Archives For ICANN

One of the main concerns I had during the IANA transition was the extent to which the newly independent organization would be able to behave impartially, implementing its own policies and bylaws in an objective and non-discriminatory manner, and not be unduly influenced by specific  “stakeholders”. Chief among my concerns at the time was the extent to which an independent ICANN would be able to resist the influence of governments: when a powerful government leaned on ICANN’s board, would it be able to adhere to its own policies and follow the process the larger multistakeholder community put in place?

It seems my concern was not unfounded. Amazon, Inc. has been in a long running struggle with the countries of the Amazonian Basin in South America over the use of the generic top-level domain (gTLD) .amazon. In 2014, the ICANN board (which was still nominally under the control of the US’s NTIA) uncritically accepted the nonbinding advice of the Government Advisory Committee (“GAC”) and denied Amazon Inc.’s application for .amazon. In 2017, an Independent Review Process panel reversed the board decision, because

[the board] failed in its duty to explain and give adequate reasons for its decision, beyond merely citing to its reliance on the GAC advice and the presumption, albeit a strong presumption, that it was based on valid and legitimate public policy concerns.  

Accordingly the board was directed to reconsider the .amazon petition and

make an objective and independent judgment regarding whether there are, in fact, well-founded, merits-based public policy reasons for denying Amazon’s applications.

In the two years since that decision, a number of proposals were discussed between Amazon Inc. and the Amazonian countries as they sought to reach a mutually agreeable resolution to the dispute, none of which were successful. In March of this year, the board acknowledged the failed negotiations and announced that the parties had four more weeks to try again and if no agreement were reached in that time, permitted Amazon Inc. to submit a proposal that would handle the Amazonian countries’ cultural protection concerns.

Predictably, that time elapsed and Amazon, Inc. submitted its proposal, which includes a public interest commitment that would allow the Amazonian countries access to certain second level domains under .amazon for cultural and noncommercial use. For example, Brazil could use a domain such as http://www.br.amazon to showcase the culturally relevant features of the portion of the Amazonian river that flows through its borders.

Prime facie, this seems like a reasonable way to ensure that the cultural interests of those living in the Amazonian region are adequately protected. Moreover, in its first stated objection to Amazon, Inc. having control of the gTLD, the GAC indicated that this was its concern:

[g]ranting exclusive rights to this specific gTLD to a private company would prevent the use of  this domain for purposes of public interest related to the protection, promotion and awareness raising on issues related to the Amazon biome. It would also hinder the possibility of use of this domain to congregate web pages related to the population inhabiting that geographical region.

Yet Amazon, Inc.’s proposal to protect just these interests was rejected by the Amazonian countries’ governments. The counteroffer from those governments was that they be permitted to co-own and administer the gTLD, that their governance interest be constituted in a steering committee on which Amazon, Inc. be given only a 1/9th vote, that they be permitted a much broader use of the gTLD generally and, judging by the conspicuous lack of language limiting use to noncommercial purposes, that they have the ability to use the gTLD for commercial purposes.

This last point certainly must be a nonstarter. Amazon, Inc.’s use of .amazon is naturally going to be commercial in nature. If eight other “co-owners” were permitted a backdoor to using the ‘.amazon’ name in commerce, trademark dilution seems like a predictable, if not inevitable, result. Moreover, the entire point of allowing brand gTLDs is to help responsible brand managers ensure that consumers are receiving the goods and services they expect on the Internet. Commercial use by the Amazonian countries could easily lead to a situation where merchants selling goods of unknown quality are able to mislead consumers by free riding on Amazon, Inc.’s name recognition.

This is a big moment for Internet governance

Theoretically, the ICANN board could decide this matter as early as this week — but apparently it has opted to treat this meeting as merely an opportunity for more discussion. That the board would consider not following through on its statement in March that it would finally put this issue to rest is not an auspicious sign that the board intends to take its independence seriously.

An independent ICANN must be able to stand up to powerful special interests when it comes to following its own rules and bylaws. This is the very concern that most troubled me before the NTIA cut the organization loose. Introducing more delay suggests that the board lacks the courage of its convictions. The Amazonian countries may end up irritated with the ICANN board, but ICANN is either an independent organization or its not.

