Let me admit this up front. I've always been an Esther Dyson fan. She has her critics, and sometimes her critics have a point. But not many newsletter publishers get to make TV commercials with Gordie Howe, as she did last spring for IBM.
Fewer still can rise to be "Queen of the World," as she has through her work with ICANN, the organization that's trying to solve the domain name mess.
Dyson agreed to manage ICANN, I'm certain, as a way to break the monopoly Network Solutions Inc. had on key domains like .com and to move control of the Internet from public to private hands.
Both are laudable goals. But it became clear last week during ICANN's meetings in Chile that what she stumbled into was real power on a global scale.
The fact is that ICANN's work involves more than appointing some extra registrars and setting them to work. The power to name is also the power to un-name, and since Ms. Dyson took her new job, a lot of people have come to recognize that.
I can bring all this home to you with one question: What should be the rules under which someone gets, and keeps their domain?
Rules, you say? What do you mean by rules?
Exactly - right now all you have to do is pay your money and take your name. But in denying new names to "cyber-squatters" and taking such names away when trademark holders complain, we have created the first rule for holding domain names.
Well, some folks are asking, you've created a rule, and a way to enforce that rule, so haven't you actually built both a law and an enforcement mechanism? And if you have a law against cyber-squatting, with a virtual "death penalty" (taking away a name someone is using effectively removes them from the web) why not apply it against other forms of behavior we don't like?
Please, follow that last link, read what's behind it, and tremble. You've got one law, you've got a process, and you've got a sentence. It was all done with the mildest of intentions. But what you've also got there is the beginnings of a world government, which can enforce all kinds of rules simply by changing the contract you sign when you apply for a domain name. And if ICANN won't do it, cyber-vigilantes will.
If ICANN chose it could ban pornography, simply by stripping such sites of their names, it could enforce product safety standards, prevent the online manipulation of stocks, and stop hate speech in its tracks. By simply denying names to those who violate whatever strictures it chose, ICANN could make the Internet a pure and beautiful place, where no one dared violate any law for fear of virtual death!
Like all royalty, Queen Esther is being petitioned by people and by more powerful interests. She may seek a mild rule, but she will be hard-pressed to create one. She has a tough job ahead. Long live the Queen!
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Dana Blankenhorn has been a business reporter for more than 20 years. He has written parts of five books and currently contributes to Advertising Age, Business Marketing, NetMarketing, the Chicago Tribune, Boardwatch, CLEC Magazine, and other publications. His own newsletter, A-Clue.Com, is published weekly.
March 19, 2014