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.XXX Puzzle Pieces Start to Come Together: And the Picture is Ugly

Milton Mueller

Americans who worried about governments somehow "running" the Internet through the United Nations failed to see the Trojan Horses that were rolled into ICANN's structure in 1998: the Governmental "Advisory" Committee and the special US Government powers over ICANN.

The attempt by the US Commerce Department to "recall" the delegation of .xxx to ICM Registry due to pressure from deluded right-wing groups in the US who think that it will add to pornography on the Internet is a major inflection point in the history of ICANN, and could represent the beginning of the end of its private sector/civil society based model of governance.

The issue is not only an assertion of censorship powers over top level domains, but the sudden assertion of authority through the GAC to overrule or veto decisions made by ICANN's own processes and its Board.

And what kind of authority did GAC have to do this? The more one learns about this sorry episode, the more disturbing the details look.

The US did NOT voice opposition to the .xxx domain in the Luxembourg GAC meeting. And the GAC itself did NOT pass a resolution or go through any formal process to ask to recall the delegation. What really happened is that the US Commerce Department basically ordered ICANN to delay it and then "politely requested" the GAC Chairman (who is known to be close to the US) to send a letter to ICANN so that the order would have some legitimate "cover."

Here is a recitation of the relevant facts:

* At Luxembourg (July 9-15), neither the GAC nor the US made a request to stop the delegation. Other governments merely voiced their concern that "its creation will prompt significant public policy and public interest issues."

* All the outraged letters from Christian conservatives (and pornographers posing as such - that's another interesting detail) came into the Commerce Dept. weeks before the Luxembourg meeting. If the US was really motivated solely by the "6000 letters" mentioned by Mr. Gallagher in his letter to ICANN (PDF), why did it take no action in Luxembourg?

* Because that was before Mr. David A. Sampson, a new Commerce Dept official with strong ties to the religious right in the US, was appointed. Sampson was confirmed by the Senate as Deputy Secretary of Commerce July 22.

* The US Commerce Dept letter to ICANN is dated August 11, about two weeks after Sampson was appointed. 

* The GAC Chairman's letter to ICANN is dated August 12, and obviously follows the US initiative.

* The US letter was buried in the "Correspondence" section of ICANN's web site.

* The GAC letter was put on the front page, providing a nice cover for the US initiative.

So here's the full picture. We have just learned that a relatively minor change in political appointees in the Bush White House can, thanks to the USG's special authority over the Internet, yank the rug out from anything ICANN does. We have learned that the GAC, which technically has no more authority over ICANN than the At Large Advisory Committee (ALAC) and LESS authority than its GNSO, ASO and CCSO supporting organizations, can without even a formal resolution of its members, bring processes taking years and millions of dollars to a crashing halt. And this can occur with even a formal resolution, just because the US Commerce Department asks the GAC Chairman to send a letter.

Don't talk to me about the "UN taking over the Internet." Please. 

By Milton Mueller, Professor, Syracuse University School of Information Studies. More blog posts from Milton Mueller can also be read here.

Related topics: Censorship, DNS, ICANN, Internet Governance

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Comments

Re: .XXX Puzzle Pieces Start to Come Together: And the Picture is Ugly Kevin Murphy  –  Aug 17, 2005 11:26 AM PDT

This article seems to assume that .xxx has been killed, rather than just delayed a month. What does everybody else think? Is it dead?

Re: .XXX Puzzle Pieces Start to Come Together: And the Picture is Ugly Milton Mueller  –  Aug 17, 2005 3:58 PM PDT

Kevin:
No, .xxx has not been killed yet, but my belief is that those who want to kill it asked to delay final approval to give themselves a chance to kill it. And there is no doubt that the Family Research Council sees the delay in that way, see http://www.frc.org/get.cfm?i=PR05H14

My hope is that xxx is NOT killed, and that ICANN manages to stand up for its independence and impartiality. But the future is indeterminate. 

Re: .XXX Puzzle Pieces Start to Come Together: And the Picture is Ugly Vickram Crishna  –  Aug 18, 2005 6:34 AM PDT

While the article puts a number of interesting facts together, supporting these with dates and links where possible, a few innuendoes (such as 'known to be close to the US') were better left out. They make it more difficult to quote this page in support of positive action with regard to either governance (of ICANN, where I reserve my own position) or the proposed TLD (which I support).

