International: New internet governance rules must support free speech

International: New internet governance rules must support free speech - Digital

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The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is currently in the final process of soliciting views on the rules governing the next round of applications for new generic top-level domains (gTLDs).

ICANN is a global organization that brings together various stakeholders to create policies for the governance and management of top-level domains (TLDs) and the distribution of IP numbers within the Domain Name System (DNS). On the Internet, domain names are used to uniquely identify the location of information online, like a website. For example, “” is a domain name, where the TLD is .org. TLDs can either be generic (gTLD) or country codes (ccTLD). While ccTLDs like .uk or .us are usually managed by national registries and registrars, the eligibility to operate a gTLD is far more open, subject to the ICANN Applicant Guidebook. Common gTLDs include .org, .com, and .net, but theoretically, gTLDs can be any string of three or more characters that comply with ICANN’s guidelines. The opportunity to propose new gTLDs is only available during application rounds held by ICANN; the last round was held in 2012.  

In anticipation of the next round of new gTLD applications, the Generic Name Supporting Organization (GNSO),  an ICANN policy development body responsible for making substantive recommendations relating to gTLDs to the ICANN board, chartered a working group in 2016 to review the process and develop policy recommendations based on collective community experiences from the previous round of  applications.

Decisions around new gTLDs have important implications for online expression. Which words can be registered as new gTLDs and how is acceptability determined? Who is eligible to apply to operate a new gTLD and what are the costs to doing so? Think about gTLDs like .gay or .amazon. The answers to these questions, particularly as they pertain to controversial, culturally significant, or politically sensitive words, have consequences for how content is made available online, what content is easier to find than others, and who is in control of these decisions. The latest gTLD application round must therefore be designed in a way that takes into account public interest and human rights considerations, especially for potential applicants from communities that are traditionally marginalised from participating in Internet governance. 

The GNSO’s draft report on the recommendations and implementation guidance for the administration of the new gTLD program was finally produced in April. However, before the report is submitted to the board for its consideration, ICANN is undergoing a final public comment proceeding to gather views on the draft. This is a critical opportunity to contribute to a fundamental aspect of global Internet governance. Here, we highlight some key elements of the report that deserve further input and response from civil society and academia: 

  • The human rights of affected parties, particularly freedom of expression. As we’ve noted before, the implementation guidance should fully consider and enable the rights of applicants that seek domain names under the new gTLD program, including in its evaluation criteria and objection standards, while also addressing the broader human rights implications of these decisions, such as access to information. While the mandate of the New gTLD Subsequent Procedures Policy Development Process included recommendations related to human rights, a comprehensive investigation of the full spectrum of human rights considerations was never conducted by its working group. External evaluation of the report from human rights experts is therefore more critical than ever.  
  • Dispute resolution. During the 2012 application round, processes to resolve disputes such as contested claims to domain names, including the Public Interest Commitment Dispute Resolution Procedure (PICDRP), were unilaterally introduced and incorporated in registry operators’ contracts with ICANN. As we’ve previously explained, while processes for dispute resolution are important for stakeholder accountability and due process, the PICDRP suffers from weak independent review, the lack of an appeals mechanism, and vague terms that make it vulnerable to co-optation. The report offers a proposal to reform the procedure. Given the importance of this function, it requires further scrutiny to ensure that the issues of the previous application round have been addressed and that the procedure will be truly effective in protecting the public interest going forward. 
  • Meaningful inclusion. As we’ve seen in the case of the .amazon gTLD, it is imperative for individuals and communities that are traditionally underrepresented in Internet governance to participate in the decision-making processes that impact them, particularly in the face of powerful private sector interests and growing corporate capture. The design of the new gTLD program will fundamentally determine who can and will access these processes. Several elements of the report bear these implications; for example, the way that fees are set and structured will affect whether community organisations or representatives from the Global South will have the means to apply for new domain names. Civil society must closely assess the terms of the program to ensure that the broadest group of stakeholders, including those most marginalised from Internet-related decision-making, are able to fully participate in the upcoming application round. 

The public consultation on the draft report is open until Tuesday, June 1, 2021. It is critical that public interest advocates and human rights experts among civil society and academia contribute to this process and closely follow the finalisation of the New gTLD Subsequent Procedures Policy. As we have learned since 2012, the outcome of this process will impact the trajectory of global Internet governance far beyond the life of the next application round. 

You can read ARTICLE 19’s public comment to an earlier version of the  GNSO draft report.