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Battle Over New “.xxx” Internet Address for Porn Underscores EU-US Dilemma on Internet Governance (5/13)     Print Email
By William Marmon

Official uneasiness about the state of Internet governance is rising as governments on both sides of the Atlantic have come to recognize how limited their ability is to control it. The latest public symptom of this anxiety surfaced in a leaked official letter from European Commission Vice President Neelie Kroes who is also the Commissioner for the Digital Agenda, to U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke in which she sought U.S. help in stopping the deployment of a new Internet “suffix” -- ".xxx" –- to identify pornography sites on the web. “This is a major public policy concern,” she wrote, “not only because of the unknown effects it may have in terms of internet stability, but also because of the implications such blocking may have for internet censorship and freedom of expression.”

Indeed, the decision to authorize the controversial ".xxx" came after years of debate within ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigning Names and Numbers). This “.xxx” suffix (just like ".com") is one of the global top level domains (gTLD) that are managed by ICANN. The decision to accept the new gTLD was based on the perceived desirability of providing an easily recognizable and convenient way of identifying pornography sites, of which there is a huge number, on the web. Such a designation would allow selective blocking of all these sites by individuals, businesses, and even governments.

Opponents of the proposal, which include the unlikely bedfellows of both porn industry and trademark holders, have different reasons for opposing ".xxx." Trademark holders worry that the introduction of any gTLD will burden them by having to protect the use of their name from “squatters” who rush to register on the new domain. Porn providers, on the other hand, do not want to be forced into an easily identifiable ".xxx" corral.

The real significance of the clash, however, lies outside the publicly voiced concerns about the ".xxx" issue itself and reflects the increasingly thorny issue of how and by whom key aspects of the Net are to be governed. ICANN –- created 13 years ago in the U.S. as a non-profit corporation to manage Internet domain names -- is often seen by other governments as a U.S.-centric organization that could and should be brought to heel by the U.S. government. However, as U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce Lawrence Strickling averred in his response to Vice President Kroes, the U.S. cannot unilaterally countermand ICANN’s decision. Kroes met with Strickling in Brussels this week and issued a press release indicating agreement on the need for “reforms” to “enhance ICANN’s responsiveness to governments raising public policy concerns and to improve the way decisions affecting country-code Top Level Domains are made.”

ICANN has jealously guarded its independence and strongly rejects mandatory dictates from governments or from the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC) that provides advice on public policy issues. GAC lacks the ability to halt or reverse a decision by the ICANN board over matters of domain-name creation and management. This reality does not sit well with European authorities, who pointedly reminded their American counterparts of the “broader geo-political Internet governance debate that continues regarding the legitimacy of the ICANN model.” Counters Milton Mueller, who directs the Internet Governance Project at the University of Syracuse, “the EU is more interested in asserting control over ICANN than any specific objections about the .xxx domain name.”

That raises two questions: Could the U.S. exert more control over ICANN if it wanted? And does it want to? In practice, even the U.S., while publicly supporting the private, “multi-stakeholder” regime of ICANN governance, has been restive about the private body’s independence.  See March 2011 European Affairs blog post.

At the same time, the U.S. resolutely opposes the main alternative usually proposed to provide greater government control -- moving ICANN functions to the UN’s ITU (International Telecommunications Union). This divide has left ICANN considerable running room. Moreover, because the Internet needs a central authority to provide the desired and valuable interconnectedness that makes the Internet so valuable, no politically acceptable alternative has emerged. The U.S. government is sensitive to the complaint that key decisions about the Internet are made by a U.S- based private organization and has been advocating, with only limited success to date, an increased role for the OECD, which groups the leading industrial democracies, in addressing issues of Internet governance, including those of privacy and security.

The ICANN question is bound to arise again this fall when it is time to renew the organization’s existing contract to manage IANA (Internet Assigned Numbers Authority), which is the authority charged with maintaining the “root” tables that are used for global message-routing. This function is administered by the U.S. Commerce Department and is the basis for much of ICANN’s role and authority in the practical matters of Internet governance. Kroes’ press release this week pointedly noted that she and Strickling had “discussed the upcoming award of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) functions contract.”

 

William Marmon is Managing Editor of European Affairs