The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which makes policy governing the Internet’s Domain Name System, recently held its 30th International Public Meeting in Los Angeles. ICANN has stumbled into serious controversy as it threatens to establish policies for systematic censorship of generic top-level domains ("gTLDs" such as ‘.com’ or ‘.org’), and it left these issues unresolved as it ended the week with a meeting of the Board of Directors on Friday, November 2nd.
ICANN has approved only a small number of new gTLD names over the nine years of its existence, and it has done so in a largely ad hoc fashion. During this time various people have called for the addition of many new gTLDs in order to create more competition in the domain name market. ICANN policy-makers have been considering how to formalize the gTLD approval process to enable this market expansion, and in the process they have proposed procedures that are very troubling to many free expression advocates.
In September, ICANN’s Generic Name Supporting Organization (GNSO), which develops gTLD policy at ICANN, delivered a report to the ICANN Board of Directors containing several recommendations that would establish criteria for rejecting applications for new gTLD names on the basis of expressive properties of the character strings. The proposed policy would go beyond merely technical and operational criteria for operating a gTLD registry business, and allow gTLDs to be rejected on the basis of political criteria such as "morality" or "public order." It also sets up a challenge process that opens the door to suppression or appropriation of a gTLD according to objections by self-defined entities claiming a community interest in the gTLD name. This policy was alarming to many free expression advocates, and motivated a grassroots campaign to object to it.
The ‘Keep The Core Neutral’ Coalition (KTCN) is a group of over 250 organizations and individuals that have signed a petition urging ICANN to refrain from including these criteria in the new gTLD policy. The petition reads, in part: "As new generic top-level domain name space emerges and policy choices are made about how ideas may be expressed at the Internet’s top level, we ask ICANN to keep the core neutral of non-technical disputes and choose policies that respect freedom of expression and innovation in the new domain space." KTCN argues that ICANN is an inappropriate organization to be making political decisions such as proposed in the GNSO report, especially in cases where there is no global consensus on political issues (like cultural standards and civil liberties) and no integrated global jurisdiction (such as trademark rights). Rather, ICANN should not pre-empt legitimate local jurisdictions by inventing an unprecedented system of "global law" that is not politically accountable to the general public.
Coming into last week’s meeting, it was expected that the Board could decide to vote on the GNSO report as early as its meeting on Friday, to adopt it as ICANN policy and begin implementation by staff. As a result, free expression advocates including KTCN were worried that this policy might be pushed through without appropriate consideration of their concerns. On Monday, ICANN arranged a six-hour workshop on new gTLD policy, with several presentations discussing the GNSO report, and an open microphone for public comments. Many comments were made objecting to the censorship provisions in the report, and it became clear that there was still considerable controversy surrounding this policy.
On Thursday, there was a final public forum that included a short session of open microphone toward the end where the KTCN petition was formally presented for consideration by the Board prior to its meeting the following day. As of that point in time, the petition had 265 signatories with 84 organizations and 181 individuals across 37 countries. This level and diversity of public input into ICANN affairs is unusual and seemed to make an impact on the Board, as it decided not to vote on the policy on Friday and instead, in a unanimous resolution, instructed ICANN staff to "continue working on implementation analysis and to come back to the board and community as soon as feasible with a report on implementation issues no later than the ICANN board meeting in January 2008."
In light of this time extension, KTCN has kept the petition open and will deliver it to the Board with final results before it decides to vote on the matter. The next public meeting will be held in New Delhi, India, from February 10th to the 15th, though the Board could decide to vote on gTLD policy before then.
One significant development at the Friday Board meeting may have an impact on the gTLD policy process: longtime Chairman of the Board Vint Cerf stepped down from his position due to term limits in ICANN’s bylaws. The new Chairman elected to replace him was Peter Dengate Thrush, an IP lawyer from New Zealand and ICANN Board member since 2005. KTCN views Dengate Thrush’s election with cautious optimism, as he was one of a minority of Board members who voted not to reject a controversial application for a ‘.xxx’ gTLD earlier this year, and may be sympathetic to the concerns of free expression advocates. In the meantime, KTCN encourages organizations and individuals who have not yet signed the petition to join the coalition and increase the size and diversity of its collective voice. Those who have already signed on can help by spreading the word and helping to enlist more supporters in this cause.
Dan Krimm is a Global Policy Fellow at IP Justice and Campaign Director for the Keep The Core Neutral Coalition. IP Justice is a founding member of the Keep The Core Neutral Coalition and a member of ICANN’s Noncommercial Users Constituency.