Domain Name Control And Free Speech

By Paul Rosenzweig
Saturday, January 10, 2015, 9:51 AM

What does ICANN have to do with Charlie Hebdo?  Quite a bit, it turns out .....

Lawfare has been paying a fair bit of attention to the decision by the United States to give up its contractual control of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA).  That authority is currently conducted by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) under contract to the Department of Commerce.  Current plans are for Commerce to end the contract in September 2015, and let ICANN manage the IANA function on its own.  Some, including me, favor the transition but are concerned that it will occur without an increase in accountability and transparency at ICANN.

For the most part, my concerns have been economic -- I worry that ICANN can extract monopoly rents for the domain names it auctions at the expense of free enterprise.  I have been less concerned about the free speech aspects of the issue.  To be sure, domain names can be "speech" in US terms (think of .islam or .gay) but there seems to me less prospect of affirmative censorship by ICANN than of monopolistic practices.

In the interest then of presenting the counter-evidence to my focus, consider the case of Charlie Hebdo, and the reaction by AFNIC.  AFNIC is the French non-profit that runs the top-level .fr domain -- that is the country code top level domain for the French internet.  Though AFNIC has not changed any outward facing domain names, here's what you see if you run a WHOIS look-up function on their own servers:

JeSuisCharlieOne one level (a level I fully support) this is pretty cool.  Using the interstices of the domain functionality to support free speech.

On the other hand, it does reflect the fact that those who control the naming functionality -- the address-book highway for the internet -- are privileged speakers who have a uniquely public platform from which to advance their own views.  And the transition of the IANA function to ICANN will only strengthen that voice, making it essential that the transition happen with as much in the way of accountability protections as we can muster.