Turns out the internet isn’t all about porn. Just kidding, it mostly is. But underneath the debate sparked by the .XXX domain question at last week’s international website regulatory conference are a series of fundamental issues about internet freedom of expression, the process for determining what new URLs will be on offer, the tension between corporate and public interest, and inter-country inequality.
Toronto is ground zero for these domain debates. It’s where this week the international domain regulatory body, the Internet Corporate for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) met to address applications for new generic top-level domains (gTLDs), which are the suffixes of internet addresses.
The conflicts at play are outlined in two recent ICANN-related conference panels on new generic top-level domains (gTLDs). “Controversial Top-Level Domain Names, Freedom of Expression and Intellectual Property Rights” was hosted by the Noncommercial Users Constituency (NCUC) subgroup of ICANN in the days leading up to the conference and “Recent Developments in Domain Name Space” was hosted at the conference proper this past Sunday and featured Michele Jourdan, the Manager of New gTLD Communications for ICANN.
The good news story
The ultimate goal of the new top-level domain process is to increase choice and competition in the world of websites. To a greater extent, that is the purpose of ICANN. They have occasionally been releasing handfuls of new ones, such as .biz and .info, but this new round represents a significant increase of nearly 2000 applications for new domains.
“It’s interesting times ahead,” said Jourdan during her presentation.
The new domains will allow a wider variety of characters outside the current ones, which are largely based on the American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII) computer language, which is biased toward the Latin alphabet. New domains will be available in a much broader range of character sets – for example Chinese, Arabic and Cyrillic – so that top-level endings of the domains will now match the characters used in the first part of the URLs.
Freedom of expression concerns
Freedom of domain expression is a hot-button issue. ICANN’s current process for domain applications includes a significant subjective component. After ICANN receives the application and processes it – they can at this point refuse the application based on their own, somewhat objective evaluation guidelines – the application information is posted online for public comment.
According to panelist Milton Mueller, a professor at the Syracuse University School of Information Studies and a founder of the Internet Governance Project, there is a censoring impact of crowd-sourcing portions of the domain application approval process that can result in mob mentality.
“The implied standard here is, if enough people make enough noise, they can block an application for any reason. It doesn’t have to be specified. It doesn’t have to be illegal. It can simply be threatened by the fact that a lot of people don’t like it. Now to people who believe in freedom of expression, that whole standard, the community veto standard is completely problematic. It’s anti-freedom at its core.”
Protecting the public interest
In theory, the increase in the supply of domain endings should reduce the demand or for any certain or specific ones; an increase in options should reduce competition. But more domain suffixes may actually create more conflict between corporate and public interests. Rather than arguing over a single website URL, the fights will be over entire gTLD sections of the internet. The stakes with gTLDs are far higher than for individual sites within the .com or .ca pre-established gTLD.
The .patagonia tug of war is a good example. American retailer Patagonia Inc. has submitted an application for .patagonia, despite it also being the name of a region in South America straddling Argentina and Chile. Argentina’s representative to ICANN has understandably objected to the application, and has spoken out about a region’s rights to possession of their gTLD.
Panelist Philip Corwin, a lawyer from the Internet Commerce Association, expressed anti-trust concerns about the ability of leading internet search providers and web giants like Google and Amazon to control a disproportionate amount of domain digital real estate.
In his oped for the Domain Name News, “New gTLDs: Competition or Concentration? Innovation or Domination?”, Corwin outlines the danger of consolidating popular domain endings in the hands of a few.
“The bids by [Amazon and Google] to acquire new domain names such as ‘.book,’ ‘.shop’ and ‘.movie’ renewed fears among competitors that a powerful few will dominate the Internet marketplace of the future…If Internet users embrace the new domains, the companies that control them could bear considerable influence on Web traffic.”
But corporations are not the only interest to balance. Governments can also act as roadblocks to increasing internet choice and competition. Some more restrictive governments may block certain top-level domains entirely, which can also be referred to as taking “fragmentary” or “cessation” actions.
Moreover, some governments struggle with the technical components of the international regulatory regime said panelist and ICANN board member Bertrand de la Chapelle.
“One of the big challenges is that today the processes that are in place in the intermediaries or in the platforms, the processes that are used by the governments, are usually not documented enough, transparent enough, accountable, and worst of all – or most important of all – they are not well interoperable.”
But countries do not necessarily lag by choice. There is an historic socio-economic, linguistic and regional dimension to internet technology development. These biases continue to manifest in ICANN and its processes, for example, as previously mentioned in terms of the lack of alphabet character diversity. Similarly, the gTLD application regions of origins are telling. According to Jourdan, of the 1930 applications received during the last application window, only 17 were from Africa and only 24 were from Latin America. Europe and North America submitted 675 and 911 respectively.
What it all means
There seems to be general consensus among the digital classes that ICANN has the authority to continue and develop norms for assigning internet names and numbers. Having one established internet regime, no matter how much room there may be for improvement, is helpful to provide a single, credible forum to debate these crucial contemporary issues. The next job is increasing the diversity of voices in that forum.
There is still much to be done by way of reducing the commercial biases of ICANN and its processes, as well as creating more objective and transparent processes. To paraphrase from Professor Mueller, if ICANN is going to have a bias, then let it be for liberal democratic principles.
Those interested in promoting the public interest of domain assignment can visit the NCUC membership page.
The Noncommercial Users Constituency (NCUC) is the home for civil society organizations and individuals in the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) Generic Names Supporting Organization (GNSO). The NCUC is a Constituency within the Noncommercial Stakeholder Group (NCSG) at ICANN. With real voting power in ICANN's policy making and Board selection, it develops and supports positions that favor noncommercial communication and activity on the Internet. The NCUC is open to noncommercial organizations and individuals involved in education, community networking, public policy advocacy, development, promotion of the arts, children's welfare, religion, consumer protection, scientific research, human rights and many other areas. I agree to advocate a non-commercial public-interest position.
Denise Brunsdon is a JD/MBA candidate at Western University.