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.

Government representatives from around the world sit on ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee, but as the name implies, their role is only advisory and policy decisions are ultimately made by the ICANN board. Recently, however, governments around the world have been demanding control over ICANN’s actions. There are increasing calls for domain name authority to be transferred to the ITU and the world governments that run it.

U.S. Resisting UN by Leaning on ICANN

Although it has contracted with ICANN to govern the domain name system, the U.S. Government still ultimately controls it. Talking about Internet freedom, Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner has said the U.S. is not too impressed with the prospect of UN control.

“We have a range of anxieties about throwing this issue into the United Nations,” said Posner. “We have great trepidation that if this became a UN-sponsored initiative, all the governments that have the greatest interest in regulating and controlling content and protecting against dissident speech in their own countries would be very loud voices.”

You might think, then, that the U.S. would stand up to foreign government and ITU encroachment on ICANN’s authority, but you would be wrong.

Last month the U.S. circulated a proposal that would have essentially given world governments a veto over any new proposed TLD “for any reason.” That proposal was ultimately softened under public pressure, but the Obama Administration continues to place pressure on ICANN to give governments more say over its policy decisions. If it’s too principled about free expression, the logic goes, ICANN and the U.S. may face overwhelming pressure to cede authority to the UN.

Uncertain Future

Internet freedom advocates have vowed to fight to preserve the Internet’s independent, non-governmental governance structure. Writing in Google’s public policy blog, Internet pioneer, former ICANN Chairman, and now Google “Chief Internet Evangelist” Vint Cerf blasted a UN committee’s decision to exclude non-governmental groups from a new working group on Internet governance.

“The current bottoms-up, open approach works—protecting users from vested interests and enabling rapid innovation,” he wrote. “Let’s fight to keep it that way.”

Time will tell how this saga turns out, but time may be running out for ICANN. The non-profit’s contract with the U.S. Government is up for renewal in September, and that will likely serve as another pressure point to demand more government control over what names are allowed.

Jerry Brito is a contributor to TIME. Find him on Twitter at @jerrybrito. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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