely ignored rules that every domain is supposed to have accurate contact info.

Back in 1995, before the current shape of the net was clear, the domains as speech argument sort of made sense. It wasn't clear how dominant the web would be, and search engines weren't widely available, so many people still thought that the DNS would be used as the Internet's directory, an approach that top-level domains like .MUSEUM and .TRAVEL tried with a total lack of success. But it's not 1995 any more.

People speak in vast amounts on the Internet. There are, by most estimates, hundreds of millions of blogs and personal sites hosted at places like Blogger, Typepad, Wordpress and (perish forbid) Facebook. Most of those blogs have their very own domain names, approximately none of which was provided by an ICANN registrar. They're all subdomains of the blog site, e.g., weeklysift.blogspot.com written by a friend of mine. It's true, you're at Google's mercy with a blogspot subdomain, but given the choice of depending on Google for a third level domain or depending on GoDaddy for a second level domain, I don't see any reason to prefer one over the other.

Furthermore, domains are useless without hosting and connectivity, which are at least as much of a challenge to set up as picking a domain name. For a good example of this, look at the recent saga of Wikileaks. People have beaten up on them in all sorts of ways, Amazon canceling their hosting, Paypal cutting off their contributions, but have you heard anything about losing their domain?

As it happens, wikileaks.org appears to have been stolen and wikileaks.info was recently registered by someone who is not Wikileaks. They are hosted at heihachi.net in Russia, which mostly hosts crimeware sites. (Compare the cruddy looking site at mirror.wikileaks.info to any of the 1400 real mirrors mostly at third level domains like wikileaks.sharegroundz.com and wikileaks.gvoice.eu.) Few people even know or care about the bogus domains; it doesn't matter, since they can find Wikileaks anyway.

There are plenty of important issues that ICANN needs to address. Anonymous vanity domains isn't one of them.

When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?

By John Levine, Author, Consultant & Speaker. More blog posts from John Levine can also be read here.

Related topics: Cybersquatting, Domain Names, ICANN, Law

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Maybe Put Whois Behind US? Michael Roberts  –  Jan 21, 2011 12:20 PM PST

It's a pleasure, John, to see you shine some light on this topic.  There is a class of ICANN players that would have us see 1st Amendment issues in black and white.  As a long string of Supreme Court decisions shows, this freedom is subject to a number of caveats.  In the case of domain names, there is the greater evil of substantial criminal activity associated with misuse of domain names, against the lesser evil of potential invasion of privacy of a small number of individuals with their own personal domain names.  Wikileaks, and many other, have demonstrated how to use anonymizer techniques to put yourself beyond the reach of overeager law enforcement.  So is it unfair to the few to insist that the many provide full and accurate registration information?

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