ICANN vs. the World

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A rose by any other name may smell just as sweet, but if that name is an Internet top-level domain name, world governments may beg to differ.

The “.com” at the end of TIME.com is known as a top-level domain—or TLD—and you may be aware of others, including .net, .org, .edu, and even .ly for Libya. While there are over a hundred other country code TLDs like .uk and .jp, there are only 21 generic TLDs like .com, including the lesser known .travel and .museum. That’s about to change radically.

What TLDs exist is decided by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a small non-profit corporation that runs the Internet’s namespace under contract with the U.S. Government. After much deliberation, ICANN decided in 2008 to expand the number of generic TLDs, and later this month will begin the process of accepting applications for new domains.

While there is no technical limit to the number of TLDs that can be created, there may be a political one. Governments around the world are increasingly seeking a say over what new TLDs will and will not be allowed.

Governments Find Some Names Objectionable

If you wanted to register the web address gay.com, there’s no law to stop you. In fact, it exists. Free expression reigns under the current regime for registering web addresses. But what if you sought to establish a new .gay TLD?

“It is clear from conversations with government officials in a couple of conservative Arab countries that they object to .gay,” says Syracuse University professor and ICANN expert Milton Mueller.

That’s potentially bad news for dotGAY and the Dot Gay Alliance, two groups that plan to apply to run the .gay TLD. If governments have a veto over new TLDs, free expression could go out the window. Not only might Arab countries object to .gay, but one can imagine China interfering with .falungong or .tibet, and France and Germany blocking .nazi. (Falundafa.org, tibet.net, and nazi.org all exist.)

UN Pushes for Control of Internet Governance

Before 1998, the U.S. government completely controlled the Internet’s domain name system. As the Internet grew and became more commercial and international, total U.S. control was increasingly untenable. The U.S. could have turned over its Internet authority to an international body, like the UN’s International Telecommunication’s Union (ITU). Instead, the Clinton Administration privatized domain name governance. It did so precisely because it wanted to keep the Web’s critical naming system away from the stifling bureaucratic control of world governments.

ICANN was created as a private U.S. non-profit with an international board, and the U.S. Government’s naming authority was transferred to it. Although there have been some bumps along the way—notably ICANN’s rejection of a proposed .xxx domain—the private governance scheme has largely succeeded in preserving free expression online, allowing sites like gay.com and tibet.net to exist unmolested.

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