Of course, most opposing material is far more partisan, but here one can't fight fire with fire - it only leads to more inflammation.

I don't agree that the article presupposes that the debate on the TLD is dead, or indeed that the move to launch this TLD is dead, but I certainly see more $$$ going into pushing for this initiative - $$$ that would be better spent elsewhere on this war-torn and poverty-stricken planet.

Re: .XXX Puzzle Pieces Start to Come Together: And the Picture is Ugly Milton Mueller  –  Aug 18, 2005 7:38 AM PDT

OK, Ms. Crishna point taken. I didn't think "known to be close to the US" was an insult, however, and hope it wasn't taken that way. I just believe there are close lines of communication between the GAC Chair and the US Commerce Department regarding ICANN. 

Re: .XXX Puzzle Pieces Start to Come Together: And the Picture is Ugly Suresh Ramasubramanian  –  Aug 19, 2005 8:21 AM PDT

Milton - interesting article, that.  A couple of points, mostly in agreement with Mr. (not Ms. by the way) Crishna.

The article, while quite accurate in itself, could have avoided the slightly strident tone that crept into it .. a tone that would prevent it from moving out of the blogosphere into true public policy advocacy.

My interaction (brief, but recent) with Sharil, when we were helping edit a position paper on WSIS - see http://igov.apdip.net for the paper - has left me with the impression that Sharil makes a great chair for the GAC (and his job is as close to herding cats as any other job on the planet that I know of)

Clear lines of communication, and an active effort to build consensus are essential attributes for him, in his position, and given the current situation wrt ICANN and WGIG .. the GAC is probably the best bridge between the two that I can think of.

On the other hand, "Known to be close" suggests "leans towards" / "tends to favor", especially when used in a decision making context. 

For the rest of my comments please see my article, and my reply to Jothan Frakes in http://www.circleid.com/article/1172_0_1_0_C

--srs

Re: .XXX Puzzle Pieces Start to Come Together: And the Picture is Ugly Milton Mueller  –  Aug 19, 2005 12:15 PM PDT

Suresh:
I agree with your assessment of Sharil totally. However, I am disturbed by the way many ICANN observers or participants have been diverted from the important political points by this personal issue. Closing ranks around Sharil because he is a nice guy who tried hard to make GAC work is completely beside the point, in my opinion. My point is that this incident constitutes the first exercise of the USG unilateral authority over ICANN in a policy context. My concern is the principle regading the role of governments in GAC. If you can only focus on Sharil you are missing the bigger picture. 

Re: .XXX Puzzle Pieces Start to Come Together: And the Picture is Ugly Suresh Ramasubramanian  –  Aug 19, 2005 5:48 PM PDT

Milton, I'm not closing ranks around Sharil in this case.  In case I didn't make myself clear, I'm not amused by what the DOC is doing right now about .XXX.

But Sharil's diplomatically phrased warning was quite right.  The USG is not the only government that is suddenly going to start complaining about .XXX.

And not because of a change in bureaucrat - that is far less likely, as lobbyists for any cause, from all colors of the political spectrum, tend not to operate through them but through their influence on house / senate committees, or rather on individual senators and representatives who sit on or chair these.

The same model will be at work in other countries, and this will focus government attention on the issue, so that those that oppose and perhaps even routinely censor web porn, for religious or moral reasons, say, will find their attention drawn to it and start to speak up against it. 

And those countries that have been calling for "Delenda est Icanno" during the WGIG process are going to convey their [possibly new found] strong displeasure of the .XXX ccTLD

Arguments like "why did you not object earlier" may not hold too much water, as people will simply claim that ICANN's "non transparent" process was not sufficient to attract adequate feedback on the issue.

Adequate feedback as in, lobbyists and ordinary "concerned citizens" had not yet read distorted versions of the story in a local newspaper or on Fox News and so did not frenetically lobby politicians during the time .XXX was debated.

Re: .XXX Puzzle Pieces Start to Come Together: And the Picture is Ugly Suresh Ramasubramanian  –  Aug 19, 2005 5:55 PM PDT

> .XXX ccTLD

"ccTLD"? :( That sort of thing is what happens when you post to circleid at 6 AM in the morning before your first cup of coffee. Power outage woke me up far earlier than I usually wake up :(

Re: .XXX Puzzle Pieces Start to Come Together: And the Picture is Ugly Vickram Crishna  –  Aug 20, 2005 6:19 AM PDT

I'm not sure how many governments are taking note of this process even now - how many civil servants are net-savvy enough, how many lobbies guised up as Milton suspects (with lots of good reason) are getting active on this front?

