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Is .gay now safe from government blocking?

Kevin Murphy, March 6, 2011, 18:33:29 (UTC), Domain Policy

What are the chances of a .gay top-level domain being added to the internet, given the current state of play in the talks between ICANN and governments?

I think they’re looking pretty good.

While the details have yet to be ironed out, it’s looking like ICANN’s favored method for handling government objections to so-called “sensitive strings” would probably let a .gay slip through.

As you may recall, the ICANN Governmental Advisory Committee had proposed a mechanism for objecting to TLD strings that said in part:

Any GAC member may raise an objection to a proposed string for any reason. The GAC will consider any objection raised by a GAC member or members, and agree on advice to forward to the ICANN Board.

The ICANN board would then be able to treat this advice in the same way its bylaws allow it to treat any GAC advice – it would be free to disregard it, if it had a good reason.

ICANN has seemingly agreed that this process is fair, but has added its own caveats. This is what chair Peter Dengate Thrush just forwarded to GAC chair Heather Dryden (pdf):

A procedure for GAC review will be incorporated into the new gTLD process. The GAC may review the posted applications and provide advice to the ICANN Board. As discussed with the GAC, such advice would be provided within the 45-day period after posting of applications, with documentation according to accountability and transparency principles including whether the advice from the GAC is supported by a consensus of GAC members (which should include identification of the governments raising/supporting the objection).

While it’s certainly a concession to the GAC’s request to be allowed to provide advice about potentially objectionable strings, I think the addition of “transparency principles” is important.

The GAC’s original proposal would have maintained the black-box approach to advice-making that currently characterizes its role in ICANN. It reaches consensus in private.

For example, all we know about the GAC’s opposition to the .xxx TLD application is that “several governments” object to it. We don’t (officially, at least) know which governments.

Complicating matters, the GAC believes that referring to this minority position in one of its official Communiques makes it consensus “advice” on .xxx that ICANN must consider.

If ICANN’s new transparency requirements had been applied to the .xxx application, it would make the call it has to make next week – whether to reject the GAC advice and approve .xxx – much more well-informed.

Returning to .gay, if the GAC is going to be obliged to name (and, depending on your perspective, shame) the governments that officially object to the string, it leaves a lot less room for back-room horse-trading leading to amorphous “consensus” positions.

Let’s say, for example, that Saudi Arabia, Iran and the United Arab Emirates (three countries where the death penalty still applies to active homosexuals) were to object to the string.

How much support would that move receive from governments in less repressive parts of the world?

Which relatively liberal Western governments would be willing to put their names to a document that essentially implements homophobia in the DNS? Very few, I would imagine.

For such an objection to gather broader support there would have to be a real risk of “root fragmentation” – the threat that the Saudis et al could decide that, rather than blocking .gay, it would be easier to divorce themselves from ICANN entirely and set up their own competing DNS root.

But let’s remember that by the time .gay is live and available to block, there’s a good chance that .xxx – equally opposed by several nations – will have been in the root for a couple of years. The practice of gTLD blocking at the national level may well be the norm by that point.

So, let’s now say that the GAC’s advice, stating an objection to .gay and naming the limited number of objectors, is forwarded to the ICANN board. What happens then?

Absent some kind of objective scoring system, directors would each have to make a subjective decision. Do I want to give TLD veto power to a narrow, homogeneous subset of nations? Do I want lowest common denominator morality to dictate global internet policy?

I’d like to think that, faced with such a choice, most ICANN directors would vote with their consciences. I hope I’m not being naïve.

This is a scenario I’m exploring hypothetically here, of course, but these are the kinds of decisions that may have to be made for real over the coming few years.

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