March 01, 2011

A Note Regarding "Lauren vs. ICANN"

Greetings. I believe it might be worthwhile to restate and clarify some important nuances of my views regarding ICANN and their handling of the gTLD situation, aspects that may not be obvious to newer readers.

Unlike some ICANN critics, I have to my knowledge never been critical of any specific individuals associated with ICANN. In fact, I have on numerous occasions explicitly suggested that these parties are trying to do the best that they can with a very bad situation that has resulted from a complex array of factors, not the least being "mission creep" and the rapidly changing and growing Internet environment.

That having been said, I'm concerned about outcomes and impacts on the Internet community at large, and I view bad decisions coming out of ICANN in that light. That the participants in those decisions are to a large degree constrained and trapped in their "option sets" by prior decisions and actions (and related litigation risks) is understood and unfortunate. I can feel sympathy for this, but that doesn't reduce or change my concerns themselves.

I believe that it is undeniable that the primary force driving the new gTLD ecosystem is the enrichment of those registry/registrar players who are lucky enough to "score" the most valuable gTLD "real estate."

I've never met a single "ordinary" Internet user who has suggested that what we really need is more gTLDs. In fact, most users increasingly ignore the ever more confusing TLD situation in the first place, and instead simply use Google as their point of entry to most sites. (Have you ever noticed how often people even type domain addresses into Google, rather than into the browser address bars?)

Despite all the talk about processes and procedures and participants, the die was cast on most of this way back. The on and off nature of the dot-ex-ex-ex TLD is a good example. Given the amount of money involved, it seemed inevitable that it would ultimately be approved. This despite the fact that most of the adult entertainment industry doesn't want it (they know it will be widely blocked, and that some countries may try force them into it as a form of "red light" district). And most anti-porn crusaders who understand what it's really about don't want dot-ex-ex-ex either.

Confusion serves the purposes of those who would enrich themselves through the gTLD process (and I'm speaking here of gTLD operators, not so much about ICANN itself, though we can certainly argue about ICANN's costs, expenditures, and fee structures).

So when the fellow behind the dot-ex-ex-ex push wanted to convince folks that it was a great idea, we saw deceptive polls published giving the impression that porn sites would only be in the new gTLD, and conveniently neglecting to mention that in most cases for now they'd still have their ordinary dot-com addresses as well.

Perhaps of even more concern is media/press confusion about all of this. It is completely understandable that most of the press has come to believe that gTLDs are all about money and nothing else -- because that's very much the way the system has now become oriented.

I remember a recent interview I did regarding the battle over who would get the new gTLD dot-vegas. The discussion wasn't about serving the community -- it was all about who could successfully strong-arm the most registrations into that gTLD. When I asked how the various parties would handle a possible future dot-gambling or dot-slots or dot-roulette or ... there was stunned silence. It had apparently never occurred to them that their "franchise" could be diluted in the future.

Probably worst of all is the explicit "get rich quick gold rush" ideology and language used by the promoters of vastly expanded gTLDs. Even existing newer gTLDs (like dot-co) are often promoted not in terms of real value to registrants, but in terms of "protect your name in this TLD before someone else gets it!"

It's likely that in a legal sense this doesn't rise to the level of a protection racket or extortion -- but from an ethical point of view such terms clearly seem to apply.

When I take issue with ICANN processes, I'm not claiming that a range of stakeholders (notably not including the Internet community at large in any meaningful sense) don't in theory have input. Rather, I'm arguing that in the final analysis their input appears not to have significantly altered the ultimate point at which we find ourselves now, due to the money-driven course of events over the long term, with litigation threats also playing a major and continuing role.

Outside of basic questions of ethics and fairness, I am extremely concerned that ICANN's massive gTLD expansion may ultimately be the "straw that breaks the camel's back" leading to significant fragmentation of the Internet by domestic governments, and increasingly expansive Internet blocking and censorship.

While it certainly may be argued that a blocked party can usually get a different domain address, or be reached by IP address alone, or even use different IP addresses if those are blocked, in practice for most entities their range of options in these regards are significantly limited, especially given the heavy branding costs in a commercial context. And as we've already seen, the U.S. government is all too willing to turn off domains -- even those operated by total innocents in other countries -- without so much as a chance to counter charges, and certainly without the "bother" of a trial.

ICANN might do well to quote that great philosopher Curly Howard of The Three Stooges from Disorder in the Court, where he said, "I'm a victim of circumstance!"

For ICANN indeed is exactly that. But this cannot change the fact that it's no longer tenable for a private U.S. organization, hidden away in a nondescript Marina Del Rey office tower, to wield the power that they now possess.

The events and accidents of history that have led to this situation are clear enough, and the fears that any changes away from ICANN carry significant potential risks (as do all changes in life) are also obvious. Some ICANN supporters have indeed leveraged the latter concerns well, by invoking the specter of ITU and/or U.N. Internet control.

But the Internet is now too central and too crucially entangled with the core interests and concerns of countries around the world, for ICANN to be permitted its current role for much longer.

It's time to thank ICANN and its people, past and present, for their work and efforts, and to move on beyond ICANN toward structures and organizations truly fitting the needs of the global Internet -- which after all is supposed to be for everyone, everywhere -- in the 21st century and beyond.


Posted by Lauren at March 1, 2011 11:31 AM | Permalink
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