What is this river nonsense? Give .amazon to Bezos, says US Congress

US government tells ICANN to ignore government attempts at influence. Um…

What's that? The intersection of political power, capitalism and internet governance?

The US Congress has had a second stab at trying to get Amazon its own internet extension in a letter to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).

The Congressional Trademark Caucus has written to the domain name overseer's CEO and chair complaining about the decision to deny the online retailer its namesake top-level domain: dot-amazon.

The letter [PDF] even holds the transition of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) contract over ICANN's head - a process that Congress will soon have final say over.

"At this critical stage in which the United States Government prepares to transition stewardship of the IANA functions, we believe it is incumbent upon ICANN to resolve this issue," the letter, eschewing any effort at subtlety.

Demonstrating the self-awareness that the Congress have become famous for, the letter castigates ICANN for falling under the influence of governments who only push arguments for their own self-interest.

"Neither Brazil nor Peru has any legally recognized rights - let alone intellectual property rights - in the term 'Amazon' and there is no basis in international law for either country to assert rights in the term 'Amazon'," it argues.

This letter follows an earlier one a week ago [PDF] from 11 members of Congress, many of whom sit on the committee that oversees the internet, and hence IANA and ICANN, in which it complains about government interference and the decision by the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC) of ICANN to reject Amazon's application "without any legal basis".

"The ICANN Board succumbed to political pressure from several governments," it complains bitterly, before again trying to leverage the IANA contract to make ICANN succumb to political pressure.

"As the plans for the IANA transition develop, it is critical ICANN's rules and policies not be subverted by government interference," it notes with not a touch of irony.

What's the deal?

The subject of the application for '.amazon' by US online retailer Amazon is an intriguing one that cuts along multiple lines of power.

While the rules for massively expanding the number of internet extensions were being developed, the world's governments were very vocal about being given the right to veto any applications that they didn't approve of.

While this was taken by some as undue government interference, in reality what happened was that the governments used their significant expertise in public policy matters to develop a "score card" of concerns that ended up filing a number of significant holes in ICANN's policies.

Broadly, the compromise reached was that if the GAC as a whole disapproved of a particular name then ICANN would be obliged to ban it. For the GAC to reach a consensus on something is not easy (these are the world's governments, after all) but if there are one or two members that feel very strongly about something and no one is that bothered, it can become a consensus position.

Banned

This is what happened with a number of applications. They included: '.wine' and '.vin' which the French and Italian governments were very unhappy about but recently reached a compromise; '.islam' and '.halal' which have been put on a sort of indefinite hold; '.guangzhou' and '.shenzhen' which the Chinese government objected to and the applicants simply withdrew; and two Amazon applications (among a number of others: .thai, .ram…)

One of Amazon's applications objected to was for '.yun' - roughly Chinese for "cloud" - which the Chinese government had a problem with, prompting Amazon to withdraw and leaving it in the hands of Chinese company Qihoo 360.

And then of course '.amazon' - as well as both Japanese and Chinese language equivalents of the name.

Amazon passed all of ICANN's criteria for '.amazon' and the application appeared approved when a number of South American governments - particularly the Brazilian government - suddenly started making noises about it.

On 18 July 2013, at ICANN's Durban meeting, '.amazon' went from approved to formally disapproved by the GAC.

Many felt it was not entirely a coincidence that just two weeks earlier, documents supplied by Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA had spied extensively on Brazilian citizens and on the Brazilian president herself, tapping her phone.

Dilma Rousseff would later lambast the United States in a speech at the United Nations but the first signs of Brazilian fury were felt at the ICANN meeting in Durban. Despite determined diplomatic efforts by Amazon's representatives, the Brazilian government was not to be moved and the ban on '.amazon' was reaffirmed in November 2013.

The US government meanwhile, having said previously that it would remain neutral in any decisions that it did not actively disapprove of, did not object to the Brazilian government's stance and so it became a matter of formal GAC advice to the ICANN Board.

The ICANN Board didn't much like it but duly resolved that the '.amazon' application should not go forward while noting that Amazon was still in discussions with the South American governments.

By adopting the GAC advice, the NGPC notes that the decision is without prejudice to the continuing efforts by Amazon and members of the GAC to pursue dialogue on the relevant issues.

So who has a case?

The issue of whether Amazon, the corporation, has a case is up for debate.

Strictly speaking, the Brazilian and Peruvian governments do not have rights over the name "Amazon" even though it is the world's longest and possibly most famous river and it runs through their territories.

But at the same time, ICANN did create rules that would allow governments to object to particular applications, and that happened in this case. It is official GAC advice that the bid for '.amazon' not proceed. And that also happened with a number of other applications that governments also have no real rights over.

The difference is that while the other affected applications decided to simply walk away, Amazon's representatives were infuriated by what they say as being caught up in a purely political play over NSA spying and decided to keep fighting.

It's worth bearing in mind that it's not as if there is a burgeoning online community built up around the Amazon river. And of course Amazon the retailer was the only one that applied for the '.amazon' name.

The ICANN Board is allowed to reject GAC advice but it needs to provide a strong rationale for doing so. As such, the ICANN Board has to weigh up whether to annoy Amazon the corporation (which also multiple contracts now with ICANN to run other top-level domains) as well as annoy the US Congress at a critical time; or risk upsetting the Brazilian government and many other members of its governmental advisory committee by caving in to US government pressure.

In other words, it is caught between a rock and a hard place. Typically in these situations, ICANN makes the wrong decision. As to what that wrong decision is, well, who knows?

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