Amazon, Inc. followed the prescribed procedures from the beginning; there is simply no good reason to draw out this process any further. The real fear here, I suspect, is that the board knows that this is a straightforward trademark case and is holding out hope that the Amazonian countries will make the necessary concessions that will satisfy Amazon, Inc. After seven years of this process, somehow I suspect that this is not likely and the board simply needs to make a decision on the proposals as submitted.

The truth is that these countries never even applied for use of the gTLD in the first place; they only became interested in the use of the domain once Amazon, Inc. expressed interest. All along, these countries maintained that they merely wanted to protect the cultural heritage of the region — surely a fine goal. Yet, when pressed to the edge of the timeline on the process, they produce a proposal that would theoretically permit them to operate commercial domains.

This is a test for ICANN’s board. If it doesn’t want to risk offending powerful parties, it shouldn’t open up the DNS to gTLDs because, inevitably, there will exist aggrieved parties that cannot be satisfied. Amazon, Inc. has submitted a solid proposal that allows it to protect both its own valid trademark interests in its brand as well as the cultural interests of the Amazonian countries. The board should vote on the proposal this week and stop delaying this process any further.

In an ideal world, it would not be necessary to block websites in order to combat piracy. But we do not live in an ideal world. We live in a world in which enormous amounts of content—from books and software to movies and music—is being distributed illegally. As a result, content creators and owners are being deprived of their rights and of the revenue that would flow from legitimate consumption of that content.

In this real world, site blocking may be both a legitimate and a necessary means of reducing piracy and protecting the rights and interests of rightsholders.

Of course, site blocking may not be perfectly effective, given that pirates will “domain hop” (moving their content from one website/IP address to another). As such, it may become a game of whack-a-mole. However, relative to other enforcement options, such as issuing millions of takedown notices, it is likely a much simpler, easier and more cost-effective strategy.

And site blocking could be abused or misapplied, just as any other legal remedy can be abused or misapplied. It is a fair concern to keep in mind with any enforcement program, and it is important to ensure that there are protections against such abuse and misapplication.

Thus, a Canadian coalition of telecom operators and rightsholders, called FairPlay Canada, have proposed a non-litigation alternative solution to piracy that employs site blocking but is designed to avoid the problems that critics have attributed to other private ordering solutions.

The FairPlay Proposal

FairPlay has sent a proposal to the CRTC (the Canadian telecom regulator) asking that it develop a process by which it can adjudicate disputes over web sites that are “blatantly, overwhelmingly, or structurally engaged in piracy.”  The proposal asks for the creation of an Independent Piracy Review Agency (“IPRA”) that would hear complaints of widespread piracy, perform investigations, and ultimately issue a report to the CRTC with a recommendation either to block or not to block sites in question. The CRTC would retain ultimate authority regarding whether to add an offending site to a list of known pirates. Once on that list, a pirate site would have its domain blocked by ISPs.

The upside seems fairly obvious: it would be a more cost-effective and efficient process for investigating allegations of piracy and removing offenders. The current regime is cumbersome and enormously costly, and the evidence suggests that site blocking is highly effective.

Under Canadian law—the so-called “Notice and Notice” regime—rightsholders send notices to ISPs, who in turn forward those notices to their own users. Once those notices have been sent, rightsholders can then move before a court to require ISPs to expose the identities of users that upload infringing content. In just one relatively large case, it was estimated that the cost of complying with these requests was 8.25M CAD.

The failure of the American equivalent of the “Notice and Notice” regime provides evidence supporting the FairPlay proposal. The graduated response system was set up in 2012 as a means of sending a series of escalating warnings to users who downloaded illegal content, much as the “Notice and Notice” regime does. But the American program has since been discontinued because it did not effectively target the real source of piracy: repeat offenders who share a large amount of material.

This, on the other hand, demonstrates one of the greatest points commending the FairPlay proposal. The focus of enforcement shifts away from casually infringing users and directly onto the  operators of sites that engage in widespread infringement. Therefore, one of the criticisms of Canada’s current “notice and notice” regime — that the notice passthrough system is misused to send abusive settlement demands — is completely bypassed.

