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Governments mull net censorship grab

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Governments working within ICANN are pondering asking for a right of veto on new internet top-level domains, a move that would almost certainly spell doom for politically or sexually controversial TLDs.

In a number of meetings of ICANN's Governmental Advisory Committee here in Brussels this week, civil servants from several nations said they were uncomfortable with the idea of TLDs being introduced that would likely be blocked by certain governments.

They said that it would be preferable for controversial domains to never see the light of day, rather than their being approved by ICANN and then blocked by censorious nations.

Such a policy would create an uncomfortable situation where the world's most repressive or theocratic regimes would essentially have the right of veto over proposed TLDs such as ".gay" on "morality and public order" grounds.

At GAC meetings earlier this week, the term "MOPO" was coined to describe such a policy.

ICANN is currently in the final stretch of its ongoing mission to create a framework under which new TLDs can be added to the root of the domain name system. Applications from interested registries could open as early as the first quarter of next year.

The current draft framework contains MOPO provisions, but it seems likely that these will be cast out of future drafts, after GAC members objected that, in the words of the US representative, they are currently "flawed" and "completely unworkable".

"I think our starting point is, we have a root zone file full of TLDs which are acceptable to everyone," European Commission representative William Dee told an open meeting. "I think the TLDs we add to that root zone file should also be acceptable to everyone... we should be seeking to introduce non-controversial TLDs to the root."

His views were echoed by representatives of governments from Pakistan, Switzerland and Nigeria, among others.

During a separate forum on Thursday, Scott Setz from DotGay.com, which plans to apply to run .gay, warned ICANN to "remain vigilant" and ensure MOPO provisions "do not turn into tools that would enable discrimination and hate".

The GAC argument goes like this: if, for example, ICANN allows an American company to launch .gay, a nation like Uganda, again for example, could decide to block the entire TLD for not complying with its rather outdated notions of personal morality.

Then, the argument continues, what would prevent Uganda from blocking other TLDs, or creating its own new ones, or developing alternative versions of existing TLD strings?

The internet would Balkanise, seriously affecting international trade and communications.

The first test case of this will be .xxx, which ICANN today set along the road to the root. The .xxx TLD will not be subject to the same MOPO rules as future new TLDs, so if governments want to hide it from their citizens, they're going to have to block it at their borders. ®

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