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News

ICANN Considers "Morality" in New Domain Names

(August 24, 2007) - A cyber-controversy over new "generic top-level domains," or "gTLDs" - those suffixes that go after the dot at the end of an Internet address - is coming to a head. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is currently considering a policy that would deny new gTLDs if they are "contrary to generally accepted legal norms relating to morality and public order."

This proposed "morality and public order" rule is "Recommendation #6" in a July 2007 report published by ICANN's Generic Names Supporting Organisation (GNSO). A coalition called the Non-Commercial Users Constituency (NCUC) submitted a long statement opposing Recommendation #6. Now, the activist website "Keep the Core Neutral" is collecting signatures on a petition and is encouraging people to file comments with ICANN opposing its adoption of the proposed rule.

The GNSO report explains that "ICANN's work on the introduction of new top-level domains has been ongoing since 1999." Given the rapid growth of the Internet, the need for more domains - to supplement the existing .com, .net, .edu, and .org - became clear. In 2000, ICANN began deploying new gTLDs such as .coop, .aero and .biz. "After an evaluation period, a further round of sponsored TLDs was introduced during 2003 and 2004 which included, amongst others, .mobi and .travel."

The report states among its operating "Principles" that "the string evaluation process must not infringe the applicant's freedom of expression rights." But then, seeming to take away what it has just granted, the report says: "Strings must not be that are contrary to generally accepted legal norms relating to morality and public order recognized under international principles of law." The report gives as "examples of such principles of law" the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and the International Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, as well as "intellectual property treaties administered by the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) and the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property."

The report sheds further light on the breadth of "morality and public order" by quoting guidelines of the European Union's Trademark Office "on how to interpret morality and deceit." The guidelines state: "Words or images which are offensive, such as swear words or racially derogatory images, or which are blasphemous are not acceptable."

The report further quotes from the Trademark Office: "Marks offending public policy are likely to offend accepted principles of morality, e.g. illegal drug terminology, although the question of public policy may not arise against marks offending accepted principles of morality, for example, taboo swear words. If a mark is merely distasteful, an objection is unlikely to be justified, whereas if it would cause outrage or would be likely significantly to undermine religious, family or social values, then an objection will be appropriate. Offence may be caused on matters of race, sex, religious belief or general matters of taste and decency. Care should be taken when words have a religious significance and which may provoke greater offence than mere distaste, or even outrage, if used to parody a religion or its values. Where a sign has a very sacred status to members of a religion, mere use may be enough to cause outrage."

Opposition to the proposed "morality and public order" rule centers on the breadth, vagueness, and inconsistency of the standards ICANN would have to apply. As the NCUC dissenting statement argues: "Recommendation #6 will completely undermine ICANN's efforts to make the gTLD application process predictable, and instead make the evaluation process arbitrary, subjective and political. ... No gTLD applicant can possibly know in advance what people or governments in a far away land will object to as 'immoral' or contrary to 'public order.' When applications are challenged on these grounds, applicants cannot possibly know what decision an expert panel ... will make about it."

For example, the NCUC statement explains, "What is considered 'immoral' in Teheran may be easily accepted in Los Angeles or Stockholm; what is considered a threat to 'public order' in China and Russia may not be in Brazil and Qatar." The proposed morality rule "will have the effect of suppressing free and diverse expression," and will take ICANN "too far away from its technical coordination mission and into areas of legislating morality and public order."

Finally, says the NCUC, "applicants will have to invest sizable sums of money to develop a gTLD application and see it through the ICANN process. Most of them will avoid risking a challenge under Recommendation #6. In other words, the presence of Recommendation #6 will result in self-censorship by most applicants. That policy would strip citizens everywhere of their rights to express controversial ideas because someone else finds them offensive."

The Internet now indisputably the world's major communications medium - a global platform for information, discussion, and the propagation of ideas. Although denying domain names might seem a minor imposition compared to the larger specter of punishing or restricting expression overall on the Internet through criminal prosecutions or blocking and filtering systems, expanding ICANN's authority from technical Internet governance to censorship would set a disturbing precedent.

Anyone can file a Comment will ICANN; the due date is August 30, 2007.

The report of ICANN's Generic Names Supporting Organization (GNSO) on the "Introduction of New Generic Top-Level Domains" is at http://gnso.icann.org/drafts/PDFPDPDec05FRPartA30July07.pdf

The "Keep the Core Neutral" website is at
http://www.keep-the-core-neutral.org/action1 and contains a sample Comment.

For more on Internet filters, see Internet Filters: A Public Policy Report.

On August 24, FEPP submitted the following Comment to ICANN:

The Free Expression Policy Project (FEPP - www.fepproject.org) is an independent think tank that provides resources and advocacy on censorship issues. FEPP writes to oppose ICANN's proposed rule denying domain names that it determines would violate "morality and public order." These standards are so vague and open-ended as to invite both censorship and self-censorship. It would be difficult for anyone to predict what might be considered immoral or threatening to public order somewhere in our diverse world. ICANN's own report underlines the difficulties. It refers to EU Trademark Office guidelines that include "words or images which are offensive, ... or blasphemous," as well as words "likely significantly to undermine religious, family or social values." The potential for violating ICANN's announced commitment to freedom of expression is obvious. ICANN should not get embroiled in the censorship business. Respectfully submitted, Marjorie Heins Free Expression Policy Project.


The Free Expression Policy Project began in 2000 to provide empirical research and policy development on tough censorship issues and seek free speech-friendly solutions to the concerns that drive censorship campaigns. In 2004-2007, it was part of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. The FEPP website is now hosted by the National Coalition Against Censorship. Past funders have included the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Educational Foundation of America, the Open Society Institute, and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

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