And whichever side of the notice regime bears the burden of paying the associated research costs under “Notice and Notice”—whether ISPs eat them as a cost of doing business, or rightsholders pay ISPs for their work—the net effect is a deadweight loss. Therefore, whatever can be done to reduce these costs, while also complying with Canada’s other commitments to protecting its citizens’ property interests and civil rights, is going to be a net benefit to Canadian society.

Of course it won’t be all upside — no policy, private or public, ever is. IP and property generally represent a set of tradeoffs intended to net the greatest social welfare gains. As Richard Epstein has observed

No one can defend any system of property rights, whether for tangible or intangible objects, on the naïve view that it produces all gain and no pain. Every system of property rights necessarily creates some winners and some losers. Recognize property rights in land, and the law makes trespassers out of people who were once free to roam. We choose to bear these costs not because we believe in the divine rights of private property. Rather, we bear them because we make the strong empirical judgment that any loss of liberty is more than offset by the gains from manufacturing, agriculture and commerce that exclusive property rights foster. These gains, moreover, are not confined to some lucky few who first get to occupy land. No, the private holdings in various assets create the markets that use voluntary exchange to spread these gains across the entire population. Our defense of IP takes the same lines because the inconveniences it generates are fully justified by the greater prosperity and well-being for the population at large.

So too is the justification — and tempering principle — behind any measure meant to enforce copyrights. The relevant question when thinking about a particular enforcement regime is not whether some harms may occur because some harm will always occur. The proper questions are: (1) Does the measure to be implemented stand a chance of better giving effect to the property rights we have agreed to protect and (2) when harms do occur, is there a sufficiently open and accessible process available whereby affected parties (and interested third parties) can rightly criticize and improve the system.

On both accounts the FairPlay proposal appears to hit the mark.

FairPlay’s proposal can reduce piracy while respecting users’ rights

Although I am generally skeptical of calls for state intervention, this case seems to present a real opportunity for the CRTC to do some good. If Canada adopts this proposal it is is establishing a reasonable and effective remedy to address violations of individuals’ property, the ownership of which is considered broadly legitimate.

And, as a public institution subject to input from many different stakeholder groups — FairPlay describes the stakeholders  as comprised of “ISPs, rightsholders, consumer advocacy and citizen groups” — the CRTC can theoretically provide a fairly open process. This is distinct from, for example, the Donuts trusted notifier program that some criticized (in my view, mistakenly) as potentially leading to an unaccountable, private ordering of the DNS.

FairPlay’s proposal outlines its plan to provide affected parties with due process protections:

The system proposed seeks to maximize transparency and incorporates extensive safeguards and checks and balances, including notice and an opportunity for the website, ISPs, and other interested parties to review any application submitted to and provide evidence and argument and participate in a hearing before the IPRA; review of all IPRA decisions in a transparent Commission process; the potential for further review of all Commission decisions through the established review and vary procedure; and oversight of the entire system by the Federal Court of Appeal, including potential appeals on questions of law or jurisdiction including constitutional questions, and the right to seek judicial review of the process and merits of the decision.

In terms of its efficacy, according to even the critics of the FairPlay proposal, site blocking provides a measurably positive reduction on piracy. In its formal response to critics, FairPlay Canada noted that one of the studies the critics relied upon actually showed that previous blocks of the PirateBay domains had reduced piracy by nearly 25%:

The Poort study shows that when a single illegal peer-to-peer piracy site (The Pirate Bay) was blocked, between 8% and 9.3% of consumers who were engaged in illegal downloading (from any site, not just The Pirate Bay) at the time the block was implemented reported that they stopped their illegal downloading entirely.  A further 14.5% to 15.3% reported that they reduced their illegal downloading. This shows the power of the regime the coalition is proposing.

The proposal stands to reduce the costs of combating piracy, as well. As noted above, the costs of litigating a large case can reach well into the millions just to initiate proceedings. In its reply comments, FairPlay Canada noted the costs for even run-of-the-mill suits essentially price enforcement of copyrights out of the reach of smaller rightsholders:

[T]he existing process can be inefficient and inaccessible for rightsholders. In response to this argument raised by interveners and to ensure the Commission benefits from a complete record on the point, the coalition engaged IP and technology law firm Hayes eLaw to explain the process that would likely have to be followed to potentially obtain such an order under existing legal rules…. [T]he process involves first completing litigation against each egregious piracy site, and could take up to 765 days and cost up to $338,000 to address a single site.

