Just when you thought the .xxx affair couldn’t get any worse, it does. I’m beginning to think that ICANN’s approach to TLD approval was cooked up by a demented sergeant from Abu Ghraib.
On March 13, the ICANN board is set to vote – again – on whether they can approve ICM’s Registry’s application to operate a domain reserved for adult online content: .xxx. This will be the third or fourth time this has happened. I have lost count. The same thing keeps happening again and again. ICANN tells ICM registry, the company applying for the domain, something is wrong with its application and something more needs to be done to get approval. ICM registry dutifully goes off and does what was asked. And then ICANN thinks of something else that is wrong, something else it has to do. It’s Lucy, Charlie Brown and the football, on a global scale and costing millions of dollars in money and time.
Now, after the triple x people negotiated with ICANN’s staff a contract that met all prior objections, and heads into what should be its final approval, word is that a few ICANN Board members are leaning in a negative direction. What is the reason? A group of pornographers has organized a campaign against .xxx, flooding ICANN’s comment box with overwhelmingly negative remarks. Since .xxx is supposed to be a “sponsored” domain and sponsored domains are supposed to have support from a “community,” some Board members are questioning whether ICM Registry has sufficient community support to be classified as a sponsored domain.
But wait. ICANN already decided, more than a year ago, that ICM Registry had sufficient support from the relevant “community” to be classified as a sponsored domain. The test for sponsorship was part of the original process. So that issue is over. Or should be.
What kind of a resource allocation organization can just say, “oh never mind, yesterday you met the criteria, today you don’t.”
And what is with this public comment business? Where is the policy value in this modern version of the public stoning? If you held a public comment on whether Milton Mueller should be allowed to write another book the verdict might be negative if my enemies caught wind of it. Anything having to do with pornography is bound to be controversial. Negotiating an agreement and then blithely asking for public comment about it simply gives the proposal’s enemies time to organize lots of negative comments.
Of course .xxx isn’t supported by everyone. Anyone who expects all pornographers to rally around a proposal that would put their content into a clearly demarcated category is either seriously disconnected from reality or disingenuous. By clearly identifying porn, the domain will both make it easier to find and easier to block. That works against the interests of many incumbent online adult sites.
So why is this happening? The answers are scary.
The answer is that ICANN’s processes are so arbitrary and political that any issue can be opened and reopened at any time, for any reason – regardless of the defined process. The answer is that ICANN’s completely discretionary, beauty contest approach to TLD selection casts it adrift on a sea of politics, so that the slightest shift in the winds causes it to change direction. The answer is that ICANN will do anything to avoid making a controversial decision.
It is tempting to accuse specific individuals in this process for being malevolent and duplicitous. But the truth is actually worse than that. One credits malevolent people with a purpose, an objective. In this case, the Board members and CEO seem truly directionless, a couple of flotsam and jetsam bobbing about in a political sea. They simply do not understand how deeply they are sapping ICANN’s credibility and stature in the world by making (non)decisions in this way. To live up to its role as a global governance institution, ICANN needs to have clear, objective decision making criteria and to stand up for principles. The path of arbitrariness ICANN is on leads to only one end result: litigation.
The issue here is very simple. ICM Registry met all the criteria ICANN set out in its request for applications back in 2003. It passed all the tests ICANN said in advance it was going to require applicants to meet. It even passed all the tests the US government and the GAC imposed after the process was supposed to be over. That should be the end of the story.
We at IGP have followed the xxx affair closely not because we really care whether this domain is created or not. It’s important because of what it tells us about the way ICANN’s processes work. The message, unfortunately, is all bad and keeps getting worse.