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ICANN boss warns against “content policing” calls

Kevin Murphy, October 20, 2015, Domain Policy

ICANN should resist attempts to turn the organization into a content regulator responsible for fighting piracy, counterfeiting and terrorism.

That’s according to CEO Fadi Chehade, speaking in Dublin yesterday at the opening ceremony of ICANN’s 54th public meeting.

His remarks have already solicited grumbles from members of the intellectual property community, which are eager for ICANN to take a more assertive role against registries and registrars.

Speaking to a packed auditorium, Chehade devoted a surprisingly large chunk of his opening address to the matter of content policing, which he said was firmly outside of ICANN’s remit.

He presented this diagram, breaking up the internet into three layers. ICANN plays in the central “logical” section but has no place in the top “societal” segment, he said.

ICANNs remit

“Where does ICANN’s role start and where does ICANN’s role stop?” Chehade posed. “It’s very clear Our remit starts and stops in this logical yellow layer. We do not have any responsibility in the upper layer.”

“The community has spoken, and it is important to underline that in every possible way, ICANN’s remit is not in the blue layer, it is not in the economic/societal layer,” he said. This is a technical organization.”

That basically means that ICANN has no responsibility to determine which web sites are good and which are bad. That’s best left to others such as the courts and governments.

Chehade recounted an anecdote about a meeting with a national president who demanded that ICANN shut down a list of terrorism-supporting web sites.

“We have no responsibility to render judgement about which sites are terrorists,” he said, “which sites are the good pharmacies, which sites are the bad pharmacies, which sites are comitting crimes, which sites are infringing copyrights…”

“When people ask us to render judgement on matters in the upper layer, we can’t.”

With that all said, Chehade added that ICANN should not shirk its duties as part of the ecosystem, whether through voluntary measures at registries and registrars or via contractual enforcement.

“Once determinations are made, how do we respond the these?” he said. “I hope, voluntarily.”

He gave the example of credit card companies that voluntarily stop doing business with web sites that have been reported to be involved in crime or spam.

The notion of registrars adhering to a set of voluntary principles was first floated by ICANN’s chief compliance officer, Allen Grogan, in a blog post earlier this month.

It was the one bone he threw to IP interests in a determination that otherwise came down firmly on the side of registrars.

Grogan had laid out a minimum set of actions registrars must carry out when they receive abuse reports, none of which contained a requirement to suspend or delete domain names.

The Intellectual Property Constituency appeared to greet Chehade’s speech with cautious optimism, but members are still pushing for ICANN to take a stricter approach to contract compliance.

In a session between the IPC and the ICANN board in Dublin this morning, ICANN was asked to make these hypothetical voluntary measures enforceable.

Marc Trachtenberg disagreed with Chehade’s credit card company example.

“The have an incentive to take action, which is the avoidance of future potential costs,” he said. “That similar incentive does not exist with respect to registries and registrars.”

“In order for any sort of voluntary standards to be successful or useful, there have to be incentives for the parties to actually comply with those voluntary standards,” he said.

“One possibility among many is a situation where those registries and registrars that don’t comply with the voluntary standards are potentially subject to an ICANN compliance action,” he said.

It’s pretty clear that this issue is an ongoing one.

Chehade warned in his address yesterday that calls for ICANN to increase its policing powers will only increase when and if its IANA contract is finally divorced from US government oversight.

Grogan will host a roundtable tomorrow at 10am Dublin time to discuss possible voluntary mechanisms that could be created to govern abuse.

Grogan hopeful of content policing clarity within “a few weeks”

ICANN may be able to provide registrars, intellectual property interests and others with clarity about when domain names should be suspended as early as next month, according to compliance chief Allen Grogan.

With ICANN 53 kicking off in Buenos Aires this weekend, Grogan said he intends to meet with a diverse set of constituents in order to figure out what the Registrar Accreditation Agreement requires registrars to do when they receive abuse complaints.

“I’m hopeful we can publish something in the next few weeks,” he told DI. “It depends to some extent on what direction the discussions take.”

The discussions center on whether registrars are doing enough to take down domains that are being used, for example, to host pirated content or to sell medicines across borders.

Specifically at issue is section 3.18 of the 2013 RAA.

It requires registrars to take “reasonable and prompt steps to investigate and respond appropriately” when they receive abuse reports.

The people who are noisiest about filing such reports — IP owners and pharmacy watchdogs such as LegitScript — reckon “appropriate action” means the domain in question should be suspended.

The US Congress heard these arguments in hearings last month, but there were no witnesses from the ICANN or registrar side to respond.

Registrars don’t think they should be put in the position of having to turn off what may be a perfectly legitimate web site due to a unilateral complaint that may be flawed or frivolous.

ICANN seems to be erring strongly towards the registrars’ view.

“Whatever the terms of the 2013 RAA mean, it can’t really be interpreted as a broad global commitment for ICANN to enforce all illegal activity or all laws on the internet,” Grogan told DI.

“I don’t think ICANN is capable of that, I don’t think we have the expertise or resources to do that, and I don’t think the ICANN multistakeholder community has ever had that discussion and delegated that authority to ICANN,” he said.

CEO Fadi Chehade recently told the Washington Post that it isn’t ICANN’s job to police web content, and Grogan has expanded on that view in a blog post last week.

Grogan notes that what kind of content violates the law varies wildly from country to country — some states will kill you for blasphemy, in some you can get jail time for denying the Holocaust, in others political dissent is a crime.

“Virtually everybody I’ve spoken with has said that is far outside the scope of ICANN’s remit,” he said.

However, he’s leaving some areas open for discussion,

“There are some constituents, including some participants in the [Congressional] hearing — from the intellectual property community and LegitScript — who think there’s a way to distinguish some kinds of illegal activities from others,” he said. “That’s a discussion I’m willing to have.”

The dividing line could be substantial risk to public health or activities that are broadly, globally deemed to be illegal. Child abuse material is the obvious one, but copyright infringement — where Grogan said treaties show “near unanimity” — could be too.

So is ICANN saying it’s not the content police except when it comes to pharmacies and intellectual property?

“No,” said Grogan. “I’m saying I’m willing to engage in that dialogue and have that conversation with the community to see if there’s consensus that some activities are different to others.”

“In a multistakeholder model I don’t think any one constituency should control,” he said.

In practical terms, this all boils down to 3.18 of the RAA, and what steps registrars must take to comply with it.

It’s a surprisingly tricky one even if, like Grogan, you’re talking about “minimum criteria” for compliance.

Should registrars, for example, be required to always check out the content of domains that are the subject of abuse reports? It seems like a no-brainer.

But Grogan points out that even though there could be broad consensus that child abuse material should be taken down immediately upon discovery, in many places it could be illegal for a registrar employee to even check the reported URL, lest they download unwanted child porn.

Similarly, it might seem obvious that abuse reports should be referred to the domain’s registrant for a response. But what of registrars owned by domain investors, where registrar and registrant are one and the same?

These and other topics will come up for discussion in various sessions next week, and Grogan said he’s hopeful that decisions can be made that do not need to involve formal policy development processes or ICANN board action.