My Predictions for 2012

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This past year has been an interesting one, to say the least. We witnessed major decisions that will affect the top-level domain business dramatically, including the approval of .XXX and new gTLDs.

And while I made a few predictions at this time last year, there were some events in 2011 that no-one could have foreseen.

That said, and for what it’s worth, here are three relatively small, and two larger Internet-related topics I think we’re going to hear a lot about in 2012:

I blogged about the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) the other day. While word from the White House has been that the President will not support the bill, the fact is we have not seen the last of these heavy-handed attempts to protect copyright and prevent counterfeiting.

In light of the online protest against SOPA and its impact on the legislative debate in Washington, I’m of the belief that legislation like SOPA will never see the light of day. Governments are going to have to start getting very creative in order to find the balance between protecting copyright and preventing counterfeiting while maintaining a free and open Internet. SOPA is going to signal a tipping point of sorts. The SOPA debate has demonstrated to the ‘old white guys’ in charge that they are reaching a dangerous limit when it comes to inhibiting freedom of the Internet.

On a related note, the Canadian government has been attempting to amend copyright legislation for a few years now. The current bill, C-11, will likely pass before this coming summer. The Copyright Modernization Act is exactly as its name implies: legislation to bring copyright law into the 21st century. Like SOPA, it is not without its critics, especially with regard to the ‘digital lock’ provisions in the bill. Even though the opposition will vote against the bill, it will pass.

New gTLDs: We’re looking at adding hundreds of new top-level domains in 2012, and even more (if possible, given the current human resource capacity for the bodies that have to review the applications) in subsequent years. Since the decision to move ahead by the ICANN board in 2011, opposition has come from many sectors, most notably from the Association of National Advertisers (ANA).

It is no exaggeration to state that the introduction of new gTLDs is one of the biggest changes to the domain name industry in the past 20 years, and will affect registries, Registrars and domain name holders. For country code top-level domain (ccTLD) registries like CIRA, the new gTLD program means we will soon be living in a market with significantly increased domain choices for consumers. Registries will find themselves in a market that is more complex and competitive, and they are going to have to adapt to survive.

The bottom line? ccTLDs are going to have to ramp up their marketing activities to cultivate a distinct product in a sea of similar ones. Some will flourish, while others won’t. CIRA is in a very good position right now to thrive in the new market. Over the past couple of years, we’ve made some significant changes, including a greater focus on marketing and communications and a renewal of the .CA product.

Opposition to the new gTLDs will ramp up in 2012, especially after ICANN begins receiving applications in January.

All of this to say that there will be two winners as a result of the introduction of new gTLDs in 2012, consultants and lawyers.  There will be more than enough work in 2012 for consultants developing proposals for new gTLDs and navigating the bureaucracy for dispute resolution. And, I predict many, many lawsuits around gTLDs in 2012, keeping a lot of lawyers very busy.

Mobile: Yes, every year I include mobile in my predictions.  Given global trends over the past few years, it’s a safe bet. However, mobile is growing faster than any other ‘new thing’, and its impact is potentially huge.  Why do I think mobile will stand out in 2012? Because although we may think it to be ubiquitous now, Morgan Stanley, the global financial services company, predict that smartphone sales will pass computer sales in 2012, meaning that it may become the primary device with which people connect to the Internet – a wakeup call for marketers and communications folks, I’m sure. And, major credit card companies are launching mobile payment systems in 2012; this will undoubtedly be the push for mobile Internet use to become ever-present.

DNS amplification attacks have been around for a few years, but it looks like 2012 is going to be the year they explode. They are a type of denial-of-service attack that exploit recursive name servers, amplifying DDoS attacks making them particularly dangerous.

Amplification attacks waste the bandwidth of the target, as well as the open recursive DNS server they’re exploiting.  It’s so attractive to attackers because they can send a minimal amount of spoofed traffic out and have their target receive several times that amount – it allows someone on a five megabyte per second home connection to attack a company with a 100 megabyte per second connection effectively.

Though running a recursive DNS server open to the entire Internet is not a good practice, there are many that are, and those that are up to no good on the Internet are going to find them and exploit them in 2012.

Lastly, the contract between ICANN and the U.S. government expires in March 2012, and is currently up for competitive bids. While any (American) organization can bid on the contract, I don’t think I’m putting myself out on a limb by saying ICANN will be the winner. After all, not only does the successful bidder have to be an American, their primary operations have to be based in the U.S. And, given the amount of attention being paid to Internet governance lately, the U.S. government knows it’s not in their best interest to be making any significant changes right now, especially when one of the key players is already on his way out.

That’s my top picks for 2012. What are yours?

French Character Internationalized Domain Names

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This week we launched the second and final phase of our consultation to implement French character Internationalized Domain Names (IDNs) (PDF) in .CA domain names.  Over a three month period last fall, we worked with The Strategic Counsel to conduct an online consultation to gauge Canadians’ interest in and thoughts about introducing IDNs.