Moreover, these cost estimates assume that the really bad pirates can even be served with process — which is untrue for many infringers. Unlike physical distributors of counterfeit material (e.g. CDs and DVDs), online pirates do not need to operate within Canada to affect Canadian artists — which leaves a remedy like site blocking as one of the only viable enforcement mechanisms.

Don’t we want to reduce piracy?

More generally, much of the criticism of this proposal is hard to understand. Piracy is clearly a large problem to any observer who even casually peruses the lumen database. Even defenders of the status quo  are forced to acknowledge that “the notice and takedown provisions have been used by rightsholders countless—but likely billions—of times” — a reality that shows that efforts to control piracy to date have been insufficient.

So why not try this experiment? Why not try using a neutral multistakeholder body to see if rightsholders, ISPs, and application providers can create an online environment both free from massive, obviously infringing piracy, and also free for individuals to express themselves and service providers to operate?

In its response comments, the FairPlay coalition noted that some objectors have “insisted that the Commission should reject the proposal… because it might lead… the Commission to use a similar mechanism to address other forms of illegal content online.”

This is the same weak argument that is easily deployable against any form of collective action at all. Of course the state can be used for bad ends — anyone with even a superficial knowledge of history knows this  — but that surely can’t be an indictment against lawmaking as a whole. If allowing a form of prohibition for category A is appropriate, but the same kind of prohibition is inappropriate for category B, then either we assume lawmakers are capable of differentiating between category A and category B, or else we believe that prohibition itself is per se inappropriate. If site blocking is wrong in every circumstance, the objectors need to convincingly  make that case (which, to date, they have not).

Regardless of these criticisms, it seems unlikely that such a public process could be easily subverted for mass censorship. And any incipient censorship should be readily apparent and addressable in the IPRA process. Further, at least twenty-five countries have been experimenting with site blocking for IP infringement in different ways, and, at least so far, there haven’t been widespread allegations of massive censorship.

Maybe there is a perfect way to control piracy and protect user rights at the same time. But until we discover the perfect, I’m all for trying the good. The FairPlay coalition has a good idea, and I look forward to seeing how it progresses in Canada.

As we noted in our issue brief on the impending ICANN transition, given the vast scope of the problem, voluntary relationships between registries, registrars and private industry will be a critical aspect of controlling online piracy. Last week the MPAA and registry operator Radix announced a new “trusted notifier” program under which the MPAA will be permitted to submit evidence of large-scale piracy occurring in Radix-managed top-level domains.

In many respects, this resembles the program that the MPAA and Donuts established in February— however as the first non-U.S. based program, this is a major step forward. As in the Donuts agreement, the new program will contain a number of procedural safeguards, including a requirement that clear evidence of pervasive infringement is occurring, along with a document attesting to the fact that the MPAA first attempted to resolve the situation with the name registrar directly. If, after attempting to work with its associated registrars to contact the website owner, Radix determines that the website is engaged illegal conduct it will either place the domain name on hold or else suspend it entirely.

These sorts of self-help agreements are really crucial to the future of Internet governance, and not merely for their facilitation of removing infringing content. Once ICANN becomes an independent organization that is completely untethered from the U.S. Government, it will be up to the community at large to maintain the credibility of DNS management.

And the importance of these self-help agreements is particularly acute in light of ICANN’s long standing refusal to enforce its own contractual restrictions in place with registries and registrars. As we noted in our brief:

Very likely, [ICANN’s governance structure] will be found through voluntary, private arrangements between registries, registrars, and third parties. An overarching commitment to enforcing legitimate contracts, therefore, even ones that espouse particular policy objectives, will be a core attribute of a well-organized ICANN.

In fact, far and away ICANN’s most significant failing has been the abdication of its responsibility to enforce the terms of its own contracts, particularly the Registrar Accreditation Agreement. The effect of this obstinance is that ICANN has failed to exercise its obligation to maintain a “secure, stable, [and] resilient… Internet” free of costly “pollutants” like piracy, illegal prescription drugs, and phishing sites that impose significant costs on others with relative impunity.

