ICANN Brussels Day 2: ‘MoPo’ Tops the Agenda

BRUSSELS, Belgium—Day two of the ICANN Brussels conference featured a packed schedule of more than 25 individual meetings on a variety of subjects, but far and away the most riveting discussions took place during GAC (Government Advisory Council) sessions that themselves were dominated by intense discussion on the issue of “morality and public order”—shortened to ‘MoPo” by the U.S. GAC representative—which refers to a provision in ICANN’s just-released fourth draft of the gTLD applicant guidebook that addresses controversial top-level domains.

The anti-.XXX lobbying efforts by me and FSC Executive Director Diane Duke also continued on pace. We handed out several more packets to Board members and select GAC representatives, and engaged in some very interesting conversations that helped illuminate the always shrouded collective mindset of the Board, such as it is. It was especially interesting to note how often dot-XXX was referenced by participants in the meetings, even if it was just to make a point on another subject. The years-long involvement with the ICM application has affected everyone in one way or another, it seems, and has in many ways become emblematic of ICANN’s ongoing struggles with process.

That dynamic was no more apparent than with the issue of “morality and public order,” a phrase that many people find disturbing, and which the GAC—and to a slightly lesser extent the At-Large Advisory Committee (ALAC)—concluded was utterly unworkable as a process goal. In three meetings during the day, including the concluding one with the Board in a standing-room-only hall, lengthy conversations took place that tried to find a way to make the phrase work or find a equivalent replacement. Both efforts failed despite a record number of GAC representatives in attendance, an achievement that was singled out by ICANN Board Chairman Peter Dengate Thrush as a very positive sign.

The numbers could not overcome the inherently unworkable nature of MoPo, however, as became immediately apparent during a morning session. The U.S. GAC rep laid the groundwork of the problem, outlining a monthlong attempt by her staff to just try to come up with a clear definition of what the phrase means. Without that, she said, she was seriously hamstrung on several fronts, including being able to explain to her political superiors in Washington, D.C., the possible outcomes of the gTLD application process. Finally, she said, the inability to sufficiently define a process with important implications for applicants as well as member countries and their citizens made it also utterly unworkable as a way to address controversial strings (i.e., gTLDs).

After several representatives from countries such as Indonesia, France, Pakistan, Nigeria, Italy, Australia, India and the European Union took the mike to express their various positions on how to deal with potentially problematic gTLDs, the Board ultimately decided that no solution was possible, at least not during the Brussels meeting, but that it would continue to work on the issue in an attempt to find one. It was suggested that a working group be formed to focus on the problem.

Watching the proceedings, it became quickly clear to this observer that if this mini-United Nations could find a solution to how to introduce hundreds of new top-level domains into the root without a single country finding one of them so objectionable that filtering them from the country was an option, the same group could implement world peace. But that goal was for some the preferred endgame.

“We would be very concerned about any country filtering a TLD,” said the New Zealand rep.

“We want a solution where certain TLDs do not appear in the root,” countered Pakistan’s rep at another point in the conversation.

“I caution against the idea that countries can block TLDs at the national level,” said the European Union representative. “Soon, they will realize that they also can add their own TLDs, which could lead to conflicting TLDs by country.”

The French rep suggested that universal accessibility and restricting TLDs only at the local level could be adopted as guiding principles in place of the vague MoPo.

“What about a mechanism that says there is no limitation based on MoPo as far as the root goes,” he said. “On the other hand, a country that wants to block a TLD must do it by visible and legal means.”

As the Board pushes for a rollout of the new gTLDs, the ongoing inability to find a consensus among GAC members on how to deal with problem strings threatens to set up yet another roadblock to implementation. In the afternoon meeting with the Board, GAC’s issue with MoPo was met by a palpable frustration from some Board members, including the Board chair, who wondered why GAC had not also suggested a solution to the impasse. His inference that GAC was being petulant in its dislike for MoPo was met by an equally palpable irritation by some GAC members, including the U.S. and E.U. reps.

Having traveled so far to lobby against dot-XXX, it was fascinating (if not surprising) and more than a little ironic to see so many bright, sincere and engaged professionals struggle so ineffectively with the issue of morality. It was of scant consolation to realize that ICANN’s interest in heading off future controversies was no doubt a direct result of its experience with dot-XXX. That ICANN may yet approve ICM’s dot-XXX makes the irony more bitter than sweet, as one could well imagine.

More tomorrow…