Certainly several such TLD additions in the past have come to life. Let's hope this one will move quietly on to become reality so that we can all live more self-controlled lives.

However, it still leaves the main point raised here: how are we to work to an independent clearing house for related activities in the future? If ICANN has indeed been compromised as easily as it seems, then we need to either beef up its internal processes, or look once again for a change of governance. For the right reasons, please.

Re: .XXX Puzzle Pieces Start to Come Together: And the Picture is Ugly Suresh Ramasubramanian  –  Aug 20, 2005 9:55 AM PDT

For the sake of argument, what are the right reasons, and what change in governance do you suggest out of the four options in front of the wgig?

Personally I'd prefer something not too far removed from the status quo with some efforts to increase the GAC's role, and build some more consensus.  Some improvement is definitely required in ICANN's governance, but I would be opposed to scrapping it entirely, or utterly emasculating it, as some of the proposals advocate.

Re: .XXX Puzzle Pieces Start to Come Together: And the Picture is Ugly Jothan Frakes  –  Aug 22, 2005 10:14 AM PDT

This piece appeared in Google's news match on the term 'ICANN' this morning, and it is representative of the type of uninformed posturing that makes it sound like the .XXX TLD is a den of evil and sin.

While I agree with some of the peice, and I can appreciate the views and opinions within the article (and I would not want to restrict anyone from their stating theirs), I do draw the line at blurring or ignoring fact in the process of a campaign to insight people's passions toward a cause.

Here is an example of the uneducated soundbites from the completely sensationalistic article:
"The last thing America needs is to double the availability of hard core pornography".

Hello?!?!?  Where did that come from? 

Unforunately, there are so many people out there who will explicitly trust the facts of something that appears in writing without looking deeper to find the truth, that this type of opinion material sculpts reader point of view.

The truth of the matter is that the .xxx TLD actually makes it easier to block content for those that oppose adult material.  It does not mean that "America doubles" pornography content on the internet.  That is simply false, and totally unsubstanciated.

As a parent, a person can block the entire TLD, and there are many levels of accountability and responsibility built into the framework of the TLD's administration; accountability that not present in .COM and other TLDs that host adult content.

The .XXX TLD actually is a step toward more responsible possibilites, and unfortunately the detractors are denying themselves the benefit of this by such slanted correspondance.

The bigger issue, as Milton points out, is that the DOC is being put into a position to override ICANN's authority, thus undermining it and this destroys the credibility of the gains the past 7 years may have had in ICANN fostering legitimacy.

Link: Bermuda Royal Gazette Article.

Re: .XXX Puzzle Pieces Start to Come Together: And the Picture is Ugly fnord  –  Aug 25, 2005 9:41 AM PDT

This sometimes resident ICANNWatch net prophet has come through again.

As an occasional worker in the online pr0n industry (in a technical sense, he added hastily), I can say with some assurance that .xxx would be, er, embraced by those pr0n purveyors who attempt to play nice. It wouldn't double online pr0n (as if there are magically twice the number of subjects due to a root entry). Those now owning the like of bodacioustatats.com (if it's not seized through the UDRP) will simply put childsafe pages on their .com name and a redirect to their full content on .xxx. As near as I can tell it's a win-win for all concerned, but the Right Wing in the US can no more see that than they can see WMD in Iraq.

It is telling that some in the pr0n industry oppose this. They are the types who do this sort of thing. They, and ICANN and the USG, would rather maintain the status quo. Now if 40% of internet users are accessing pr0n, that sort of puts the unprecedented 6000 correspondences to ICANN into perspective, even assuming they were all in opposition. ICANN got over 20 times that level of interest in direct elections (presumably all positive) and that didn't stop them from killing it.

