Would it confuse you to go on a website called www.young.indians only to find out it belonged to the Reliance group and was not a Government of India website? Would it offend you if a website ending in the suffix .ram talked about a product and not the deity? Would new forms of web addresses serve to confuse you, excite you, or just like phone numbers, would you simply add them to your address book and pay no further attention to them?
Shakespeare wondered what was in a name, but then again, it was a time before Top Level Domains, global brands with billions of dollars riding on them, and internet governance bodies like ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) existed. If the hotly contested turf war over gTLDs, or generic Top Level Domains, is anything to go by, a lot is in a name.
Take the previously mentioned cases of .indians and .ram — which have not been picked as random examples . Senior bureaucrats from the Department of Electronics & Information Technology (DeITY), Ministry of Communications and IT, Government of India have written to the President & CEO, Chairman of the Board, and Chairman of the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC) of ICANN expressing concerns about releasing .indians to an applicant which is not the government of India. Their view is that that it is “likely that .indians string would be used in a confusing manner for many nefarious purposes, with long term damage to the growing Internet user population in the country.” Similarly, they have raised strong objections to .ram because of its “tremendous religious sensitivity” and the “attendant likelihood of misuse will have far reaching social and religious repercussions in the country.” In fact the Chrysler group, that sells vehicles under the name of Ram trucks and had applied for the gTLD for that very reason has even offered to sign an agreement with the Government of India to use the domain name with caution, and take down any strings that the GoI might find objectionable.
In 2011, ICANN decided to expand TLD from the familiar spate of domains – the .com, .org, .gov and a handful of others. Predictably, there was a rush of applications from all quarters, with many comparing it to a gold rush, a digital real estate boom if you will. About 1930 applications have been made to ICANN from over 60 countries, with 322 new gTLDs approved. 209 applications have been withdrawn. In fact, India is hardly alone in its objections to certain applications, which have also included warning to applicants who have attempted to buy .islam and .bible gTLDs. The United States targeted applications booking the domains .army and .navy. Companies like Johnson & Johnson who wanted to book a closed string for .baby and L’Oreal for .makeup were also warned. The Australian government even warned an applicant for the domain .sucks for its overtly negative connotation. Australia also objected to the following: .cloud, .city, .town, .fail and .wtf. Interestingly, the first warning through the ICANN GAC is known as an Early Warning Stage when applicants can drop out and get refunded 80% of their $148,000 application fees.
While objections raised on grounds on the possible offense of religious sensibilities might tend to be both predictable and understandable, such as Saudi Arabia’s opposition to gTLD’s that are associated with items that are prohibited with Islamic law — .pub, .gay, .vodka, what has been an unexpected but perhaps a much more interesting contest to observe has one from Europe: over .wine (and .vin). Ahead of ICANN 50, France said that “addresses like .wine would put trade agreements regarding the sale of region-specific products like champagne at risk,” and that ICANN perhaps needed a “one country, one vote” system. In simple terms, France is worried that gTLDs could undermine the labeling system that wine has offline – that bottles are labeled by the region they are produced in – for example, to protect who gets to own champagne.wine or (in Indians terms) sula.wine. American winemakers have joined in as well, concerned that consumers will be deceived into believing that they are on the website of the genuine product when they are being influenced by an imitator. The crux of the matter lies in negative economic impact and negative brand value in this debate.
There have been some other interesting problems to have come up before the ICANN board – which consists of a number of internet governance experts with wide ranging policy and technical experience – one of which is a lawsuit from American victims of terrorism asking ICANN to stop turning over any domain names to Iran till it stops funding terror activities in Israel. As the letter states quite simply – “in business and legal terms it is quite simple – we are owed money, and these assets are currency worth money.”
ICANN has in front of it an increasingly complex set of decisions to make, especially as countries, corporates and citizens alike find their own reasons – moral, religious, economic, legal – to try and regulate the online real estate it controls. How ICANN will be run in the coming years is also under the scanner. Very loosely put, ICANN adopts a multistakeholder system – where a government, a corporation, a civil society organization, an engineer, an academic, have an equal say and vote in the debate, processes and outcomes – which has been, under the stewardship of the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). Though the Americans had tried to downplay their influence on ICANN, due to international pressure, they announced in March 2014 that they would, ‘to support and enhance the multistakeholder model of Internet policymaking and governance’ give up this control. However, they clarified that they would not accept a proposal that replaces the NTIA role with a government-led or an inter-governmental organization solution. This means, the US state influence over ICANN would not be replaced by any other mutli-government body but instead a multistakeholder body, which is the current internal structure of ICANN now.
Governments and corporations have already flexed their muscles at ICANN 50. France made public their doubt’s at ICANN’s ability to handle these complex processes. Joining them, the EU also stated it had lost its faith in ICANN processes. An African Union representative echoed similar concerns over the .africa gTLD. However, others have backed ICANN, such as Australia and of course, the US itself. Therefore, one of the main-stages of internet governance – which handles such a critical resource – will be an area to watch in the coming days to track its future. For India, and for all .indians too!
[Mahima Kaul is a Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi and writes about internet/media governance, inclusion and security issues.]