In March, ICANN submitted its stewardship proposal to Congress — a document that outlines how ICANN proposes to operate as an independent organization. Much criticism of the transition has focused on the possibility of authoritarian regimes co-opting the root zone file and related DNS activities. It’s in everyone’s interest to prevent clearly illegal conduct from occurring online. Otherwise, without a minimal standard of governance, the arguments for a multi-lateral government run Internet become much easier to advance.

And certainly a big part of Congress’s consideration of the transition will be whether ICANN can plausibly continue to operate as a legitimate steward of the DNS. When registries step forward and agree to maintain at least a minimal baseline of pro-social conduct, it goes a long way toward moving the transition forward and guaranteeing a free and open Internet for the future.

Today, the International Center for Law & Economics (ICLE) released its Innovation Policy Research Program White Paper entitled: IN ICANN WE TRUST: ASSURING ACCOUNTABLE INTERNET GOVERNANCE. This article is an abbreviated excerpt of a forthcoming scholarly article that explores various aspects of the proposed transition of the IANA Internet governance functions from U.S. oversight to full multistakeholder control in conjunction with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Number (“ICANN”).

Since 1998, ICANN has been the organization tasked with overseeing the Domain Name System (DNS). Though it possesses contractual control over its registries and registrars (the entities responsible for managing and registering top level domains and domain names), illegal conduct is rarely ever deterred by ICANN. For instance, the organization has refused to effectively deter content piracy on the Internet, and pirated content currently constitutes nearly one-quarter of Internet traffic. ICANN has consistently claimed that its role in Internet governance is merely a technical one, and that it is not the “regulator of Internet content.” However, the impending transfer of IANA stewardship entails imbuing ICANN with an overtly government-like function that demands more than mere technical acuity. Whatever ICANN’s historical role has been, following the transition ICANN will have a dual role — one that includes the obligation to properly “steward” the DNS, as well as to technically administer it.

The full forthcoming paper develops a recommendation that the post-transition ICANN be structurally designed to account for the public interest concerns of the multistakeholder community. Building on existing scholarship, as well as recommendations that have emerged from the Cross-Community Working Group on Accountability, we recommend implementation of strong due process controls within the organization in order to provide the checks and balances that would restrain the organization suitably while also allowing it to answer to the policy concerns of the multistakeholder community. Further, as a private organization without government oversight, the recognition and enforcement of contractual provisions with registries and registrars is an essential component of assuring the accountability of the organization and the achievement of multistakeholder policy goals.

Historically there have been criticisms of ICANN — both in terms of the direct accountability of the board to the stakeholder community as well as in terms of its refusal to enforce its own contracts.  This paper develops a theory of implementation for the organization that attempts to resolve these problems and, ideally, to give the NTIA and Congress a frame for understanding the broader needs of accountability in the new post-transition ICANN.

It seems like debates that involve the ability to access the Internet fall into absolutism very quickly. One could almost construct a corollary of Godwin’s law:

As the length of a policy discussion involving the Internet increases, the probability of someone claiming a nefarious plot to destroy the Internet approaches 1.

Should there be zero-rated services for underserved populations? NO! It’s just Facebook trying to remake the Internet in its own image. Should broadband operators be able to intelligently optimize their networks and have some manner of allowing smaller players to purchase guaranteed bandwidth? HORRORS! That’s just cable companies creating fast-lanes and data caps in order to extort money out of poor defenseless consumers! Should we perhaps prevent companies from using clever tricks to circumvent our patent system and import laws? YOU CANNOT! Preventing infringing digital articles from entering the U.S. will close the Internet!

And of course, any effort to curb illegal content online can be attributable only to a cabal of content owners trying to give themselves an Internet kill switch.

Only, it’s just not true. There is nothing at all legally necessary — or even reasonable — about a per se protection of one right at the expense of any other right. But that’s just what some would have us believe. Online, the right to expression simply must trump all other values — law enforcement and property owners be damned.

