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19 Mar 2011
At Friday's board meeting, ICANN once again narrowly approved the contentious .XXX domain intended for pornography. What this vote primarily shows is that ICANN's processes have been broken for a long time, and aren't getting fixed.
Two board members made thoughtful and eloquent statements before the vote outlining the reasons they were about to vote for or against the domain. George Sadowsky said (summarizing from memory, since the transcripts aren't available yet) that nobody wants .XXX, not the pornographers, who'd picketed the meeting the previous day, nor governments speaking through the GAC, nor the vast numbers of Internet users for whose benefit ICANN is supposed to operate. Any process that approved .XXX was totally broken, and the responsible thing to do is to kill it. Rita Rodin Johnston (again summarizing from memory) said that ICANN had a process for new domains, and that ICM, the applicant for .XXX, has satisfied every condition that process required. ICANN's processes can surely be improved in the future, but if ICANN is to have any credibility, it has to follow its own rules, which means approving .XXX. Other members made some other points, notably that if they turn down .XXX now, it'll come right back in the new TLD process.
The problem is that they're both right. I used to have more sympathy for the process argument, but now I've come around to the viewpoint that ICANN's job is to act in the public interest, and if the process conflicts with that, the process is wrong. This was brought home when I realized that of the sponsored TLDs approved over the past decade, the ones that are supposed to be for specific communities, every single one is a total failure. In every case, the community has voted with their feet and stayed away in droves.
There are tens of millions of co-ops in the world, but only 7000 names in .COOP. There are millions of organizations in the world eligible to use .JOBS, but only 6500 domains in .JOBS. (This disregards 34,000 domains registered by an affiliate of the .JOBS registry, an abuse so egregious that ICANN's normally somnolent compliance department has threatened to shut down the registry.) The story is the same for all the other sTLDs. The only new domain that is anywhere near as successful as the ancient triumverate of COM/ORG/NET is the utterly generic .INFO, only because they sold domains for a third of everyone else's price.
Each sTLD satisfied ICANN's process that was supposed to verify that it had community support, which turned out not to exist. So the fact that .XXX also satisfied that same process tells us exactly nothing, and continuing with the process brings to mind Einstein's definition of insanity.
It is certainly the case that if ICANN turned down .XXX again, ICM would sue them, with very embarassing information likely to come to light from internal memoranda and depositions of current and former staff and board members. On the other hand, the Free Speech Coalition (the people who picketed) will probably sue them for approving it, and the governments who've expressed their disapproval can make ICANN's life unpleasant. ICANN's fear of lawsuits has never been pretty, and it's not pretty now.
Finally, what does this tell us about the new TLD process? Why would the demand for new TLDs now be any more real than it was in 2002 or 2005? ICANN has made a lot of promises to people who (almost certainly wrongly) imagine that they will make a lot of money from .MUSIC or .BERLIN or .ECO or whatever. But where's the public interest? Unfortunately, ICANN shows no more sign of honoring its public interest responsibility now than it ever has.
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