ICANN must strike a balance for freedom of expression

Global representatives from government, civil society, academia, the private sector, and the technical community have gathered this week at the 66th International Meeting of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) in Montreal, Canada.

ICANN is the international non-profit organization that brings together various stakeholders to create policies aimed at coordinating the Domain Name System.

This meeting is happening at the backdrop of a series of events and processes initiated since March 2014 when the US government announced that it would cede its unilateral control over ICANN. This would be by relinquishing its stewardship role of the Internet Assigned Names and Numbers Authority (IANA) and the subsequent fulfilment of the promise in September 2016.

ARTICLE 19 is actively working in ICANN to mainstream human rights in its multi-stakeholder community. It does so as a member of the Cross Community Working Party (CCWG) on Human Rights and participation in the CCWG on Accountability in ICANN.

ARTICLE 19 is in Montreal this week and pushing that ICANN should reform further and be guided by the following principles:

  • Multi-stakeholder, not multilateral
  • Human Rights, in particular the rights to free expression, privacy and due process.
  • Transparency & Accountability
  • Inclusiveness & Diversity

Some of the issues in the agenda relating to Freedom of Expression and Information are as follows:

ICANN and human rights

At the Montreal meeting, the Cross Community Working Party on ICANN and Human Rights (CCWP-HR) will be hosting a joint session with the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC) Human Rights International Law Working Group. Some of the issues to be discussed include the first ever ICANN’s internal Human Rights Impact Assessment (HRIA) released in May 2019 and the  CCWP-HR’s October 2019 report on the development of HRIA models and methodologies tailored for ICANN policy development processes.

This initiative is a big step from the 2016 commitment by the ICANN Board to include a commitment to respect human rights as part of ICANN’s by-laws after pressure from the Cross Community Working Group (CCWG) on improving ICANN’s accountability.

The session in Montreal is a step further to implementation of this commitment and is ground for further work through ICANN’s Work Stream 2 on implementation.

Expedited policy development process

At the Montreal meeting ICANN community will continue engaging on ICANN’s responsibility to protect user data in the backdrop of the EU General Data Protection regulation (GDPR). Some of the discussions revolve around the  the legitimacy, necessity and scope of the registrar collection, transfer and processing of registration data and the drafting of a policy that is meant to be flexible enough to accommodate other privacy regimes beyond the GDPR.

Human rights and Top Level Domains with geographic identifiers

Geographic top-level domain names, such as .alsace or .amazon, are often perceived as important symbols of cultural heritage significant for the local communities and governments associated with the names, and placing protective measures on geographic string identifiers of their type are justified. However, preventive measures sometimes ignore contexts such as freedom of expression- in other words over-application of string identifiers protections can negatively impact human rights, particularly freedom of expression.

Efforts to launch the next round of the new generic Top Level Domain(gTLD) Program are gathering pace, the various PDP working groups in the ICANN’s Generic Names Supporting Organization (GNSO) new gTLD program have covered the majority of their activities towards meeting their establishment goals- developing policy recommendations for the next round of the new gTLD program mainly based on community collective experiences from the 2012 round of the new gTLD program.

The GNSO is still in the process of identifying several foundational issues that need to be addressed before the launch of the next round of the new gTLD program. In this piece only pertinent issues that surround the next round of the new gTLD program in the prism of FoE rights are examined- more specifically issues that need to be addressed for expanding the horizon of FoE rights in the next round of the new gTLD programme, more specifically the treatment of geographic string identifiers as TLDs.

Way forward

As the ICANN community gathers in Montreal this week, it must continue pushing that the following specific issues are further addressed:

  • ICANN should focus more on the core rights, which are freedom of expression and privacy, while keeping in mind other applicable rights from international human rights conventions.
  • Following the May 2019 ICANN’s Human Rights Impact Assessment Report, ICANN should develop an approach towards transparency reports detailing law enforcement requests (other additional recommendations on this are available in our 2014 policy brief).
  • In developing any new gTLD program, there needs to be a clear guidance on how Freedom of Expression and Information shall be weighed against other legitimate interests and rights, including Trademark rights.