How the ICANN Top-Level Domain Scheme Puts LGBTQ Organizations at Risk

Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation
Nov. 20 2013 1:00 PM

How the ICANN Top-Level Domain Scheme Puts LGBTQ Organizations at Risk

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A screen shows some of new gTLDs companies have applied for.

Photo by Andrew Cowie/AFP/GettyImages

This week, the International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers is holding its 48th public meeting in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Among those present are representatives of the many companies that have applied to own the hundreds of new generic top-level domains (similar to .com or .org) that ICANN is authorizing. For many years, ICANN was cautious about creating new ones. There are currently a total of 22, including .biz, .name, and .info, as well as the various country top-level domains like .us, .fr, and .uk.

But creating new top level domains is a lucrative operation, and ICANN seems to have gotten greedy. While there are compelling arguments for creating some new gTLDs—as generic top-level domains are often abbreviated—particularly in non-Latin alphabets, it is clear that ICANN and related bodies can generate plenty of revenue from a massive expansion.

The current first wave of creations will take the number of gTLDs from 22 to more than 1,400. Anyone with the money to file—it costs $185,000 just to apply—and follow through on an application could propose a gTLD. The cost of the process was behind the significant opposition to the scheme, particularly from brand owners who are now pressured to apply not only for their own brand as a gTLD (.chase, .omega, .qvc, for example), but may now be compelled to purchase new gTLDs in their area of business to protect their existing trademarks. (For example, Nike may feel the need to purchase the domain name nike.shoes, if only to prevent another firm from doing so.)

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ICANN's scheme appears very much like a racket on businesses and organizations: Pay or you'll lose visibility on the Web. And small companies and nonprofits run the greatest risks, because their brands can now be associated with hundreds of new TLDs. Even if only a tiny fraction of the 1,409 new gTLDs concern an organization's activity, the cost to pre-emptively protect a name or to wage a legal battle to recover a brand name is beyond the means of most such organizations.

The process is well behind schedule. So far, the only new gTLDs in operation are those in characters other than the Latin alphabet. Otherwise, the procedure is dragging on, with the fate of many applicants up in the air.

Among these are the applicants for “.gay.” Four companies are in the running, three of which are purely commercial operations that are each applying for multiple gTLDs. The other is dotgay LLC, the only applicant relying on the special “community” status established by ICANN. (A rival community applicant dropped out early in the process.) Under ICANN’s Community Priority Evaluation scheme, if ICANN recognizes the existence of a community associated with a gTLD, and if an applicant (or applicants) can justify that they represent this community, they have priority over purely commercial applicants.

Scott Seitz, the businessman behind dotgay LLC, claims to have acted to protect the LGBTQ community from the abuses of a commercial operator. Is there an LGBTQ “community”? It depends how you define such a thing, but Seitz can make a good argument for representing a broad range of LGBTQ businesses and nonprofits. He has been successful in garnering support from major LGBTQ organizations worldwide, including ILGA—the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association—perhaps the most representative organization for LGBTQ people around the world. In sport, my organization, the Federation of Gay Games, and the Gay and Lesbian International Sport Association have both endorsed the dotgay LLC application, but it's tourism, led by the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association, that is probably its strongest supporter.

When applications for new gTLDs opened, Seitz had to decide which of the possible “strings,” or top-level domain names, he would apply for. Each application costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, so he decided to focus on .gay, especially when another potential LGBTQ gTLD, .lgbt, appeared not to interest any commercial operators. Seitz says he wanted to offer a gTLD for the community, but more important, he wanted to protect the community from a commercial operator of .gay. Given the ongoing debate and constant evolution of the LGBTQ initialism, .gay seemed a more consensual choice, and the one that is most likely to need protection from commercial interests. Seitz was correct that .gay would attract applicants, but so did .lgbt, with a single commercial applicant and no community applicant to counter it. The ILGA filed a formal objection to that applicant on behalf of dozens of LGBTQ groups, but it was rejected by the ICANN evaluator.

The consequences of this rejection are significant for the LGBT community: .lgbt will be run by an operator whose purpose is to maximize sales of domain names. And if the commercial opponents of dotgay LLC's community application succeed in their last-minute efforts to invalidate dotgay LLC's community status, the situation will be even worse. These new gTLDs will be open to any purchaser willing to pay the price set by the commercial operator that wins the ICANN auction (because in the case of multiple commercial applicants, ICANN will delegate the name to the highest bidder). In practice, this will almost certainly mean that the new domain names will be flooded by porn sites. What’s more, there will be no obstacles to anti-gay organizations using the .gay or .lgbt addresses. Want to create a site named “go-to-hell.gay”? Pay the fee, and it'll be yours.

The opponents to dotgay LLC have taken to writing guest editorials and soliciting comments on the ICANN objections forum. The argument made by Raymond King, head of Top Level Design LLC, one of dotgay LLC's commercial rivals, and parroted on the objections forum, centers on “freedom.” While dotgay LLC plans to impose an authentication system for future purchasers of .gay domain names, requiring them to demonstrate that they are legitimate parts of the LGBTQ community (for example, the Federation of Gay Games has expressed interest in serving as an authentication partner for our member LGBTQ sport and culture organizations), King offers “freedom.” And it's true that if King's or a similar company succeeds in obtaining the .gay name, everyone and anyone will be “free” to buy a .gay domain. And should that name become associated with pornography and hate, legitimate members of the community, however it is defined, will be free to continue using their .com and .org addresses, as they have been doing for years, and abandon a domain ostensibly created to serve some public good.

Many of us feel no need for new gTLDs like .gay or .lgbt. Sites containing terms like gay, lesbian, and LGBT in their domain names, on the sites themselves, or in their URLs already often fall foul of filtering software on institutional and public networks, and of course they are banned entirely in certain countries. We don't need addresses that are even easier to filter and block. We don't want to pay more for more domain names. But ICANN is a private California corporation, and they didn't ask our opinion or heed the protests of brand owners. Whether we like it or not, the .gay domain name is going to exist. Our actions now are about making the most of a bad situation, hoping that ICANN makes the right call, and that the future owner of .gay acts to truly serve the LGBTQ “community”— whatever that is, and however many letters you use to describe it.

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