US Congress joins Saudi Arabia in ‘Net censorship extravaganza

Did you know that .BABY is an evil domain name? The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia thinks so, and wants to censor it. Not just in their little kingdom but globally, by insisting that ICANN not allow it. Never mind that the applicant for .BABY is the staid Johnson & Johnson company, which is not exactly known for hosting porn sites.The Saudi government believes

“there is a risk that this string (.BABY) [will be] used in the same way as .XXX to host pornographic websites.”

Now tell me: who has the dirty mind here? I am certainly not the purest person on the planet, but never would have associated BABY with porn.

The application for .VIRGIN also attracted complaints from the Saudis. Virginity, apparently, is a threatening and destabilizing word. It was proposed by the airline and media company Virgin Group, which, like Johnson and Johnson, does not plan to sell domains to customers or businesses outside their companies. The Saudis also objected to .DATING, .HOT, .SEX, .PORN, .SEXY, and .GAY, suggesting that the gTLDs would promote homosexuality and be offensive to “many societies and cultures.”

Welcome to ICANN’s “objection” process. You can see all the comments so far here. This is the formal, months-long process which allows anyone in the world to say why they think words proposed for new TLDs should be censored. As in, not allowed, killed, unable to be seen on the Internet. Special emphasis and powers are given to the ICANN Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC), which, if it makes objections part of its official advice, must be taken into account by the ICANN Board.

The Saudi Arabian objections are ridiculous, of course, but they are no better or worse than any system of arbitrary censorship, which allows central authorities to exercise prior restraint based on their fears, “sensitivities,” and weird mental associations. That is why we don’t want the UN or any other intergovernmental agency to be in charge of the Internet, right?

But if you think liberal democracies in the West are going to come riding to the rescue, think again. A week ago a bipartisan group of U.S. Congressmen sent a letter to ICANN urging it to go out and get more objections. Senators Patrick Leahy (D) and Charles Grassley (R) and Congressmen Lamar Smith (R) and John Conyers (D) of the Senate and House Judiciary Committees, respectively, wrote yet another threatening letter to ICANN telling it what to do, as if the U.S. Congress has legal authority over ICANN and its policies.

Their motivation, as usual, was provided by business interests and trademark holders who wish that the new TLD program had never happened. But now that it is happening, they want it to be heavily restricted and in the process they are encouraging exactly the kind of censorship that the Saudis are eagerly exercising. Indeed, these powerful U.S. elected representatives in the land of the First Amendment wrote this:

With potentially sensitive names like “.church”, “.kids”, and “.sucks” proposed, the more than “two billion (and growing) Internet users around the globe” that ICANN has stated the program is “designed to benefit” should both be aware of their right to comment on the new gTLDs and have a full and meaningful opportunity to do so. As a practical matter, the public comments forum is the only mechanism for most users to comment directly on applications without pursuing formal action before an arbitrator – a process that would require them to establish standing and bear legal expenses.

In other words, the Congressman are saying that if people don’t like proposed names or applications, they ought to be encouraged to urge ICANN to censor them. They pull no punches in seeking to maximize collective constraints on the Internet. They demand that ICANN

[take more steps] to inform members of the public outside the ICANN community about the New gTLD public comment process, and to ensure the public’s maximum and meaningful consideration and participation

We wouldnt want anyone to make it possible to create domains that say, for example, LEAHY.SUCKS now, would we? Leahy et al also encourage ICANN to get its “Independent Objector” to cook up as many objections as it can:

ICANN has appointed an Independent Objector to review gTLD applications, but ICANN’s Guidebook states that he may only raise objections that have been previously voiced by the public. Given this restriction, what steps is the Independent Objector taking to encourage and maximize public input? What role will the Independent Objector play in articulating and representing public concerns about specific gTLD applications?

This blog has argued for years that domain names are a form of expression and that giving governments or “the community” the idea that they can kill applications for domain names because they don’t like them constitutes a form of censorship. It subjects what ought to be permissionless creation to a heckler’s veto at best, or outright suppression by authoritarian governments at worst.  Imagine what would happen if every one of the second-level domain names in the world – and there are now over 100  million of them – had to be approved, or could be objected to, by a global committee. How many people would have objected to our registration of “internetgovernance.org,” either because they wanted it for themselves, or because they didn’t like what we write here? All the top level names objected to by the Saudis are already second-level domains. If the mere existence of a .HOT domain is bad, what about HOT.COM? SEX.COM? GAY.ORG? All these domains already exist. But by asking the world for permission before you could register them, you would literally be asking people to become censors. Would it matter whether this censorship was “multistakeholder” or intergovernmental?

The U.S. Congress’s letter, as is usually the case, had the intended effect. ICANN extended its objection period for another 45 days. As if to say, what do you want to block today? Whose $185,000 application would you like to torpedo? U.S. government officials who moan and worry about the ITU’s efforts to “take over the Internet” while aiding and abetting this kind of activity via ICANN are the worst type of hypocrites.

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