The ICANN board once again quashed an application for a new .xxx top level domain. It would have been used adult content sites who chose to zone themselves in that Web neighborhood.
The board voted to reject the application 9-5 and the there was a good amount of contention among the members on the decision. And, if you have followed the history of ICANN, even knowing this is a pretty remarkable thing. The organization has been long dogged by Internet activists for being secretive, unaccountable and opaque in its decision making process. By contrast, the transcript of the .xxx debate was almost immediately posted to the new ICANN blog. On top of that, one of the board members, Susan Crawford, posted her own objections to the decision on her blog. Another board member in the minority echoed her perspective on his blog.
Yet, obviously, it's the decision here that is really important and not how it was disclosed. And, in reading the transcript, it's a pretty interesting exploration in the current state of Internet governance, how governments interact with ICANN (or not) and the impending pressures related to content and "community" norms that are hitting the Internet as it becomes more mainstream in diverse cultures around the world.
Much of the debate had to do with whether or not the board was unduly influenced by governments to make this decision. Clearly, a February 28 letter (pdf) from Australia's Minister of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, Helen Coonan, was a big sticking point for some. In the letter, Coonan, who has called mobile phones "pipelines for perversion" wrote:
The Australian Government remains strongly opposed to any measures that may result in an increase in the amount of illegal and offensive content on the Internet
Crawford plainly asserts that pressure from the Australian, Brazilian and U.S. governments had a role in the decision. And, she says, this has major implications...
...the entire point of ICANN’S creation was to avoid the operation of chokepoint content control over the domain name system by individual or collective governments. The idea was that the U.S. would serve as a good steward for other governmental concerns by staying in the background and overseeing ICANN’s activities, but not engaging in content-related control.
Australia’s letter and concerns expressed in the past by Brazil and other countries about triple X are explicitly content based and, thus, inappropriate in my view.
If after creation of a triple X TLD certain governments of the world want to ensure that their citizens do not see triple X content, it is within their prerogative as sovereigns to instruct Internet access providers physically located within their territory to block such content. Also, if certain governments want to ensure that all adult content providers with a physical presence in their country register exclusively within triple X, that is their prerogative as well.
But this content-related censorship should not be ICANN’s concern and ICANN should not allow itself to be used as a private lever for government chokepoint content control....
...If ICANN were to base its decisions on the views of the Australian or U.S. or Brazilian government, ICANN would have compromised away its very reason for existence as a private non-governmental governance institution.
The board members who voted against the application were, uh, not happy with Crawford's suggestions that outside forces influenced their decision... For example...
>>DEMI GETSCHKO: I vote in favor of the resolution, and I would like to say that I am a Brazilian citizen. I am an elected board member from the CC community. I don’t make any considerations about the reasons the people on the board voted yes or no. I have to declare very strongly that I am voting on my own decision without any kind of pressure, and it seems to me it would be outrageous to try to say that maybe we have voting in some elections because of some kind of pressures.
>>ALEJANDRO PISANTY: Thank you, Vint. I will vote in favor of the resolution that says no. I vote yes to no.
I have to distance myself energetically, and I see that other board members have already done so from the characterization made by Ms. Susan Crawford. Rhetoric aside, the picture she paints is plainly wrong. I do not consider that the board has been swayed by political pressure of any kind. It has acted to the best of its knowledge and capacity within a very vigorous discussion within the board and within the community.
Within the strict limits set by ICANN’s mandate and for these TLD, within the procedural and substantial rules set by the board’s resolution and the RFP itself. ICANN has acted carefully and strictly within the rules.
Further, I have never seen a discussion colored by such implications as discomfort with adult content in this board or any issues related thereto.
The ICANN board has taken into account what one of the things that Ms. Crawford mentions, that there is no universal set of values regarding adult content other than those related to child pornography and the resolution voted is based precisely on that view, not on any view of the content itself. And I repeat, it’s based on the view that there is no universal set of values agreed explicitly regarding this.
The Family Online Safety Institute, an industry organization that is favor of filtering and other self-regulatory tools to keep adult content away from kids had this statement on the decision:
"We are disappointed by ICANN's decision not to approve the .xxx domain. We believe it has missed a great opportunity to increase the use of content labels and thus make filtering and other child protection efforts more effective," said Stephen Balkam, CEO of FOSI. "We also regret that the voluntary funding of the International Foundation for Online Responsibility from the .xxx registrations will not now become a reality. Contrary to the ICANN resolution, which erroneously asserts that the .xxx proposal avoids the protection of vulnerable members of the community, the proposal was actually an important self-regulatory effort in the field of online safety, and passing it up only hurts parents and children."
On the other hand, AP reports that the "Just Say No" crowd, likes the move:
Focus on the Family lauded the decision, noting that from "the very beginning this idea held out false hope for parents concerned with filth on the Internet," said Daniel Weiss, a senior analyst for media and sexuality.
"It's a strange notion to suggest that we can help kids by sanctioning, endorsing and proliferating the very material that threatens them", he said.