Let a thousand domains bloom

One of the Internet’s main governing bodies, ICANN, has just finished its latest public meeting in Puerto Rico. After a week of debates on subjects like Accountability and Transparency Management, and workshops on Domain Tasting and WHOIS, delegates, representatives and interested observers are all heading home, wondering whether anything useful has been achieved.

ICANN, founded in 1988 by the US Government to take over responsibility for key aspects of the internet’s technical architecture like domain names and IP addresses, has had a troubled history.

Many question its legitimacy, since it derives its authority from the US rather than the worldwide network community.  Others question its commitment to openness and dialogue, especially in relation to the UN-run Internet Governance Forum.

And others wonder if ICANN is really up to the job, pointing to its cumbersome bureaucracy, exemplified by the disastrous way it handled the proposal to create a new top level domain, .xxx.

After years of discussion the creation of this new domain, intended as a way of identifying pornographic websites to make them both easier to find and easier to avoid, was postponed because of objections from US politicians and then abandoned in March 2007.

Whatever criticisms there may be, ICANN is currently the lead authority on most aspects of the technical aspects of the internet, so trying to engage with it and make it more effective is the only real option for those concerned with the net’s future.

It is therefore reassuring that much  of the discussion in San Juan was related to transparency and accountability, looking at how the organisation can be improved.

Long-term improvements will be welcomed, but there is a more immediate problem for net users. ICANN is currently making some decisions that will have a massive impact on the net over the next few years, and we need to make sure that it takes into account the wider feelings of the whole community instead of responding solely to pressure from established interest groups.

These decisions concern the future of domain names, and in particular on the creation and management of the generic top-level domains, or gTLDs.

There are fifteen of these at the moment, including .com, .net and .info, but the process of adding new ones is made complex, bureaucratic and – as we have seen with .xxx – subject to political interference.

A recent report from an ICANN working group called for new domain names to be carefully regulated, and that names should be censored according to ‘legal norms relating to morality and public order’, ruling out rude, abusive or culturally sensitive words.

The idea that ICANN should be a global censor for the network worries cyber rights activist Wendy Seltzer, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School who used to work for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

In a series of well-argued and entertaining postings on her blog she has argued persuasively that we need more openness, more experimentation and more risk-taking with gTLDs as part of the policy-making process.

She believes that ICANN should set technical standards but stay away from acting as a moral guardian of the network.

‘Just as we couldn’t predict what applications or content would be successful on the Internet, but benefit from the ease with which innovators can experiment with a wide range, we’ll benefit if entrepreneurs can experiment with new TLDs without a lot of central pre-screening’.

Seltzer believes that any control over what is acceptable or not should be imposed at local level, by countries or even institutions, and I agree. If Saudi Arabia objects to the .allah domain or the Vatican city dislikes .jesus then they will be free to block them, but we should not limit the capabilities of the network just because of these sectional interests.

As she puts it, ‘rather than supporting a race to the bottom to adopt restrictions on the lines of the most restrictive government views of permissible expression (no human rights, sexuality, or “hate”), we must leave it to the governments to apply those restrictions at the edges too, in their own jurisdictions if they insist, but not at the center on all’.

This seems the only possible position to take.  Regulating the internet is technically feasible, as the governments of China, the US and the UK have all demonstrated in their different ways, but this can be handled locally. The core architecture should be as open as possible, both in terms of the technology and in terms of any restrictions on freedom of expression.

The United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights, adopted nearly sixty years ago, established what were considered fundamental freedoms, giving national governments the power to restrict them ‘solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society’.

We should expect the same from ICANN. The rules governing the internet should be universal and support freedom from the start, rather than giving every interest group, lobbying organisation and corrupt government a veto.

If we give in over domain names we will find it impossible to argue effectively over new developments in networking as they emerge.  We can’t know what great things are going to be invented in the coming years, and locking them into a politically controlled framework can only limit their potential.

Regulating the network to confirm with community standards and local laws is one thing, but limiting what it can do just in case it upsets someone is  short-sighted, dangerous and indefensible.

And while I may not like what you are saying, I’ll fight for your right to give it a domain name.

Bill’s Links

Meeting schedule:
Wendy Seltzer:
ICANN report (PDF):
Declaration of Human Rights: