The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the global body that oversees the Internet address system, on June 20 approved new generic top-level domains (gTLDs)
. So instead of being restricted to .com, .org, or country-specific domains like .cz, anything goes -- provided you pay a fee of $185,000 to get registered with ICANN. That means, after 2012 when they go on sale, we’re likely to have .coke, .radio, .freedom, or .humanrights.
Much of the discussion about the ICANN move has been focused on corporate identity and branding and the possibility of increased phishing and spoofing. Citibank clients, for example, could easily be scammed into clicking on a legitimate-looking URL at a .money domain.
But how could this change affect censorship?
Censorship has always been a factor in the expansion of domain names. When ICANN approved the .xxx domain
in March, advocates of the change in the United States thought that it would be a good way to censor pornography. If porn sites were pigeon-holed into .xxx domains, which many parents could then presumably block, vulnerable teens would be much less likely to stumble across porn when doing their homework assignments. The flaw in the plan is that, in the United States at least, by law you can’t force porn sites into only taking .xxx domains. They’re quite happy with their .com domains, thank you very much.
But how might that work in other parts of the world, with more restrictive legal frameworks?
I spoke to Lauren Weinstein, the co-founder of the People for Internet Responsibility, who has been critical of the recent domain expansio
"Once you start to create very fine-grained TLDs you create a very simple way for governments to enforce blocking and censorship on those TLDs and [can] require that companies or particular types of organizations operate out of particular TLDs. That’s much harder to do when you have a few general and generic ones like .com and .net," Weinstein said.
Not only could repressive governments start blocking domains such as .humanrights, they could also legally require NGOs to register under those domains.
From a technical perspective, the domain expansion could also make filtering more efficient. Brett Solomon at Access Now
said it was unclear what the impact might be but it could pose a risk:
One reason why large-scale content filtering has traditionally been avoided or abandoned or perhaps just kept to a minimum is because of the computing resource “cost” in technically performing the filtering actions.
So from a technical perspective it “costs” vastly less to block with a filtering rule that states “deny .humanrights” than it would to block against a long list of many thousands of URLs of human rights-related websites.
The question then is who would use the new domains. Activists or human rights groups working in oppressive environments probably wouldn’t gravitate towards .humanrights or .freedom domains anyway -- it would be like holding a red rag to a bull. It’s possible also that governments could collectively prevent the existence of such domains anyway.
If NGOs were forced into these domain-silos by their governments, then such groups would most likely be operating in such an oppressive environment that, regardless of their domain, they’re going to get blocked/censored/hassled anyway. Their real online activism would be happening off the radar and they would continue to use the URLs that had a better chance of being accessed by their target audience.
To make another analogy with porn, just because they block the .xxx domain in the UAE, doesn’t mean that people there wouldn’t find a way to look at porn. The same applies to human rights content.
An additional worry might be the way in which unscrupulous actors could try to co-opt certain domains. Shaping the discourse can be just as effective as cutting it off. Russia and China have effectively used GONGOs (government-run NGOs), which merely pay lip service to their stated aims of building civil society. In certain countries, domains such as .humanrights, .activist, .freedom (the new domains can be in any language) could be dominated by government-sponsored human rights bodies or worse, pro-regime stooges, creating the appearance of civil society without any of its substance.
"Anything that makes it harder for people to figure out who they're really dealing with is going to make it easier for governments or companies or spammers or phishers or whoever to take advantage of people one way or another,” Weinstein said.
“Because there's going to be such a proliferation of these TLDs…people are just going to be guessing a lot when they see these and that opens up tremendous potential for mischief and worse."