I’m at the ICANN public meeting in Los Angeles this week. This is my first time at ICANN, so I’m going to be giving you my impressions of the whole thing over the next few days. And there are some interesting cultural, privacy and operational issues that will be considered.
ICANN will vote on how new gTLD (generic top level domain)
names will be added in the future, what to do about the privacy of domain name
registrants regarding the WHOIS process, and how to deal with Internationalized Domain Names, the process of translating names
into such languages as Arabic and Chinese. The later issue is the impetus for
the title of this meeting, “My Name, My Language, My Internet.”
ICANN is the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and
Numbers, and is responsible for the global coordination of the Internet’s
system of domain names (like .org, .museum and country codes like .UK). There are almost 1500 attendees at this meeting in the LAX Hilton. That’s
right, beautiful LAX airport! After past meetings in
Juan, Lisbon, Sao Paulo, and Marrakech, I get to go to the one
just minutes from LA’s airport. Great.
Vint Cerf opened up the meeting. This is his last meeting as
Chairman of the Board of ICANN. He’s been on the Board for eight years.
Transparency and accountability are still important buzzwords here. Assistant Secretary for Communications at NITA, John Kneur and ICANN’s CEO, Paul Twomey, both spoke to the need for making sure that ICANN is sufficiently open to the public and all stakeholders.
The major topic for today concerns the introduction of new gTLDs to
supplement (or compete against) existing ones like .com, .biz, .mobi, and
.travel. ICANN’s Generic Names Supporting Organization Council (GNSO) has a
proposal for this process. From ICANN’s website:
The process for the introduction of new generic top-level
domains (gTLDs) is central to fostering choice and competition in domain registration
services, and as such is significant to the promotion of ICANN’s core values.
The evolution of the namespace toward enhanced diversity of services and
service providers must be planned and managed effectively to preserve the
security, stability, reliability, and global interoperability of the Internet.
In particular, what should be ICANN’s role to judge new TLDs? Some want ICANN to have little discretion and few upfront requirements. Others want a rigid evidentiary process. The GNSO says that it has considered both extremes, and have come up somewhere in the middle.
There a lot of reasons why we don’t just want anyone to propose and any kind of new TLD. First, whoever proposes a new gTLD registry should have the necessary financial, organization, and technical capabilities. Domain names are just one piece of the larger Internet puzzle, and if one piece doesn’t fit well, it negatively affects the Internet’s overall operation.
In addition, we can’t just have any TLD name, for two main reasons. For one, new TLDs can’t be too similar to existing ones. If a domain name string confuses consumers, this is obviously not a good thing, and may tread on one’s trademark rights.
Furthermore, we also don’t want derogatory names that that offend cultural sensibilities. Who really wants to see .nazi for instance? But how we deal with this is contentious. We can have ICANN do this a priori, or we can be sure that many governments will do this through ex post censorship. For free speech proponents, neither is the best case scenario.
So, given all this, why not have ICANN make initial threshold determinations? Some say it’s beyond ICANN’s technical scope, and doing so turns it into more of a governmental body. Others say ICANN is limiting free expression. I hear these concerns loud and clear; as much as possible, we need to keep ICANN’s role to a technical one to limit the potential that it won’t act like (or be taken over by) governments and enact social policy.
But we definitely need ICANN to make a priori determinations so that new gTLDs don’t confuse consumers. And it may also be best that ICANN reserve the right to not sanction certain TLDs. As counterintuitive as it may seem, a gTLD review process that considers intellectual property–and even cultural determinations–at the beginning may better allow ICANN to focus on just technical aspects once that domain is up and running.