I was very impressed with the response to this consultation, with more than 350 comments on the online forum and more than 50 submissions. This level of participation indicates two things to me: 1) this is an important issue for Canadians, and 2) .CA Registrants and Canadian Internet users are engaged and interested in seeing the .CA registry develop. The Strategic Counsel has analyzed the comments and submissions, and have summarized key themes in a report available here (PDF).

Based on feedback received during the first round of the consultation, we have revised the proposed policy for the launch of IDNs. We are now inviting .CA holders and Canadian Internet users to provide their feedback on these revisions to CIRA’s proposed IDN policy until February 24, 2012. Please take this opportunity to have your voice heard.

This is an exciting initiative for me. Once implemented, French character IDNs will make Canada’s piece of the Internet even more Canadian and that’s something we can all be proud of.

The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA)

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Tomorrow, a number of very high profile websites will go dark in protest of the proposed U.S. Stop Online Piracy Act. Though the White House has since made it clear that the President will not support the bill, the fact that it was proposed at all is an indicator of the threat the Internet faces. And, according to this post from Michele Neylon, SOPA may not be quite dead yet.

The bill builds on existing U.S. legislation like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and international agreements like the Anti-Counterfeiting and Trade Agreement to protect online copyright and prevent counterfeiting.

Though it is American legislation, it could have a tremendous impact on global Internet users. It would require U.S. Internet Service Providers (ISPs), search engines, ad networks, and payment providers to withhold services to websites deemed by a court to be infringing copyrights held by U.S. content producers. If a Canadian website is found to infringe on copyright, U.S. search engines may be required to stop indexing the site in their results. If the site is hosted by an American ISP, it could be shut down. A Canadian online business could find itself without a system to collect payments if a U.S. online payment provider is required to not do business with them.

Many of you will remember The Helms-Burton Act, which extended the U.S. embargo of Cuba to foreign companies trading with that nation. Like SOPA, it shows just how far the tentacles of U.S. law can reach into other nations.  And while the Act can only directly affect U.S. service providers, many of the major service providers are American or have significant U.S. connections.

Fact is, if SOPA were to pass, it would mark the end of the free and open Internet we have been enjoying for the past couple of decades. The Internet’s free and open nature has given rise to the creativity and innovation that has enabled it to be the most incredible economic and social driver the world has seen since the industrial revolution. Yes, online piracy is a problem and it is something governments are going to have to deal with. However, draconian measures like SOPA/PIPA that would put limits on the Internet’s free and open nature are a bit like dropping a nuke to kill a cockroach – it might work, but is it worth the collateral damage?

In November 2010, a number of websites were shut down in a crackdown on copyright infringement and counterfeiting, including many that were not based in the U.S. but were operating on a U.S.-based top-level domain (like .COM). A number of the sites’ owners claimed they were  innocent and there was no proof they were engaged in copyright infringement or counterfeiting. SOPA would allow American authorities to cast their net even wider and take down or otherwise impact the free operation of websites that do not have U.S.-based top-level domains, but rely on other U.S. service providers. Clearly, the opportunity for rights to be breached is endless.

There is an irony in the development of SOPA. Paul Vixie has a great explanation of this here. For a few years now, engineers and others have been working to make the DNS more secure. When implemented, DNSSEC will add an additional – and needed – layer of security to the DNS. SOPA would require American ISPs to block DNS resolution and redirect traffic for websites infringing on copyright. Redirection of traffic to these domain names would be detected as a malicious attack once DNSSEC is implemented. Other proposals under SOPA would be equally as ineffective, according to Vixie. While trying to make the Internet a more lawful place, SOPA’s designers have inadvertently found ways to do the opposite.

We are not immune to the copyright debate in Canada.  Bill C-11 (also known as the Copyright Modernization Act) is currently tabled in Parliament.  It attempts to coordinate Canada’s copyright laws with internationally recognized norms, and includes several elements that may improve Canada’s record of being a safe haven for digital piracy.  These include a “notice-and-notice” regime, which requires ISPs to forward notices from copyright owners to suspected infringing subscribers.  It also contains protections for technological protection measures (also known as digital locks), and distinguishes between commercial and non-commercial infringement for the purposes of enforcement.  However, it does not introduce any elements of undermining the basic infrastructure of the Internet to accomplish copyright protection goals.  It seems the Canadian government is still searching to find the right balance between intellectual property consumers and producers (after considerable pressure from the likes of Michael Geist), but all indications at this point seem to show that C-11 won’t contain measures as draconian as SOPA.

While a number of entities seek to put limits and regulations on the Internet, I believe these actions are misguided. Regulating online content (copyrighted material) by legislating the medium (the Internet) misses the point. You only succeed in blocking a path to that activity, like closing a road because there’s a store selling pirated music on it. While you may slow traffic to the store, you haven’t done anything to stop the illegal activity. Anyway, there are a lot of smart folks on the Internet, and they will always find workaround and gain access to what they are looking for. In fact, SOPA has not even passed and there is already a workaround.

This gives rise to the question: how can we strike the balance between protecting copyright and preventing counterfeiting while maintaining a free and open Internet?