By Deborah Weiss
Recently, the Obama Administration announced that it would transfer its oversight of internet domain management to a yet-to-be-named international multi-stakeholder. Many are concerned that this will lead to the suppression of speech in capitulation to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and other free speech tyrants. And though some on the left insist that these concerns amount to nothing more than alarmist folly, the concessions have already begun.
The internet originated in America, initially launched as a government experiment in networks. Over a period of two decades, it grew to include researchers and think tanks. In 1992, the “network of networks” opened its doors to the commercial world, and the internet as we know it today was birthed.
A global system of domain management was needed. Someone had to keep a list of domain names and assign them numbers for internet users worldwide. This had to be done by a central body in order to prevent multiple individuals, organizations or other entities from winding up with duplicative domain names, causing confusion.
Initially, domain management was conducted informally. Then, in 1998, the Department of Commerce (DoC) recognized ICANN, a California-based non-profit organization, to perform this function. In a cooperative arrangement, the DoC’s National Telecommunications Information Agency (NTIA) would retain some minor administrative tasks regarding internet management, but would also have a critical oversight function over ICANN to ensure that the internet is free, secure and stable.
NTIA’s contract with ICANN is set to expire in September of 2015. On March 14, 2014, the Obama Administration announced that it would decline its option to renew the contract and instead allow ICANN oversight to transfer to the “global multi-stake holder community”.
Despite some alarm on the right that ICANN will fall into the hands of China, Russia or the UN, both ICANN and the NTIA have been clear that they will not agree to transfer oversight responsibilities to any government entity or to the United Nations. What is not clear is what entity is qualified to assume this function or whether ICANN might wind up without an oversight body altogether.
Currently, there is bipartisan concern that US relinquishment of domain oversight will have negative consequences for freedom of speech. The Wall Street Journal referred to it as “America’s internet surrender.” Newt Gingrich warned that “every American should worry about Obama giving up control of the internet to an undefined group. This is very, very dangerous.” Even former President Bill Clinton has been extremely vocal on the issue, proclaiming that “I just know that a lot of these so-called multi-stakeholders are really governments that want to gag people and restrict access to the Internet.”
Two legislative bills are now in the works to prevent the Obama Administration from moving oversight of ICANN out of US hands. The first is a bill sponsored by Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn, which would stall the transfer until the Government Accountability Office could do a study on the transfer’s impact. The second bill, sponsored by Congressman Mike Kelly, would prohibit the administration from making the transfer without congressional approval.
Because ICANN has no control over website content, fraud or email spam, some on the left erroneously assume that this precludes the possibility of stifling free speech on the internet.
Others naively believe that if attempts at censorship through domain name assignments were to occur, it would be met by “stiff opposition” from domain registry operators and ISP’s…. as if this would be sufficient to stop the likes of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and other tyrannical free speech oppressors.
In truth, ICANN has already started to crack under the OIC’s pressure.
In January 2012, ICANN announced that it would expand its gTLD program (top level domain suffixes) allowing potential approval of numerous additional suffixes, for example, .IBM, .Canon, .sports, .health, .church, or .bible.
Subsequently, Asia Green IT System, LTC (“AGIT”), a Turkey-based company, applied for two gTLDs: .Islam and .hahal.
The UAE, which sits on ICANN’s Government Advisory Committee (GAC), twice objected to AGIT’s applications and tried to prevent the sale of both domain names. Other countries including Egypt, Bahrain, Qatar, and Oman and Kuwait also protested.
After AGIT responded, determinations were made in AGIT’s favor.
Then, in October, the OIC joined ICANN with Observer status. In November 2013 the OIC Secretary General wrote a letter to the GAC Chair demanding that AGIT’s application be denied. The Chair refused.
After each objection to AGIT’s applications, objectors were told that there was insufficient evidence that the Muslim community supported their objection or that the application approval would hurt their community’s interests.
In response, the OIC gathered its Council on Foreign Ministers and unanimously adopted the “Resolution consolidating the OIC’s Position to Preserve gTLDs with Islamic Identity”, on December 11, 2013. The resolution:
- asserted that gTLDs with an “Islamic identity” are of such “sensitive nature” that they are a concern to the entire Islamic nation;
- that OIC Member States plan to formulate a “unified position” regarding the management of gTLDs with Islamic identities to prevent their “misuse”;
- that the registration of any domain names of gTLDs must ensure that no religion is “offended”;
- that the sale of the .Islam and .halal domains should be preserved for Member States; and
- that OIC Member States should become active in ICANN.
Then-Secretary General of the OIC, Ekmelledin Ihsanoglu followed this up with a letter to the Chairman of the ICANN Board of Directors, Steve Crocker, noting that the OIC is the “sole official representative of the Muslim world” and that it supports the UAE’s objection to the sale of the domain names .Islam and .halal. He argued that the resolution’s unanimous approval “nullifies” the GAC’s observation that the Muslim community doesn’t support the UAE’s objections and that the sale of these domain names won’t harm the Muslim community.
As a result, ICANN made a decision to “defer” action on the .Islam and .halal domain suffixes until AGIT resolves all conflicts with the objectors, namely the OIC and its member states. By requiring a private company to negotiate with speech-suppressing governments ICANN effectively punted on its responsibilities. Its “deferral” is tantamount to a denial of the applicant’s request.
This is a free speech battle. Though ICANN doesn’t directly control website content, it does control the sale of domain names, which consist of words that represent subjects. The OIC should not be permitted to bully ICANN into reserving Islam-related domain names for OIC Member States only.
First, there is no right to be free from offense in the sale or ownership of domain names, nor should there be. Second, the words Islam and halal are not inherently offensive to the Muslim community, therefore it’s obviously not the domain name itself to which the OIC objects. Rather, the OIC wants to ensure that these words are used with only positive connotations. To ensure that the domains suffixes are confined to OIC-approved content, only OIC Members States are to be trusted.
Even assurances by AGIT that it would not “misuse” the suffixes, failed to appease the OIC. The OIC wants ownership of the words, not just in the form of domain strings, but in common parlance as well.
The OIC has been calling for the equivalent of blasphemy codes for over a decade in the form of UN resolutions to combat “defamation” of Islam. It is on a perpetual quest to stifle criticism of Islam-related topics, ever seeking out new international legal instruments to achieve its goal.
Suppression of these suffixes is only the tip of the iceberg. Free speech advocates who fear internet freedom is at risk should be taken seriously. America has been doing an exceptional job of keeping the internet free, secure and stable, and should remain its trusted steward. If internet oversight leaves her hands, further concessions to free speech tyrants like the OIC can be expected.
America should not relinquish ICANN oversight to the global community for the sake of “fairness” or political correctness. As the saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”