US and Canadian Governments support Chinese-style censorship of DNS in ICANN

The Chair of ICANN's Governmental Advisory Committee has issued a statement on the censorship of top level domain names. We are sad to report that the alleged GAC position is deeply flawed and outrageously wrong-headed. It is a recipe for global censorship, and although at this point it only applies to the DNS it can lead to the erosion of all internet freedom of expression unless it is stoutly resisted.

The GAC openly states that the goal of its policy is to ensure “the absence of any controversial strings” in the top level domain name space. Why this goal? The statement equates the absence of controversy in the content domain to the “security, stability and universal resolvability” of the domain name system.

The idea that any domain name that is “controversial” constitutes a threat to the security, stability and universal resolvability of the internet is an absurdity that flies in the face of all internationally recognized standards of freedom of expression. We need to protect expression especially when it is controversial. In effect, this principle gives governments a blank check to smother any dissent, any hint of disagreement on the internet because it might lead some government, somewhere, to block a domain. This position is an outrage to freedom of expression principles. Its appeal to “universal resolvability” implies that the threat of authoritarian governments like China, or totalitarian dictatorships like North Korea or Iran, to block domains they object to is so horrible that all content on the internet should be pre-censored in order to ensure that it doesn't happen. Obvioously this puts the most conservative, pro-censorship regimes in the drivers seat. That it is put forward by the U.S. government and a supine Canadian follower is an unspeakable tragedy.

What this really means is that the US government is so concerned about retaining undisputed control of the DNS that it is willing to sacrifice Internet freedom as a lesser value. To all those people who argued that US control of the root was a bulwark of freedom, please read the GAC statement carefully and ponder its rationale.

What is even more maddening about this statement is that it was, as is customary for GAC, developed in a completely undemocratic and nontransparent way. This statement claims to be “the position” of governments. But neither the U.S. government nor the Canadian government, which together drafted the position, held any public consultations or asked any of their constituents whether they wanted censorship of top level domains and if so, how much. No attention was paid to national laws, such as the Canadian or US Constitution, or to other internationally binding conventions such as the European Convention on Human Rights. The discussions which led the GAC to ratify the outrageous principle that any controversy about domain names is bad were held in secret. The GAC representations are not accountable to their citizens or even to their own government supervisors. We do not know how many governments even read this statement, much less voted for it, for GAC is known to be driven by a tiny number of people and most governments simply don't pay attention.

The GAC only issues advice, and it is now giving us a good example of why people insisted on it being limited to an advisory role. The real problem is that the informal, unaccountable, “back door” power of the US government – which is the real force behind this initiative – can be very influential.

11 comments

  1. Anonymous

    This is nothing new. PBS is run this way.
    Australians view Canadian Hockey as VIOLENT.
    .XXX came from moonshine jugs being labeled with the
    number of passes thru the still. XXX was the most “Refined”. XXX Bar-B-Q sauce is HOT.
    In the PBS world (like ICANN) everyone dresses like Mr. Rogers and speaks with a .GAY voice. There is no controversy. Life is a bowl of cherries and a million dollar salary, non-profit of course.
    This must be what THE Community wants. ICANN reflects The Community Consensus.
    Tune to PBS, the ONLY channel you need.
    What is the Best Nation ? – DO-NATION

  2. Anonymous

    While I agree that we need to protect freedom of expression, I do sense some exaggeration here. The GAC are talking about the DNS, not about content.

  3. Anonymous

    Are you sure?
    And how do you tell the diference between the name, the meaning of the name and the content?
    Do they object to .XXX because 3 Xs in a row are so vile to look at?

  4. Anonymous

    The difference is that the name is the URL, which is typed into the address bar of the browser. The “content” is the part which is displayed in the large white space BELOW the address bar.
    Personally, I object to .XXX because I don't like ICM Chairman Stuart Lawley's face, but I guess that's beside the point.

  5. Anonymous

    Prof. Mueller, the GAC’s “advice” to ICANN, by letter dated 4 August 2010, is indeed unfortunate and a step in the wrong direction (although, looking at events around the world, I would not go so far as to call it an “unspeakable tragedy”). The GAC evidently wishes to prevent any controversial strings from being added to the current universe of top-level domains. This is a recipe, of course, for giving a veto over new strings to any state or entity with sufficient power or influence in the new gTLD program.
    In following the discussions on this issue at ICANN meetings and various online forums (such as this one), I have been struck by how uninformed people seem to be about the actual Morality and Public Order (“MOPO”) objection procedure that ICANN has developed and explained. There are some who appear to believe that the MOPO objection procedure was simply based upon the structure and rationale of the Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property (which is incorrect). Others announce that there is no internationally agreed definition of “Morality and Public Order”, without taking the trouble to observe that there are, in fact, certain grounds for limiting speech on the grounds of morality and public order that are universally applied on a national basis. Those grounds can be a principled basis for objecting to new gTLD strings.
    ICANN has explained how it developed certain specific standards for MOPO objections in memoranda dated 29 October 2008 and 30 May 2009. These objections, like others, would be heard and determined by expert panels under rules of procedure that have been developed by ICANN (the “New gTLD Dispute Resolution Procedure”). These documents have been posted on ICANN’s website for more than a year, but they have hardly been addressed in detail in any of the MOPO discussions.
    Those (like you) who would prefer that there be no limits or restrictions based upon morality and public order for new gTLDs strings have perhaps committed a serious tactical blunder. You have allowed the best to become the enemy of the good. Rather than condemning outright the MOPO objection procedure, you should have supported it against the censors speaking through the GAC. Such support would not rule out constructive criticism. If you had made the effort to study and understand the MOPO objection procedure (the standards and their rationale; the dispute resolution procedure, etc.) you could doubtless have offered constructive criticism, aimed at improving it. Instead, you have allowed those who seek a system that is more restrictive than the currently proposed MOPO objection procedure to set the agenda and – perhaps – to determine the outlines of the new gTLD program.
    Perhaps it is not too late. Perhaps the current MOPO procedure can be explained and defended (with whatever improvements that the community can offer), showing that it is a reasonable and effective response to the issues raised by the GAC. Are you prepared to do that? Or will you remain entrenched in your absolutist position of ineffective opposition to any MOPO limits on new gTLD strings?

  6. Anonymous

    This is incorrect. The GAC and various governments want to censor domain names in order to discourage or make less visible the kinds of content they fear will be placed under it. Even the original Morality and Public Order objection procedure was based on the content associated with a domain, not on the domain in isolation. It is very difficult for a TLD string to be “offensive” or “controversial” in isolation. And if the TLD string is offensive by itself – e.g, .pronazi – then the act of censoring it is identical to the censorship of content. The linkage between expression and domain names is already well-established in law. Any international procedure that provides governments with new powers to invent standards for censorship and implement them has dangerous implications for ALL Internet expression, especially when “security” is invoked as the rationale.

  7. Anonymous

    “new gTLDs strings have perhaps committed a serious tactical blunder. You have allowed the best to become the enemy of the good.”
    Esther Dyson and Mike Roberts trained them well.
    Always make new mistakes and BIG mistakes.