Internet Governance Battle Heats Up as Governments Demand Greater Powers

A simmering battle over governance of the Internet is set to take centre stage in California this week as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a California-based non-profit corporation charged with the principal responsibility for maintaining the Internet’s domain name system, holds one of its regular meetings in Silicon Valley.

My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes that since its creation in 1998, ICANN has faced a wide range of critics – Internet users frustrated at the lack of accountability, business groups concerned that the policy making process is too slow and uncertain, and governments wondering why matters related to the Internet are vested in a private organization and not an entity such as the United Nations.

Yet this week ICANN faces one of its greatest challenges to its independence. Ironically, it comes directly from the government that created it – the United States.

The source of the dispute arises from the longstanding efforts to establish new top-level domains. In the 1980s, seven generic top-level domains, including dot-com, dot-net, and dot-org, were established.  Those domains remain among the most popular on the Internet, with millions of registrations worldwide.

The introduction of new generic top-level domains has been one of ICANN’s thorniest policy issues, with the governance body approving seven new domains, including dot-biz and dot-info, in 2000.

Interest in the creation of yet additional domain name extensions remains high as the domain name registry business presents a lucrative opportunity to collect annual registration fees for potentially millions of new domain names.  Domain name registrars support additional domains as they provide new products to market to the Internet community.

After years of debate and stakeholder consultation, ICANN has finally developed a policy designed to allow for hundreds of new domain name extensions such as dot-bank, dot-car, dot-love, dot-movie, dot-web, and dot-gay.

Earlier this year, governments began to voice their concerns with the ICANN policy, using the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC), an advisory body consisting of over 100 governments within ICANN, to identify dozens of demands for policy changes.  In fact, the U.S. raised the possibility of an absolute veto power for governments over ICANN policies.

The move shocked the Internet governance world, as many noted that the veto power could extend to any country, since countries uncomfortable with dot-gay or dot-humanrights could simply exercise their veto power.

Last month, the ICANN board met with the GAC in an effort to clarify areas of disagreement. The outcome confirms a wide gap between the policy process developed by the Internet community and national governments. The governments are seeking new rules for intellectual property protection that include the removal of due process on disputes and “more intensive” vetting for domains involving regulated industries such as banking or law.

While the Internet governance battle has received little attention in Canada, there is an important Canadian connection. Heather Dryden, an official at Industry Canada, is the GAC chair and therefore the lead representative on the issue.

Canadian leadership on greater governmental power over Internet governance is a stark reversal in position. In 2008, the Canadian government published its views on the role of the GAC, emphasizing its advisory position and concluding that “the GAC should not be viewed as a decision-making body, nor should it be expected to routinely provide a consensus view on issues, or ‘official’ government ‘positions’ or ‘directions’.”

The recent events are a reminder that a stakeholder-driven process giving all interests a voice – Internet users, domain name registrars and registries, Internet companies, and governments – remains a work-in-progress with the possibility of government takeover still looming in the background.


  1. “allow for hundreds of new domain name extensions such as dot-bank, dot-car, dot-love, dot-movie, dot-web, and dot-gay.”

    This is a non-issue. I first got on this site through a search engine, then I bookmarked it. I couldn’t care less if its name would be, .bank, .car, .love or even .gay 🙂

    When will we grow up and admit that it is the content that is important.


  2. Dr Geist, can you please expand on your statement “Canadian leadership on greater governmental power over Internet governance is a stark reversal in position”. I was unable to follow where this came from. That Ms Dryden is the chair of the GAC and has communicated the concerns of one or more member states to the ICANN Board to me does not necessarily equate to the Government of Canada endorsing those concerns; as the chair, and therefore the point of contact, that is part of her job. If she didn’t communicate a concern because it was against the position of the GoC then I would expect the member states to lobby for her replacement.

    Perhaps there is other things that would indicate a change in the position of the GoC, but based on the information here I can’t see that it is necessarily so.

    On a side note, I also believe that we are taking a very one sided view to the concept of “accountability” in Canada. When we use the term we are generally looking for someone to blame when things don’t go the way we want them to… however we are generally unwilling to praise the accountable person when things go well. As such, I wonder if we are looking for someone to be accountable, or someone to be a scapegoat.

  3. How do we turn this thing off … ?
    So now the ‘Information Superhighway’ that governments have been touting for the last couple of decades has come back to bite and they don’t want to play anymore. It’s OK to promote democracy in Libya but not so close to home please. Technology itself is not good or bad, how it’s implemented determines that, and there has rarely been one that has not been used for both.

    Watch for governments to try and hold increasing sway over controls and limitations of the net .. ICANN, Domain seizures, Neutrality, Kill switches are all measures that are being pursued today.


  4. A little off topic but great read …
    This is what I’ve been saying for years …

    This does speak to the apparent need for greater US government control at the behest of industry to limit change.

  5. Jack Robinson says:

    No Shit Batman… Or it’s Elementary, Watson!
    Re: ‘Internet Battle Heats Up… Governments Demand Greater Powers’

    Somehow, by deranged default, you’ve become my Geek Hero, Mr. Geist… and whilst no Romeo Dalliere, Louise Arbour nor Naomi Klein… have achieved rightful status in my Tiny Pantheon of Canadians putting their public pinata arses on the line to preserve our once culturally sane, pragmatic and globally respected credibility in a Shocked Doctrine World of Skewed Greedbag Perspectives.

    Of course Uber Free Market fundamentalist interests want to control and neuter the egalitarian Free Web Zeitgeist and it’s potential blowback against their hegemony!

    That they’ve sucked us into the Circus Minimus mire of Bill C-32 confuggery is both credit to their corporate voodoo caginess… but will ultimately shaft us by the tiny Me Pod myopia distractions from the far greater and scarier ramifications this deftly trip-wired Omnibus Bill strait-jacketing of unfettered free speech, digitized knowledge-sharing and a tariff free collective of creativity will not only engender… but is anathema to their fundamentalist Friedmanite Doctrine of Franchised Penury for Profits.

  6. Yehaa:

    Remember the Usenet “newsgroups” hierarchy?

    I guess they’re trying to re-create it in DNS.

    Funny how “old” ideas have comebacks.


  7. BTW I’m looking forward to hearing that XXX is actually someone’s registered trademark and they claim the whole domain…. ROFL.