But it’s hardly novel or controversial to understand that rights are balanced against each other and — with very rare exceptions — no right is absolute. Just as in the offline world, any one person’s rights online are circumscribed by the scope of everyone else’s rights. My ability to speak is not limited just by the principles of defamation and public safety, but also by the location where I speak. I am not entitled to limitless speech rights in all manner of private fora. Similarly, my right to travel does not entail my use of your privately owned vehicle – my rights are firmly delineated by at least the harm principle. So if I want to go on a vacation or stay in a obx rentals at some city far away, I need to find my own transportation, since I don’t have right over yours.

And I think that, for the most part, everyone gets this. For instance, ICANN – the organization responsible for managing the domain name system (“DNS”) added some basic “public interest commitments” (“PIC”) into its registry and registrar agreements that are intended to discourage “distributing malware, abusively operating botnets, phishing, piracy, trademark or copyright infringement, fraudulent or deceptive practices, counterfeiting or otherwise engaging in activity contrary to applicable law.”

Of course even though these PICs sounds eminently reasonable, the free expression absolutists are there to claim that these provisions are just attempted “governance-by-infrastructure.” But, as elsewhere, this view gets the whole situation wrong.

At root, it is exceedingly improbable that DNS providers can avoid having some role in preventing the proliferation of illegal content. After all, ICANN, its registries, and its registrars are creatures of contract and statute, and as such are embedded in a social and legal context that expects certain minimal compliance from its institutions. Like, for instance, not facilitating thievery or the sale of unregulated and dangerous medicines.

That’s why it was particularly heartening to read about the Donuts-MPAA agreement last week: A private arrangement that finds a resolute middle ground that protects both expression rights as well as property rights. Donuts — the largest of the new gTLD registries — announced that it would be regarding the MPAA as a “Trusted Notifier” in its efforts to combat illegal content hosted through any of its TLDs. Essentially, this arrangement gives the MPAA an expedited method for submitting vetted complaints about widespread infringement being conducted through a Donuts-issued domain. Also as part of this arrangement, Donuts will implement a set of procedures, including the ability of affected registrants to protest, before any sanctions (e.g. domain name suspension) are imposed.

“Self-help” mechanisms like Donuts’ “Trusted Notifier” are very important — not just for what they accomplish, but for what they say about the interests of ICANN and its registrars and registries in maintaining credibility by minimizing harmful behaviors. And, the real story here is that this sort of voluntary arrangement is in fact possible between these organizations.

Frequently, rightsholders are vilified for any attempt to introduce reasonable accountability that might result in domain name suspensions because, naturally, only greedy, short-sighted groups like the MPAA and the RIAA would ever think of suspending domains where clear, pervasive property theft or other patently illegal conduct is occurring. This is of course a fantasy, and it is roundly rebutted by the Donuts-MPAA arrangement.

Interested in maintaining its credibility, both with the public, as well as with ICANN stakeholders, Donuts is motivated to ensure that it is a good corporate citizen. And this is where the Donuts-MPAA agreement really breaks new ground. This is a voluntary, arm’s-length arrangement reached through negotiation and mutual assent. This is not a master Internet switch that rights-holders get to flip at their whim, and it’s not a scattershot approach. It seems to be — at least from this early view — a fairly well-balanced, targeted, responsive and moderate approach to combating illicit use of the DNS.

Going forward, I think Congress and ICANN should take a lesson from Donuts’ approach to dealing with illegal content. Continuing to rely on the PIC provisions of the registry agreement is a no-brainer. But more broadly, the PICs should be woven into a larger enforcement “ecosystem” that ideally has ICANN in more of a supervisory role.

ICANN sets up the rules of the road that everyone is expected to follow, and can leave it to the registries to operationalize the basic PICs. If done correctly, the accountability regime could be realized through a simple respect for contracts — which ICANN could then guarantee as one of the few positive commitments for enforcement that it makes.

Yesterday the Heritage Foundation released a series of essays on “Saving Internet Freedom.”  These analytical essays are an excellent reference work for interested members of the public who seek answers to those who claim the Internet requires new and intrusive government regulation.  The introduction to the essays highlights the topics they cover and summarizes their conclusions:

“1.    Federal “network-neutrality” regulations. Rules adopted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in February 2015 bar Internet access providers from prioritizing the content that is sent through their networks. This ban limits the ability of Internet service providers (ISPs) to innovate, which limits economic freedom, to the detriment of the Internet and its users. In addition to activities clearly prohibited, the new rule also gives the FCC vast discretion. As a result, critical decisions about what practices will be allowed on the Net will be left to the subjective judgment of five unelected FCC commissioners.

