On Sunday, the New York Times ran a story by Natasha Singer on the ongoing generic top-level domain (gTLD) expansion. Singer correctly notes that there is a great deal of skepticism that the new gTLDs will add social value. After all, what is the social value of .book when there is already .book.com?
Singer also raises cultural, expression, and competition concerns:
There’s a larger issue at stake, however. Advocates of Internet freedom contend that such an expanded address system effectively places online control over powerful commercial and cultural interests in the hands of individual companies, challenging the very idea of an open Internet. Existing generic domains, like .net and .com, overseen by Verisign Inc., a domain registry, have an open-use policy; that means consumers can buy domain names ending in .com directly from retail registrars like GoDaddy. With a new crop of applicants, however, Icann initially accepted proposals for closed or restricted generic domains, a practice that could limit competing views and businesses.
It’s true that there is concern over “closed generics,” but I think there is a deeper problem than anti-competitiveness that could emerge from TLD expansion.
Suppose that, as anticipated, TLD registries are able to restrict the scope of the sites that can use their domain name. For example, Google intends to restrict .app to uses related to (Android?) applications. These restrictions could make a great deal of economic sense—owning a .app domain name could function as a certification of a certain level of quality.
Putting aside any anti-competitive concern, restricted TLDs raise the question of who, exactly, is the final arbiter. Let’s suppose that Google rejects an application for a .app domain name for whatever reason. Can the rejected applicant appeal? And to whom?
Google is a Delaware corporation based in California. ICANN is incorporated in California. I can imagine lawsuits in Delaware or California over domain name rejections.
But the scarier possibility is that ICANN will try to resolve these disputes internally, possibly with input from its Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC). This would be problematic because the GAC is not known for its adherence to any sort of rule of law.
If GAC intervention in .app doesn’t worry you, consider the .gay TLD. At least one vision of .gay is as a safe online space for the global gay community. Suppose that the .gay registry, after winning its bid and publicly setting out content guidelines, rejects sites that engage in hate speech against gays. If disputes over such rejections end up in the GAC, then that could be disastrous, as countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran have objected to the mere existence of the .gay TLD.
We can debate whether restricted TLDs should be allowed in the first place, but we should all agree that if they are, the GAC should have no role in policing the content restrictions that registries impose to maximize the value of the namespace. The last thing we need is the world’s governments making policy about expression online.