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article imageICAAN – Preventing Hatred v. Censorship of TLD Applications

By Sykos Masters     Jul 6, 2008 in Internet
With all the excitement over expansion of IP addresses to be expanded from 4-string to 6-string format, little has been reported on the current and proposed regulations to restrict new domain registration. Watchdogs are deeply concerned over censorship.
As the volume of information grows, so must its storage capacity. The same is true for information access. As each new 'member' of cyberspace seeks to stake a claim, the technology must react by expanding the 'available land' in cyberspace. The recent announcement that IP addresses will soon be available in 6-string format (IPv6) is good news as the number of available numeric addresses will multiply by a factor of more than 60,000.
An increase of this magnitude – from approx. 4.2 billion to 274 trillion – requires comparable action by the agency(ies) controlling the alphanumeric URLs that are available.
In late June of this year, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICAAN) adopted new guidelines (originally proposed in 2007) regarding the registration of new Top Level Domain names (gTLD). Many of the changes will benefit the ever-expanding population of cyberspace:
• increased internationalization through expanding alpha-strings to include non-Latin characters
• relaxing former restrictions on extensions, e.g. com, biz, org, to allow for more unique 'branding' of companies, countries, interests, etc.
• changes in Registrar requirements will attract more entities into the process, thereby lessening the impact of increased TLD applications on the current system
The above changes are still subject to the restrictions of technology and the current framework: e.g., 'reserved' words are still forbidden, TLDs cannot be incompatible with HTML and other cyber-processing languages, TLDs must continue to abide by prevailing national and international laws of Rights Protections.
All of these actions are expected and, to some extent, welcomed by industry professionals and critics alike. What is not so universally accepted, in fact unreported, is the level of non-transparency ingrained in the current application process. Watchdogs, such as IP Justice, are understandably concerned about two recommendations (full pdf) that have not received much attention (emphasis added):
6. Strings must not be contrary to generally accepted legal norms relating to morality and public order that are recognized under international principles of law. ... [followed with a summary of these principles]
20. An application will be rejected if an expert panel determines that there is substantial opposition to it from a significant portion of the community to which the string may be explicitly or implicitly targeted.
The coverage of IP Justice continues with extracts from 2 board members speaking out against these specific clauses. Said W. Seltzer, "[she] does not want to see ICANN put into the business of adjudicating or even delegating the adjudication of morality or public order or community support." A fellow board member, S. Crawford, provided some interesting background:
[The] idea was to figure out whether the private sector had the capability and resources to assume the important responsibilities related to the technical management of the DNS. ...the creation of ICANN, and the question before all of us, was whether this entity would be a good vessel for allowing the private sector to take the lead in the management of the Domain Name System.
And, in fact, the white paper in 1998 said that while international organizations may provide specific expertise or act as advisors to the new corporation, the U.S. continues to believe, as do most commenters, that neither national governments acting as sovereigns nor intergovernmental organizations acting as representatives of governments should participate in management of Internet names and addresses. ...
This wasn’t done out of enthusiasm for the free market alone. The idea was also to avoid having sovereigns use the Domain Name System for their own content, control, desires. To avoid having the Domain Name System used as a choke point for content.
The 'state' would argue that denying 'morally offensive' gTLDs is in the name of protecting their own citizens. It is clear that not all within the ICAAN board are comfortable with, what some perceive as, intrusion by the state into the process of of exchanging information. An excellent illustration of how this process has been hijacked in the past received limited media exposure in 2006. At that time (2005), ICAAN had applications for both 'xxx' and 'tel' extensions before it—this was the second attempt for 'xxx'. While 'xxx' was initially approved in 2005, lobbying efforts by the US-based Family Research Council were able to reverse that decision in 2006. According to this report, on 'ars Technica', thousands of complaints were received by various US government agencies in response to the 2005 decision. In the writer's, Ryan Paul, words, both the .xxx and .tel TLDs "[seem] to be [a] solution in search of a problem." One would have allowed for pornographic sites to have their own extensions, while the other now allows a common extension for people desiring a separate domain for their contact information.
On the basis of categorizing information, which is a primary purpose of gTLD registration, I see little difference between the two applications. However, one approval was reversed after extensive lobbying from an admittedly conservative organization while the other was left alone.
The future implications of this subjective process are potentially staggering, given that identical word strings have very different meanings, connotations, and acceptability between cultures and languages.
• 'ash' – in English it commonly refers to the remains after burning or a type of tree; in German it is the word for 'ass', as in a person's posterior.
• 'ex' – could easily refer to 'past' military, spouse, employee, and / or exchange, or execute.
• 'cos' – a commonly recognized mathematical abbreviation; also 'Gift of God' in certain Chinese dialects.
• 'dom' – a generic extension for 'domain' or something more specialized to BDSM culture?
You can see where the line not only gets fuzzy, but becomes difficult to navigate in determining what is and is not offensive in the global sense. Given that the stated purpose of ICAAN and other cyberspace-space agencies is to enable wider, more robust, and inclusive access to information, they should not allow themselves to become censors of material a priori. Any perceived need to censor material should be left to the country, locality, culture, or agency that is accessing the information.
Tools for just this purpose are already in wide usage: any recipient of information can block access to content based on the domain (name, extension, country of origin) and / or the numeric address. Corporations already use these tools to restrict their employees from using Facebook, MySpace, or accessing 'questionable' content while at work. Parental blocks are a common component of readily available personal computer security programs. In the extreme, a individual can always exercise personal responsibility and only visit those sites / domains that he or she knows to be trustworthy.
If limiting censorship is to be of any value, then the battle must be fought on all fronts. Allowing it to happen behind the closed confines of ICAAN (and other government entities), which are at the top of the process, cancels any progress made in the current arena of cyberspace.
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