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The XXX Train Wreck in Vancouver

Milton Mueller

It is now clear that by sending its letter of August 12 blocking approval of the .XXX domain, the US Government has done more to undermine ICANN's status as a non-governmental, multi-stakeholder policy body than any of its Internet governance "enemies" in the ITU, China, Brazil, or Iran. And despite all the calls for a government role that would ensure "rule of law" and "accountability" of ICANN, the interventions of governments are making this aspect of Internet governance more arbitrary and less accountable.

The apparently innocuous announcement by Vint Cerf Thursday that the .XXX application has been removed from the Board's agenda until the next meeting conceals a maelstrom of dirty politics.

.XXX was removed from the agenda because the GAC demanded to see the reports of the evaluation teams before a decision was made. In meeting this demand, ICANN warps and corrupts its TLD approval process in two ways. First, and most obviously, it adds a completely new layer to the application process, ex post. Approval or disapproval was supposed to be based on the Board's reading of the evaluation reports and the applicants' response. Now, we learn, there is another process to go through, if politically powerful people don't like you. Second, the demand for a review of the reports introduces a targeted, discriminatory element to the evaluation. For TLDs that have contracts already, the release of the team evaluation reports is harmless. For the two who have not been approved, .xxx and .asia the release of these reports can only be damaging, as the reports may contain information that can be used against them. And of course, .XXX and .ASIA are the two applications that have been targeted by individual GAC members.

Governments in Europe and Brazil are now openly saying in private conversations that they are using the .xxx application as a "hostage" in their efforts to give themselves more governmental control over ICANN. The end-game goal of this effort seems to be a GAC veto over TLD selections and a strengthened role for governments. In his report at the ICANN meeting, GAC Chair Sharil Mohd Tarmizi noted that GAC wants to improve the way it addresses public policy issues and that it was interested in new TLDs in particular.

Oh and by the way, did you know that ICANN Board members have received, at their home address, threatening letters from religious Right fanatics warning them to oppose the domain? It is likely that the US Commerce Department is the party that supplied them with the home addresses and contact information of the Board members.

As I predicted months ago, the call for "delaying" the contractual negotiations on .XXX in order to "consider all points of view" has simply given its enemies the time needed to kill it or to further exploit it for political purposes. This was not unintentional.

In effect, some governments within GAC are using the .XXX controversy to request information and conduct an investigation which will place them in the position of ultimate decision maker over the fate of this – and presumably future – TLDs. In its attempt to appease this effort, ICANN has modified its process after the fact, and in doing that it has sowed confusion and disarray, even among its own staff and Board. When GAC first started to demand the evaluation reports after the Luxembourg meeting, someone on the staff told the EU that they were already available. The EU felt lied to when they discovered they were not. In a hasty effort to make the reports public, requests were sent to the applicants to go through the reports and redact any information they felt was commercially sensitive. This also created confusion, as the unfinished applicants objected to the request (.XXX even took it to the ombudsman). Board Chair Vint Cerf had incomplete information about what had been done and what the staff had agreed to do.

One clear conclusion that can be drawn from this is that GAC can no longer be allowed to function in secret. Its meetings and deliberations in ICANN must all be open to public scrutiny. This would make it more difficult for governments to play narrow political games with the DNS.

By Milton Mueller, Professor, Georgia Institute of Technology School of Public Policy
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Related topics: DNS, ICANN, Internet Governance, New TLDs
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Re: The XXX Train Wreck in Vancouver Ewan Sutherland  –  Jan 12, 2006 7:03 AM PDT

Milton

If you think .XXX was bad, try to imagine what would happen if someone applied for .GOD or .GAY as a new .gTLD?

Ewan

Re: The XXX Train Wreck in Vancouver Milton Mueller  –  Jan 12, 2006 9:45 AM PDT

Ewan:

To answer your question, do two simple things. Click on either or both of these URLS:

http://www.god.com

http://www.gay.com

The assignment of either of these names caused no one any pain. The world did not come to an end. No religious wars began. The number of gay people in the world did not increase or decline.

The reason this happened is that SLD assignment is NOT subject to any political, collective decision making process which turns it into a symbolic battle over values. TLD assignments could be and should be the same.

If you attempt to say, "but TLDs are different" I will answer, "yes, SLDs under .com are probably more valuable and more important at this stage than TLDs." Anyone who starts a .god is likely to get less attention and interest than the current holder of god.com.

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