During their June 25, 2010 meeting, the ICANN Board directed staff to proceed with contract negotiations with ICM registry, the infamous registry embroiled with ICANN for years in their attempt to launch the .xxx Sponsored Top-Level Domain (sTLD). Some are heralding this decision as a success for ICM Registry, and see .xxx on the horizon.
However, my bet is we will never see .xxx as a top level domain. The Board decision to move ahead with negotiations is only the first step of many before .xxx can be approved. Following the contract negotiations, the ICANN Board will seek Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC) advice on whether the application aligns with public policy principles and the concerns of governments. Only after that will the Board decide whether to approve the contract. We know from previous GAC advice provided on the .xxx matter that governments definitely don’t support the creation of what is essentially an adult entertainment top level domain. I think it’s unlikely their advice will be favorable.
ICANN has always had the obligation to seek and consider GAC advice, and the GAC has always had a role with respect to policy development. However, there have been recent moves pointing to a shift in what constitutes GAC advice, how that advice is delivered, and perhaps the weight with which it is considered. GAC advice appears to be moving from input often put forward after decisions have already been made by the ICANN Board, to playing a more powerful role in the decision making process.
ICANN is in a real bind. On one hand, there is the possibility of legal action from ICM Registry if the .xxx application does not move forward. On the other hand, there is the risk of alienating international governments if GAC advice is not followed. Many even fear that that could encourage an attempt by another international agency to take over some or all of the governance of Internet-related public policy issues and the management of critical internet resources. ICANN surely does not want a perceived weakness of the GAC to be used as fodder to fuel a move by governments to take a more hands-on approach to Internet governance outside of the confines of the GAC. So my bets are on ICANN following GAC advice.
I think the .xxx debacle is just the symptom of something much more historic. I would even say we’re about to witness a tectonic shift in Internet governance, where governments, through the GAC, have far more influence over ICANN’s decisions and policy development than ever before, and certainly more than any other stakeholder group.
Could it be that we are coming to a point where, as the saying goes, all stakeholders are equal but some are more equal than others?