Cyber-Rights Groups Urge Congress to Protect Free Speech Rights in Determining Internet Domain Names

February 7, 2001 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON–Artificial limits on the number and type of Internet domain names threaten to turn cyberspace into a corporate stronghold with no room for independent voices, an alliance of cyber-rights groups warned today.

In a letter sent to Congressional lawmakers who are holding a hearing on the issue tomorrow, the Internet Democracy Project is calling on Congress to compel the U.S. Commerce Department to expand the number of Internet domain names available.

The Project, a joint initiative of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), said that artificial limitations placed on the number of generic top-level domain names, such as “.com,” and “.org,” present a serious threat to freedom of expression and democracy online.

The groups also say that the closed process imposed by both the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and the Commerce Department violates the Due Process clause of the Constitution and the Federal Administrative Procedures Act.

“ICANN maintains a prominent position in determining the future of the Internet,” said Marc Rotenberg, Executive Director of EPIC. “The Federal government should encourage the participation of the public voice in domain name decisions at every opportunity.”

ICANN — a new global organization originally chartered by the U.S. government to administer the Internet addresses and Domain Name System that govern what an Internet site can be called and how it can be found — recently approved only seven new top level domain names.

The decision came as many experts voiced concerns over corporate domination of the Internet domain name system through a combination of bulk registrations and intellectual property-based legal threats.

“ICANN has failed to recognize the needs of individual Internet users and non-commercial organizations,” said Barry Steinhardt, Associate Director of the ACLU. “The combination of few artificial domain names, arbitrary rules and limits on domain name expansion present a continuing threat to freedom of expression online.”

In a recent letter to the Commerce Department, the groups voiced concerns over the undemocratic process by which domain names are administered, saying that ICANN’s decision- making process may have violated various federal laws that are designed to ensure openness and public accountability.

“ICANN’s decision-making process was characterized by a large number of arbitrary decisions, process failures, and plain mistakes of fact,” the letter said. “The process got off to a bad start when ICANN announced that it would require a $50,000 non-refundable fee from domain name applicants, thus skewing the pool towards those organizations able to afford a $50,000 lottery ticket. Deadlines for public comment were missed, and the period for public input was small.”

The letter specifically cited ICANN’s rejection of the “.union” proposal based on unfounded speculation that the international labor organizations that proposed this new top level domain name were somehow undemocratic.

The procedures being used gave the proponents no opportunity to reply to this unfounded accusation. ICANN also rejected “.iii” because it was concerned that the name was difficult to pronounce, even though the ability to pronounce a proposed domain name had never before been mentioned as a decision criterion.

The coalition reiterated its request for policymakers to remedy this situation by allowing the public to comment on these developments, saying that “it would be arbitrary and capricious, and a denial of basic due process, to do anything less.”

“Congress should use this hearing to promote the principles of a civil society in cyberspace,” said Coralee Whitcomb, president of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. “It must ensure that the voices of non-governmental organizations are heard.”

Click here to read the coalition letter.

The Project’s website is located at

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