No Free Lunch: Fast-track ccTLDs require contracts

About a month ago I joined with .org’s CEO Alexa Raad in a letter expressing concern about the conditions under which nation-states will be given top–level domains in multilingual scripts under the proposed “fast-track.”

After three weeks (and a little good-natured prodding) we received this three-line response from Dr. Twomey: “Thank you for your thoughts concerning the deployment of IDNs. ICANN is still working through the process of deployment of IDN TLDs and you will have the opportunity to review the implementation program when it is public.”

Thanks, Paul. Perhaps he was in a hurry and didn’t choose his words carefully, but it’s hard not to notice what the response does not say. It does not say, “you will have an opportunity to comment upon and request changes in the implementation program when it is made public.” Nor did it say “I understand and sympathize with your concerns.”

We fully expect to review any plan – and also to comment upon it, critique it and mobilize opposition if appropriate. There are major issues at stake here.

The most important issue, one on which all the others rest, is whether governments will be given these new domains carte blanche, with no contractual obligations. We think any recipient of a new TLD must be required to sign a contract with ICANN. Otherwise this is nothing but a massive land grab which reveals that there is one set of rules for powerful government-connected insiders and an entirely different set of rules for the rest of us.

The contract the IDN ccTLDs sign should be very similar, if not identical, to the ones signed by the other new registries who have received new TLDs from ICANN. The contracts should specify how much the registries will pay ICANN for maintaining the root zone and developing policies, and should bind them to the regulations and policies developed by the so-called “bottom up” governance of the Internet community. The contract should specify that these new top level domains are bound by key policies mandated by ICANN’s mission, such as preserving the global interoperability of the Internet, promoting competition, and applying documented policies neutrally and objectively.

A few people have argued that ccTLDs should receive these incredibly valuable tracts of Internet real estate for free, with no contractual obligations of any kind. This is a ridiculous argument, and the only people who make it are those who stand to materially benefit from being first to market in the IDN space. But in order to dress up their economic motives in nicer clothing they sometimes invoke “sovereignty” as the basis of this claim.

Let’s be clear: there is no basis for asserting that national sovereignty entitles incumbent country code managers to a new top level domain in the script of their choosing. Prior ccTLDs were delegated to registry operators before ICANN existed, and those tlds and delegations were not based on a sovereignty claim at all. While the US government has recognized that countries have a national interest in their existing ccTLD delegations, all this really means is that it would be a bad idea for the US government to mess with those domains now that national Internet economies have become dependent on them. The de facto recognition of Roman-script (ascii) country code delegations, however, does not obligate ICANN to create new top level domains in Cyrillic, Japanese, Chinese or Indian, nor does it establish any basis for privileging national governments and incumbent ccTLD registries in receiving new domains in those new scripts.

The Internet name space and its root zone is not a piece of physical territory upon which states have any colorable claim. There is no international treaty or law which stipulates that states have a right to a top level domain in their native script. But let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that there was an international agreement to create a new set of country codes that translated the current ISO-3166 standards into all the world’s language scripts. If you wanted to do this right, the symbols for each country should be standardized by the International Standards Organization or some similar intergovernmental body. That is where existing ccTLDs came from.

ICANN explored taking that route, but decided that it would take “too long.” So let’s face facts: this is not about “sovereignty,” this is about time to market. This is about giving incumbent ccTLD managers a head start in the market for multilingual domain names, nothing more.

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