So I guess the thing to do if .xxx dies aborning is to make a deal with some underused ccTLD (bonus points if they have no GAC presence), repurpose it like .tv or .ws, and make it the new home of .xxx with the same mandate. Then what will the USG do? Find out they have oil and invade them and redelegate the ccTLD to Pat Robertson? And lost in the shuffle, ICANN also delayed OK'ing .cat (for Catalan), perhaps fearing that someone would register black.cat (for you young'uns that symbol used to adorn XXX theatres) -g

Re: .XXX Puzzle Pieces Start to Come Together: And the Picture is Ugly David T  –  Mar 28, 2006 9:01 AM PDT

I know I'm coming to this thread late. I found it after reading this recent article and felt compelled to reply.

http://www.circleid.com/posts/lastest_turn_of_events_icann_wellington/

As an occasional worker in the online pr0n industry (in a technical sense, he added hastily), I can say with some assurance that .xxx would be, er, embraced by those pr0n purveyors who attempt to play nice.

Unfortunately I was unable to acces the comments fnord finds so convincing, but as a full time worker in the pr0n industry, owning several adult sites myself, I can say without a doubt the vaste majority of adult companies DO NOT support the creation of the XXX TLD.

The opposition to XXX has been long running and firm from the adult industry for years. ICM, the company putting forth this proposal, tried for years to get anyone in the adult industry to voice their support. No one would. They even went so far as to attempt to pay people to support it. No one in this industry wants their proposal.

Ask yourself if 95% of travel agencies came out publically opposed to .travel, would you be so quick to come out for approval of the domain over their objections.

As for Mr Mueller's snide little comment:

All the outraged letters from Christian conservatives (and pornographers posing as such - that’s another interesting detail) came into the Commerce Dept. weeks before the Luxembourg meeting.

Pornographers aren't cloaking themselves as right wingers to voice their opposition, they are publically and vocally voicing it across the board. All one has to do is check any of the adult webmaster boards to find article after article stating the reasons that XXX won't work.

Here's just one such article:

http://www.ynot.com/modules.php?op=modload&name=News&file=news_article&sid=9475&mode=thread&order=0&thold=0

There are several additional articles here:

http://www.ynot.com/modules.php?op=modload&name=News&file=news_index&catid=&topic=107&allstories=1

beginning around the time the adult industry was made aware of the end run ICM had done to forward their proposal against our opposition (August 2005).

You might want to consider when two sides so oppposed to each other, as the US religious right and the porn industry both oppose something, then maybe they know what they're talking about.

Those now owning the like of bodacioustatats.com (if it’s not seized through the UDRP) will simply put childsafe pages on their .com name and a redirect to their full content on .xxx.

This exhibits a complete lack of understanding of underlying facts. What of the other TLDs that adult companies have sites on. Who decides whether bodacioustatas.com or bodacioustatas.net gets the .xxx domain? Internet companies spend millions to brand their names and allowing a .xxx TLD will set off a stampede of cyber squatting that will make the Oklahoma land rush look like a walk in the park. Existing companies will be forced to buy the .xxx domains simply to protect their .com investments or risk a newcomer profiting off their hard work.

And at a proposed 60-100$US a domain, who profits by forcing this flawed proposal thru approval, just the few British businessmen running ICM. Certianly not the adult industry and certinly not the world at large.

Who a .xxx domain will benefit will be authoritarian governments that will force not just porn sites, but any site currently dealing with sensitive issues not approved by that government onto the .xxx domain and hence easily censored by blocking the complete TLD. Homosexual rights, woman's right, anything else that a oppressive government wishes to outlaw will be forced onto a .xxx domain and then blocked.

It is telling that some in the pr0n industry oppose this. They are the types who do this sort of thing.

No, what is telling is you had to go back to 2001 for a tar brush to paint the adult industry with the misdeeds of a few which no way reflects on the 99% of law abiding and ethical webmasters that choose to work in the adult industry.

Perhaps you'd like to paint similiarly politicians (some take bribes therefore all do) or journilists (some don't check their facts, therefore none do)?

They, and ICANN and the USG, would rather maintain the status quo.

Giving the choice of a flawed proposal for .xxx which does nothing but line the pockets of a few greedy businessman and ride roughshod over the legal rights of law abiding businessman, OR sticking with the status quo, then yes, we'll stick with what is working.

You want to address some of the problems that unfettered adult material on the Internet has with access by children, then why isn't ICANN seeking proposals for a .kids TLD? Do something that will really help as opposed to something (like .xxx) that has no chance at all.

Your high and mighty Net prophets would do better to get their facts right next time before decending from the mountain with their stone tablet to preach to the unwashed.

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