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.