Internet Core Neutrality: Drawing a Line in the Sand at ICANN

ICANN is a nonprofit organization less than a decade old that makes policy about the Internet’s Domain Name System (DNS).  This organization determines policy for registries of top-level domains (TLDs) such as ‘.com’ or ‘.net’, for registrars of second-level domains (2LDs) such as ‘‘ or ‘‘ and for the Root Server Operators whose computers tell the rest of the computers on the Internet what TLDs exist and where to find them.

A matter of concern only to techno/Inter-geeks, right?  Wrong.

While ICANN’s original mandate in 1998 was basically limited to making sure the DNS didn’t break due to technical and operational flaws, mission-creep at ICANN has expanded its reach well beyond that narrow technical realm and into the world of general public policy.  Current policy deliberations at ICANN are increasingly touching upon broad issues like personal privacy, crime-fighting, trademark enforcement, and morality and public order in general.

"But isn’t that stuff supposed to be addressed by existing public institutions, like sovereign national governments and international treaties?" you ask.

Well, that’s how it’s generally thought to work.  But ICANN doesn’t seem to think it has to play by the same rules as the rest of the globe.  For several years as ICANN got itself off the ground, nobody really paid much attention to it, other than some techie insiders and the National Information and Telecommunications Administration (NTIA) at the U.S. Department of Commerce, which has a contract with ICANN that gives it a patina of authority to make policy in its original narrow technical realm.

Over the nine years of its existence, ICANN’s budget has ballooned exponentially from a set of startup loans totaling barely over $1 million to a budget for the new fiscal year with projected revenues of over $49 million, mostly from fees from TLD registries and 2LD registrars.  And as the budget has grown, so have ICANN’s policy ambitions.

Over the last year or so, ICANN has been debating policy to expand the number of generic top-level domains (gTLDs) that it approves each year.  In the past it has approved a handful of new gTLDs, such as ‘.biz’ and ‘.jobs’ but the process for approving these applications has been cumbersome and ad hoc.  If the current policy on "New gTLDs" is approved, ICANN will begin approving many more such gTLDs, perhaps dozens or hundreds per year, and that is expected to change the market for gTLDs profoundly.

ICANN describes this on the web site for its upcoming board meeting in Los Angeles at the end of October: "New generic top-level domains may change the whole way we approach the Internet in the future."

"So what’s the big deal?  Sounds like a good idea to have more gTLDs."

Sure, but in the process there are threats by some ICANN policy-makers to incorporate criteria into the gTLD approval process well beyond technical and operational matters.  Under some of the proposals being discussed right now at ICANN, a trademark holder could contest a gTLD application if it is not in the trademark holder’s commercial interests.  Governments or other institutions could contest a gTLD application if they feel that the new gTLD is "immoral" or threatens "public order" or is politically
unacceptable for some reason.  In fact, if some group of institutions claim a community connection to the gTLD under application, they could oppose the application without being required to give any specific reason at all.

"Whoa.  That sounds like censorship!"  Yes, it sure does.  "But what authority does ICANN have to set itself up as a censor for a global network like the Internet?"  You might well ask.  "Can they really do this?"  It looks like they can.  

At the very least, they can establish this policy and then it would be up to the rest of the world to figure out how to contest it.  But the governance structure at ICANN is pretty complicated, vague and rather ad hoc in origin.  And its link to the U.S. government is fairly weak.  Working within ICANN’s governance structure is cumbersome and
resource-intensive.  It would be better to stop this in its tracks right now.

"Wait a minute.  This is just about domain names.  What’s the big deal?  As long as you have *some* domain to set up a web site or exchange email or use some other Internet application, don’t you have freedom of expression?"

This is where the slippery slope begins.  Once a censorship regime is set up to govern the global network, there is nothing intrinsic about ICANN’s operation that necessarily limits it to just censoring gTLDs.  This is a very new institution experiencing a high rate of growth and evolution, with exploding revenues as the market for domain names expands and the fees collected match the rate of expansion of new domains.  Once an institution like this is established, it becomes a prime candidate for expansion of its
policy domain.  2LDs, and "content" or "applications" become reasonable targets for regulation, especially since domain names have aspects of "content-ness" themselves, even if they exist primarily to serve as addresses.

The policy-making participants inside ICANN that want to censor gTLDs care about censoring content on the Internet generally, not just gTLDs.  As they maneuver to twist ICANN’s gTLD policy decisions to satisfy their special interests, they also have a great deal of influence to expand ICANN’s policy reach out beyond gTLDs to other realms where they wish to assert themselves.

"Okay, so I’m worried.  What can I do about it?  Is there some way that I can influence ICANN policy-making?"

Yes!  You can help.  There is a new coalition including some ICANN insiders and many others that care about ICANN policy that has formed recently, called Keep The Core Neutral.  "The Core" is the DNS system for which ICANN sets policy, and keeping it "Neutral" is about keeping censorship out of the Core at ICANN when the new policy goes into place.

The Keep The Core Neutral campaign has a petition that you can sign, either as an organization or as an individual, which will be presented to the ICANN Board as the New gTLD policy comes up for vote nearing the pending meeting in Los Angeles. When you sign the petition you join the coalition, and you can participate in other actions that may come up between now and then and help get the word out. Coalition members can participate in brainstorming on strategy for the campaign, and help with monitoring of the campaign as it grows.

The campaign web site is found at:

Dan Krimm is Campaign Director for the Keep The Core Neutral campaign and Global Policy Fellow at IP Justice, a founding member of the Keep The Core Neutral coalition and a member of ICANN’s Non-commercial Users Constituency.