The Obama administration has failed in its bid to allow it and other governments to veto future top-level domain names, a proposal before ICANN that raised questions about balancing national sovereignty with the venerable Internet tradition of free expression.
A group of nations rejected (PDF) that part of the U.S. proposal last week, concluding instead that governments can offer nonbinding "advice" about controversial suffixes such as .gay but will not receive actual veto power.
Other portions of the U.S. proposal were adopted, including one specifying that individual governments may file objections to proposed suffixes without paying fees and another making it easier for trademark holders to object. The final document, called a "scorecard," will be discussed at a two-day meeting that starts today in Brussels.
At stake are the procedures to create the next wave of suffixes to supplement the time-tested .com, .org, and .net. Hundreds of proposals are expected this year, including .car, .health, .love, .movie, and .web, and the application process could be finalized at a meeting next month in San Francisco of ICANN, or the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.
Proposed domain suffixes like .gay are likely to prove contentious among more conservative nations, as are questions over whether foreign firms should be able to secure potentially lucrative rights to operate geographical suffixes such as .nyc, .paris, and .london. And nobody has forgotten the furor over .xxx, which has been in limbo for seven years after receiving an emphatic thumbs-down from the Bush administration.
"We are very pleased that this consensus-based process is moving forward," a spokeswoman for the U.S. Commerce Department said in a statement provided to CNET over the weekend. "The U.S., along with many other GAC members, submitted recommendations for consideration and as expected, these recommendations provided valuable input for the development of the new scorecard."
GAC is the Governmental Advisory Committee of ICANN and composed of representatives of scores of national governments from Afghanistan to Yemen. The Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration, or NTIA, serves as the committee's representative from the United States.
ICANN representatives did not respond to a request for comment.
Milton Mueller, a professor of information studies at Syracuse University and author of a recently published book on Internet governance, says an effort he supported--complete with an online petition--"shamed" GAC representatives "into thinking about the free expression consequences" of a governmental veto.
"When I started this campaign, I knew that the Department of Commerce could never defend what they were doing publicly," Mueller said. "There are also potential constitutional issues."
Complicating the Obama administration's embrace of a governmental veto was its frequently expressed support for Internet freedoms including free speech, laid out in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's speech last January. Clinton reiterated the administration's commitment to "the freedom to connect" again in a speech in Washington, D.C. this month.
One argument for the veto over new-top level domains is that it could fend off the possibility of a more fragmented Internet, which would likely happen if less liberal governments adopt technical measures to prevent their citizens from connecting to .gay and .xxx Web sites. In addition, handing governments more influence inside ICANN could reduce the odds of a revolt that would vest more Internet authority with the United Nations, a proposal that China allies supported last year.
"I suspect that the U.S. government put (the veto power) in there to show that it wants to respect the wishes of governments," said Steve DelBianco, executive director of the NetChoice coalition. "I think the U.S. would prefer to see a string rejected rather than let it get into the root and have multiple nations block the top-level domain."
DelBianco, whose coalition's members include AOL, eBay, Oracle, VeriSign, and Yahoo, said "blocking creates stability and consistency problems with the Internet...The U.S. government was showing a preference for having one global root."
Today's meeting in Brussels between the ICANN board and national government, which appears to be unprecedented in the history of the organization, signals a deepening rift and an attempt to resolve disputes before ICANN's next public meeting beginning March 13 in San Francisco. (The language of the official announcement says the goal is "arrive at an agreed upon resolution of those differences.")
A seven-page statement (PDF) in December 2010 from the national governments participating in the ICANN process says they are "very concerned" that "public policy issues raised remain unresolved." In addition to concern over the review of "sensitive" top-level domains, the statement says, there are also issues about "use and protection of geographical names."
That statement followed years of escalating tensions between ICANN and representatives of national governments, including a letter (PDF) they sent in August 2010 suggesting that "the absence of any controversial [suffixes] in the current universe of top-level domains to date contributes directly to the security and stability of the domain name and addressing system." And the German government recently told (PDF) ICANN CEO Rod Beckstrom that there are "outstanding issues"--involving protecting trademark holders--that must be resolved before introducing "new top-level domains."