A row over top level domain names erupted at the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) meeting in London recently, with potentially far-reaching implications.
ICANN, originally a US federal government-supervised agency, is tasked with oversight of the internet and is scheduled to become an independent, international agency in 2015, though it remains to be seen whether a workable logistical framework can be put in place. Of particular concern for the US Commerce Department are worries that individual governments would be able to exert undue influence over the organization.
The current controversy over the implementation of .wine and .vin domains, opposed by France, concerned about potential abuse of its geographical ownership of place names of its wine-producing regions as product names, such as Champagne and Bordeaux, should they be appended to these new domains, such as champagne.wine, or bordeaux.vin being used as a site address to sell products that are not complaint with the EU’s designation of origin rules.
France failed to rally support for the freezing of allocation of sites on these new .wine and .vin domains, and as a result made an announcement that calls into question whether ICANN can continue to function, stating: “Today ICANN is not the appropriate forum to discuss internet governance” because “ICANN’s procedures highlight its inability to take into account the legitimate concerns of states.” To remedy this, France is suggesting a new international organization to govern the Internet with a “one country, one vote” system.
Authoritarian governments have been calling for this change themselves, with China and Russia in particular indicating that they would like to have greater control over the internet, precisely what the US Commerce Department has been trying to avoid in its divestment from the agency. Currently governments interface with ICANN through the Government Advisory Committee (GAC), and the GAC’s recommendations to ICANN’s board have almost always followed, however in this wine-related domains row, there is no consensus among the participating governmental entities.
More troubling, an unprecedented unanimous statement from all the stakeholder groups and constituencies that make up ICANN’s Generic Names Supporting Organization (GNSO), was issued, taking issue with the ICANN’s lack of transparency and accountability: “The entire GNSO join together today calling for the Board to support community creation of an independent accountability mechanism that provides meaningful review and adequate redress for those harmed by ICANN action or inaction in contravention of an agreed upon compact with the community. This deserves the Board’s serious consideration – not only does it reflect an unprecedented level of consensus across the entire ICANN community, it is a necessary and integral element of the IANA transition. True accountability does not mean ICANN is only accountable to itself, or to some vague definition of “the world,” nor does it mean that governments should have the ultimate say over community policy subject to the rule of law. Rather, the Board’s decisions must be open to challenge and the Board cannot be in a position of reviewing and certifying its own decisions. We need an independent accountability structure that holds the ICANN Board, Staff, and various stakeholder groups accountable under ICANN’s governing documents, serves as an ultimate review of Board/Staff decisions, and through the creation of precedent, creates prospective guidance for the board, the staff, and the entire community.”
As the US Commerce Department’s hand-over of ICANN looms, the prospect of governments hijacking the authority for their own ends seems a more pressing concern than ever. NationalNet will continue to monitor these changes closely and will report any proactive steps our clients can take to solidify their own position on the ever-changing world wide web