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Is .gay now safe from government blocking?

Kevin Murphy, March 6, 2011, 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.

Government domain veto watered down

Kevin Murphy, February 24, 2011, Domain Registries

A US proposal to grant governments the right of veto over new top-level domains has been watered down by ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee.

Instead of giving the GAC the ability to block any TLD application on public policy grounds, the GAC’s official position would now allow the ICANN board of directors to make the final decision.

The move means the chances of a .gay application being blocked, to use the most obvious example, are much lower.

The original US position, which was was leaked last month, read:

Any GAC member may raise an objection to a proposed string for any reason. If it is the consensus position of the GAC not to oppose objection raised by a GAC member or members, ICANN shall reject the application.

If this policy had been adopted, all potentially controversial TLDs could have found themselves pawns of the GAC’s back-room negotiations.

A petition against the US proposal has so far attracted almost 300 signatures.

The newly published official GAC position is based on the language in the US document, but it has been tempered substantially. It now reads:

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.

GAC advice could also suggest measures to mitigate GAC concerns. For example, the GAC could advise that additional scrutiny and conditions should apply to strings that could impact on public trust (e.g. ‘.bank’).

In the event the Board determines to take an action that is not consistent with GAC advice pursuant to Article XI Section 2.1 j and k, the Board will provide a rationale for its decision.

This still gives the GAC a key role in deciding the fate of TLD applications, but it’s one that can be overruled by the ICANN board.

To use the .gay example, the GAC could still advise ICANN that the string has been objected to by a handful of backward nations, but it would be up to the ICANN board to decide whether homophobia is a useful policy to embrace in the DNS.

The GAC proposals, which you can read here, are not policy yet, however.

ICANN and the GAC will meet in Brussels next week to figure out what GAC advice is worth implementing in the new TLDs program.

UPDATE: via @gTLDNews, I’ve discovered that US Department of Commerce assistant secretary Lawrence Strickling recently addressed this topic in a speech.

He seems to believe that ICANN “would have little choice but to reject the application” if the GAC raised a consensus objection. According to his prepared remarks, he said:

We have proposed that the ICANN Board use the already-existing GAC process to allow governments collectively to submit objections to individual applications to top level domains. The GAC already operates on a consensus basis. If the GAC reaches a consensus view to object to a particular application, that view would be submitted to the Board.

The Board, in its role to determine if there is consensus support for a given application (as it is expected to do for all matters coming before it), would have little choice but to reject the application.

Does he have a point?

ICANN has never explicitly rejected GAC advice; the forthcoming San Francisco meeting is probably going to be the first time it does so.

My reading of the ICANN bylaws is that the board is able to reject GAC advice whenever it wants, as long as it provides its rationale for doing so.

ICANN urged to kill new TLD morality veto

Kevin Murphy, September 17, 2010, Domain Services

ICANN has been asked to eliminate references to “morality and public order” objections from its new top-level domain application process.

A cross-constituency working group has advised ICANN’s board of directors to scrap the term and to ensure that whatever replaces it does not enable individual governments to veto new TLDs based on their own local laws.

The so-called “MOPO” or “MAPO” part of the Draft Applicant Guidebook attracted criticism because ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee seemed to want to use it to grant themselves the right to block any TLD application they deemed too controversial.

The fear from the GAC was that if nations started blocking whole TLDs at their borders, it could ultimately lead to the fragmentation of the DNS root.

The fear elsewhere was that some edgy TLD applications, such as .gay or .sex, could be rejected due to the unilateral objections of backward regimes, harming freedom of speech.

But if ICANN incorporates the working group’s new recommendations into the next version of the DAG, that probably won’t be allowed to happen.

The group this week forwarded an interim report to the ICANN board for its consideration. While incomplete, it already carries a few recommendations that managed to find consensus.

Notably, the report recommends that, “National law not based on international principles should not be a valid ground for an objection”, which would seem to scupper any chances of Uganda or the Holy See blocking .gay, for example.

The working group has so far failed to reach consensus on how governmental objections should be registered and processed, but one option is:

The Applicant Guidebook should allow individual governments to file a notification (not an objection) that a proposed TLD string is contrary to their national law. The intention is that an “objection” indicates an intent to block, but a “notification” is not an attempt to block, but a notification to the applicant and the public that the proposed string is contrary to the government’s perceived national interest. However, a national law objection by itself should not provide sufficient basis for a decision to deny a TLD application.

The working group, which counted a few GAC members among its number, has managed to unanimously agree that the awkward term “morality and public order” should be dumped.

One possible contender to replace it is “Objections Based on General Principles of International Law”.

The group has also discussed the idea that a supermajority vote could be required if the board decides to reject a TLD application based on a MOPO objection.

The report is a work in progress. The working group expects to send an updated document to the ICANN board shortly before its retreat later this month.

Whether any of this will be acceptable to the GAC as a whole is up for debate.

Governments want morality veto on new TLDs

Kevin Murphy, August 6, 2010, Domain Registries

ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee wants to be able to kill off new top-level domain applications on cultural and religious grounds.

The GAC has finally broken its radio silence on the “morality and public order” or “MOPO” issue that was such a hot topic at the Brussels meeting in June.

A letter to ICANN (pdf), sent by Canadian GAC chair Heather Dryden, leaves little room for doubt where the GAC stands.

The GAC firmly believes that the absence of any controversial strings in the current universe of top-level domains (TLDs) to date contributes directly to the security and stability of the domain name and addressing system (DNS) and the universal resolvability of the system.

As a matter of principle… the GAC believes that the object of stability, security, and universal resolvability must be preserved in the course of expanding the DNS with the addition of new top-level domains.

This is actually quite powerful stuff.

The GAC is basically saying that no new TLDs should be introduced that would be unacceptable to the lowest common denominator world government.

Think Uganda, asked to make a call on .gay.

Think about any oppressed ethnic group without a territory that wants to apply for its own TLD.

The GAC wants ICANN to create a process for governments and others to object to TLD applications on religious, cultural, linguistic, national and geographical grounds.

It could even result in .xxx being objected to, even though it’s technically part of the 2005 round of new TLDs – the GAC wants the objection process to apply to “all pending and future TLDs”.

Contested TLDs by the social media numbers

There are a surprising number of new TLD proposals with two or more would-be applicants. Quite a few are also playing the social media marketing game to win support.

A quick and dirty analysis of the contested TLDs show that .gay and .eco have the largest show of popular support, while some TLDs have seemingly no following at all.

The numbers are not earth-shattering, but I’ve made the table now so I may as well share it.
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