“Keep the core neutral”
posted by Jonathan Zittrain
Internet founding parent David Clark was a guest in my cyberlaw class in the fall of 1997. We talked about Internet governance, although I don’t think anyone (including us) called it that yet. ICANN wasn’t a gleam in the U.S. Department of Commerce’s eye, but even then the amazing state of the domain name system — how it came into being, how it was managed — made for an extraodinary story.
Now lawyers and diplomats are all over the subject, and ICANN has ballooned into a multi-million dollar organization. I’ve argued elsewhere that arguments about ICANN and domain names don’t much matter except to those who want a piece of the financial pie, and I think predictions of domain names’ unimportance have largely proven true. Sure, IBM would not be happy if it lost ibm.com, but it’s at no risk of having that happen, and the fact is that most people find things by Googling them than by entering a domain name. So long as search engines can crawl to various destinations, a world in which we couldn’t use mnemonic domain names wouldn’t be much different than the one we have now.
With that background, I’ve been thinking about the global petition to “keep the core neutral” signed by fellow travelers like Wendy Seltzer, Larry Lessig, and David Post. Is it something worth signing?
The petition itself reads a bit vague to me:
Everyone has the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas without interference through any media, including cyberspace.
As the new generic top-level domain name space emerges and policy choices are made about how ideas may be expressed at the Internet’s top-level, we ask ICANN to keep the core neutral of non-technical disputes and choose policies that respect freedom of expression and permit innovation in the new domain name space.
Encouraging the free flow of information is a foundational principle of public policy decisions related to information and communication technology. Freedom of expression rights, which are fundamental in an Information Society, foster democratic participation, individual empowerment, and economic development.
Cyberspace remains a unique and special place that bridges ancient divisions, where diverse communities interact readily, and all views are welcome. But only if these attributes are valued by policymakers who set Internet governance rules and incorporated into policies about how ideas may be expressed in domain names.
We ask that ICANN stay within its technical mandate and refrain from embedding particular national, regional, moral, or religious policy objectives into global rules over the use of language in domain names. It would be dangerous “mission-creep” for ICANN to adjudicate between conflicting policy objectives and set global standards for expression that are enforced through ICANN’s technical function. Please do not allow ICANN to become a convenient lever of global control by those seeking to censor unpopular or controversial expression on the Internet.
Please keep the Internet’s technical core neutral from national or other ideological conflicts, allowing freedom and innovation to flourish in cyberspace.
I’d be perfectly happy to see lots of new top-level domains, rather than halting steps towards domains like .museum and .aero. Some could be chartered, with particular requirements to earn a name there — such as the venerable .edu, which used to be limited to American two- and four-year degree-granting institutions, one to a customer. (Though somehow Harvard Business School snuck in with hbs.edu despite Harvard also having harvard.edu.) Trademark owners might be unhappy at the prospect of having to defend their mark in each new top-level domain, but with enough domains that might not be necessary, since Internet users would not expect to find International Business Machines at IBM.*.
So what to make of the petition? Dan Krimm, who is running the campaign and is a fellow at IPJustice.org, explained the idea behind it: ICANN is considering approving lots of new top-level domains, with an approval process that lets it eliminate candidate names for “moral” reasons or because particular governments object. All else equal, it might make sense for ICANN to simply have a cash-and-carry policy for registering new TLDs, just as original domain name registration in .com was first-come, first-served, with very few exceptions. (Single-letter domains were not allowed, although a handful like x.com slipped through, and is now held by PayPal/eBay. In 1994, someone tried to register fuck.com and had what appears to be an authentic exchange with the relevant pre-ICANN people that shows just how ad hoc policymaking was then.)
But I find it hard to really care if ICANN wants to allow some names and deny others. I don’t see how a willingness to have some content-based process for determining new TLDs can become “a convenient lever of global control by those seeking to censor unpopular or controversial expression on the Internet.” How would this global control transpire, when one needs no particular domain name to put content up on the Net? Far more convenient would be search engines themselves, which can determine what is and isn’t visible on a casual search. Of course, one can be concerned about both. So: search engine content control will be the next post. …JZ