  1. Global Internet governance. Many nations, such as China and Russia, have made no secret of their desire to limit speech on the Internet. Even some democratic nations have supported limiting freedoms online. With the U.S. government’s decision to end its oversight of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the private, nonprofit organization that manages name and number assignments on the Internet, these countries see a chance to fill the vacuum, and to use ICANN’s Internet governance role to limit expression on the Web.
  2. Regulatory barriers to online commerce. The Internet is a true disruptive force in commerce, challenging inefficient ways of business. Often, these challenges conflict with anti-consumer laws that protect middlemen and others with a stake in older, costlier ways of doing business. These harmful laws have eroded in many cases, but have not been erased from the statute books.
  3. Internet taxation. Sales and other taxation also create regulatory barriers to online commerce. Some politicians and state tax collectors are pushing Congress to pass legislation that would allow state governments to force retailers located in other states to collect their sales taxes. They say they want to equalize the tax burdens between so-called brick-and-mortar retailers and their online counterparts. But instead of eliminating differences, the proposal would create new disparities and impose new burdens, as sellers struggle to deal with the tax laws of some 10,000 jurisdictions and 46 state tax authorities.
  4. Intellectual property. The freedom to create without fear that one’s creation will be appropriated by others is fundamental. At the same time, overly restrictive laws limiting the use of intellectual property erodes other freedoms, not least freedom of expression. The challenge to lawmakers is to balance these two opposing values, to protect intellectual property without undue limits on its fair use or on third parties.
  5. Cybersecurity. To enjoy the freedoms made possible by the Internet, a certain amount of security is needed to protect it from cyber theft, vandalism, and other criminal threats. This security cannot simply be achieved by government mandates. Government should remove barriers that hinder private-sector efforts to protect online networks.
  6. Digital privacy. Under current law, communications by Americans via electronic networks enjoy less protection than a letter sent by mail. Government does have a legitimate interest in viewing private communications in limited circumstances in order to apprehend criminals or terrorists and to protect security. But to do so, the government should be required to obtain a search warrant for each case, holding it to the constitutional standards that protect other communications, such as mail.”

Supporters of individual freedom and economic liberty will find much to like in these essays.

In March 2014, the U.S. Government’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA, the Executive Branch’s telecommunications policy agency) abruptly announced that it did not plan to renew its contract with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to maintain core functions of the Internet. ICANN oversees the Internet domain name system through its subordinate agency, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA). In its March statement, NTIA proposed that ICANN consult with “global stakeholders” to agree on an alternative to the “current role played by NTIA in the coordination of the Internet’s [domain name system].”

In recent months Heritage Foundation scholars have discussed concerns stemming from this vaguely-defined NTIA initiative (see, for example, here, here, here, here, here, and here). These concerns include fears that eliminating the U.S. Government’s role in Internet governance could embolden other nations and international organizations (especially the International Telecommunications Union, an arm of the United Nations) to seek to regulate the Internet and limit speech, and create leeway for ICANN to expand beyond its core activities and trench upon Internet freedoms.

Although NTIA has testified that its transition plan would preclude such undesirable outcomes, the reaction to these assurances should be “trust but verify” (especially given the recent Administration endorsement of burdensome Internet common carrier regulation, which appears to be at odds with the spirit if not the letter of NTIA’s assurances).

Reflecting the “trust but verify” spirit, the just-introduced “Defending Internet Freedom Act of 2014” requires that NTIA maintain its existing Internet oversight functions, unless the NTIA Administrator certifies in writing that certain specified assurances have been met regarding Internet governance. Those assurances include findings that the management of the Internet domain name system will not be exercised by foreign governmental or intergovernmental bodies; that ICANN’s bylaws will be amended to uphold First Amendment-type freedoms of speech, assembly, and association; that a four-fifths supermajority will be required for changes in ICANN’s bylaws or fees for services; that an independent process for resolving disputes between ICANN and third parties be established; and that a host of other requirements aimed at protecting Internet freedoms and ensuring ICANN and IANA accountability be instituted.

