Thanks, Jonathan, for a more comprehensive statement of your position. (See JZ's reply to my August 6 post)
If I may summarize your rejoinder, you make the following points:
1) Too much time is spent on ICANN, diverting scarce time and attention from more important venues
2) Censorship of public labels would have “near zero effect” on access to content
3) We are guarding the wrong door; The strongest threats to freedom of expression come from private firms, such as Google or Myspace or ISPs.
I pretty much disagree with all of them, although your point number 3 raises some intriguing issues and I simply may not understand where you are going with it.
1) Let's not worry about a common, universal list of the “top 100” or even the top ten policy debates. (Can any one person actually be involved in more than 4 or 5?) The idea that ICANN policy debates are a distraction that people (especially public interest advocates) spend too much time on I find factually wrong, almost the reverse of the truth.
ICANN is the only institution that affords any kind of global policy leverage over the Internet. It deals with a wide range of highly consequential but also technical and sometimes narrow policy issues, ranging from security to the economics of registries, competition in Internet services markets, privacy, multilingualism, IP addressing availability, and others.
Anyone involved in these issues is bound to notice how few informed participants there are — and how completely overmatched the few public interest advocates are relative to governments and business interests. I constantly marvel at the fact that five times as many civil society groups will show up for an IGF meeting as for an ICANN civil society meeting, despite the fact that real policy authority of IGF is virtually nonexistent compared to ICANN.
Take the extremely important Whois/privacy issue. If you don't think it's important, fine, but you need to explain to me why there were four or five FBI representatives at the last two ICANN meetings, two FTC representatives, as well as a bevy of Commerce Dept officials, and why a dozen corporations and corporate trade associations on the order of EBay, WITSA, the Entertainment Software Association, JPMorgan Chase and other banking interests, re-insurance firms, real estate interests, the Canadian RCMP, and London Action Plan participants were all sitting at a negotiating table staring at me (or virtually, on teleconferences), me being one of a handful of public interest advocates well informed and involved enough to stand up to them. I think these people have a pretty good sense of what's at stake, and are rational actors. I think people who tell me to leave the field to them because it doesn't matter are…not.
So where do you get this idea that too much time and energy are being devoted to it by public interest advocates? As we debate a global infrastructure for surveillance and data protection around DNS and IP Whois, where are the public interest groups? ACLU? Absent. EPIC? Mostly AWOL since Frannie Wellings left. CDT? absent. Privacy International? Absent. EDRI? Absent. EFF? Absent. Free Press? Absent. CPTech? Involved elsewhere. Save the Internet.com? ONI? OII? Those folks have never appeared at an ICANN meeting and I haven't seen you at once since 2000. More than one NGO has told me, “there's no money for this international stuff.” So I just don't know where you're coming from when you talk about “enormous [misplaced] effort.” But I don't mind if you don't share my choice of battlegrounds. I just think it is harmful to run around telling people that the policy battlegrounds don't matter simply because you aren't interested in them. That does damage to legitimate causes.
2) The argument about book titles, being hypothetical, risks getting a bit abstract and silly, admittedly. You seem supremely confident that a regime that censors book labels will have “zero” impact on access to book content; you say that people will invent new names and labels, but overlook the premise that public communication about such labels would be censored. I think your assertions lack face plausibility, but the real problem is that you seem to miss the whole thrust of my argument. The argument is about not about books and labels but the dynamics of politics and institutions.
You think I believe that “allowing ICANN to select some new TLDs and not others must immediately touch all other kinds of content online.” No, of course it does not “immediately” touch “all other kinds” of online content. My point is that since ICANN is the only truly global institution with globally binding authority over aspects of the Internet, that it is a Really Bad Idea for those of us involved in that space to stand by idly and let a political coalition form witin it that is determined to develop, implement and enforce principles, norms, and procedures for controlling semantic expression. However narrow its sphere of application, this would be the world's first global content regulation regime. The precedent would embolden those favoring restriction, and be invoked in other situations down the road. I do not know when or where, I just know that it will be unless we fight it. I know that the political forces favoring Internet content regulation will be encouraged and strengthened if we stand by and do nothing about it. I do not mind if you prioritize other forms of censorship. Just don't run around saying that what's happening in the ICANN new TLD process isn't censorship.
3) And this argument leads directly to my response to #3. If public interest advocacy groups can't get ICANN to refrain from censoring something as minor as top level domain names, how in the hell do you think you are going to get national sovereigns to refrain from censoring, blocking or restricting the full range of Internet content? I would think that you would see a campaign for free expression within the ICANN ambit as complementary to other efforts.
The private firms you mention at least exist in competitive or oligopolistic markets. There are alternatives to them. There is no alternative to the ICANN root. The more we let domain name control be extended into ancillary policy realms the more danger there is to the freedom of the Internet. And if we can't enforce the principle of neutrality upon a global monopoly at the technical core of the internet, what hope is there for it when it comes to private actors competing in national markets?
I would like to know where you think the biggest threats to freedom of expression come from, and what to do about them. I suspect that for each case, I would be able to come up with rationalizations similar to yours about how it could be avoided and doesn't really matter. If you put on your ONI hat and say, “content filtering and blocking by states,” I will respond with a hearty “hurrah for Jon, Ron and ONI,” ONI being an initiative I like and support. But I will also point out that in the larger scheme of things you and ONI can have next to no impact on the ability of sovereign states to restrict free expression in their countries. Leverage can only come from global governance institutions or national institutions. You may obtain some normative and possibly some legal leverage in global institutions such as ICANN and IGF, but foreign university professors don't matter a lot to dictators in Venezuela and Azerbaijan, who base their decisions on domestic politics.
More pointedly, I would like to know how doing nothing about a clear challenge to freedom of expression in the narrow slice of policy around domain names actually helps the general situation. To repeat, I'd encourage you to view campaigns such as “Keep the Core Neutral” as complements, not substitutes, to domestic and technical counters to censorship such as your ONI activities.