Legislative initiatives of this sort, while no panacea, play a valuable role in signaling Congress’s intent to hold the Administration accountable for seeing to it that key Internet freedoms (including the avoidance of onerous regulation and deleterious restrictions on speech and content) are maintained. They merit thoughtful consideration.

The ridiculousness currently emanating from ICANN and the NTIA (see these excellent posts from Milton Mueller and Eli Dourado on the issue) over .AMAZON, .PATAGONIA and other “geographic”/commercial TLDs is precisely why ICANN (and, apparently, the NTIA) is a problematic entity as a regulator.

The NTIA’s response to ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee’s (GAC) objection to Amazon’s application for the .AMAZON TLD (along with similar applications from other businesses for other TLDs) is particularly troubling, as Mueller notes:

In other words, the US statement basically says “we think that the GAC is going to do the wrong thing; its most likely course of action has no basis in international law and is contrary to vital policy principles the US is supposed to uphold. But who cares? We are letting everyone know that we will refuse to use the main tool we have that could either stop GAC from doing the wrong thing or provide it with an incentive to moderate its stance.”

Competition/antitrust issues don’t seem to be the focus of this latest chapter in the gTLD story, but it is instructive on this score nonetheless. As Berin Szoka and I wrote in ICLE’s comment to ICANN on gTLDS:

Among the greatest threats to this new “land rush” of innovation is the idea that ICANN should become a competition regulator, deciding whether to approve a TLD application based on its own competition analysis. But ICANN is not a regulator. It is a coordinator. ICANN should exercise its coordinating function by applying the same sort of analysis that it already does in coordinating other applications for TLDs.

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Moreover, the practical difficulties in enforcing different rules for generic TLDs as opposed to brand TLDs likely render any competition pre-clearance mechanism unworkable. ICANN has already determined that .brand TLDs can and should be operated as closed domains for obvious and good reasons. But differentiating between, say .amazon the brand and .amazon the generic or .delta the brand and .delta the generic will necessarily result in arbitrary decisions and costly errors.

Of most obvious salience: implicit in the GAC’s recommendation is the notion that somehow Amazon.com is sufficiently different than .AMAZON to deny Amazon’s ownership of the latter. But as Berin and I point out:

While closed gTLDs might seem to some to limit competition, that limitation would occur only within a particular, closed TLD. But it has every potential to be outweighed by the dramatic opening of competition among gTLDs, including, importantly, competition with .com.

In short, the market for TLDs and domain name registrations do not present particular competitive risks, and there is no a priori reason for ICANN to intervene prospectively.

In other words, treating Amazon.com and .AMAZON as different products, in different relevant markets, is a mistake. No doubt Amazon.com would, even if .AMAZON were owned by Amazon, remain for the foreseeable future the more relevant site. If Latin American governments are concerned with cultural and national identity protection, they should (not that I’m recommending this) focus their objections on Amazon.com. But the reality is that Amazon.com doesn’t compromise cultural identity, and neither would Amazon’s ownership of .AMAZON. Rather, the wide availability of new TLDs opens up an enormous range of new competitive TLD and SLD constraints on existing, dominant .COM SLDs, any number of which could be effective in promoting and preserving cultural and national identities.

By the way – Amazonia.com, Amazonbasin.com and Amazonrainforest.com, presumably among many others, look to be unused and probably available for purchase. Perhaps opponents of Amazon’s ownership of .AMAZON should set their sights on those or other SLDs and avoid engaging in the sort of politicking that will ultimately ruin the Internet.

I’ve just returned from Sydney where I was at the ICANN meetings giving a presentation (with Steve Salop of Georgetown Law) and participating in a Q&A on the potential economic consequences of vertical integration between registries and registrars.  I had a great time on the panel, but the highlight for me was spending talking to the various industry and ICANN representatives.  This is a fascinating and dynamic space with more interesting legal and economic issues than one can imagine.  I’m thrilled that I was able to go and learned a lot.

Note to graduate students studying economics, industrial organization, regulation, public and law and economics: this is a field ripe for dissertation topics and in need of both theoretical and empirical contributions.