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Daniel Sepulveda served as U.S. Ambassador, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, and Coordinator for Communications and Information Policy from 2013 to 2017. You can follow him @DSepDC.
The internet is a global platform. It requires global coordination to function. But unlike every other form of global exchange of commerce or people, this one has no global intergovernmental and multilateral governance structure. Instead, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a non-profit non-governmental organization based in California, administers the internet’s critical coordination functions.
The case of .amazon pits U.S. tech giant Amazon against Brazil and Peru, and will test whether the ICANN model works in a manner that ICANN participants feel is fair, even when they lose.
First, a bit of background. ICANN oversees the internet’s generic top-level domain (gTLD) name system familiar to anyone who has used the internet: .org, .net, .com, and the like. In 2012, ICANN decided to expand gTLDs, and set forth a process for applicants to propose the creation of new gTLDs was well as a process for objecting to them.
ICANN knew geographic names and politically sensitive areas would be controversial. To manage these sensitivities, ICANN used a list maintained by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) to establish prohibited and restricted geographic names for gTLDs. Furthermore, geographic .gTLDs could not be used over the objection of a country that had an interest in them.
In the case of .amazon, Amazon applied for a new gTLD. Brazil, Peru, and other governments objected. The application, however, was initially approved because it was well presented and qualified under the rules given that the Amazon rainforest was neither a prohibited nor restricted geography under the ISO list.
Brazil and Peru objected to .amazon on the grounds that the name violated the public interest and damaged the interests of the countries in the Amazon region. They worked within the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC), which represents the interests of governments in the ICANN system, to advise the ICANN Board to reject Amazon’s application. GAC advice, however, requires consensus before it is transmitted to the Board and the United States blocked it. The dispute led to governments from Latin America voicing increased support for UN oversight over ICANN or the duplication of its functions by the International Telecommunications Union at a very sensitive time.
After internal debate and deliberation, the United States changed its position to neutral out of respect for its GAC colleagues, because it set a poor precedent to allow only one nation to block the transmission of GAC advice, and to encourage the Board to consider the Brazilian and Peruvian concerns seriously. As a result, the Brazil- and Peru-led objection was transmitted to the Board as GAC advice, and Amazon was denied its application.
To its credit, Amazon did not seek to manipulate the political process in the United States or abroad to favor its position. Amazon exercised its right under ICANN processes to appeal the Board decision, and it was victorious. The ICANN Board is now bound to reconsider Amazon’s application. Brazil, Peru and their allies are again objecting to the .amazon application. The GAC may reconsider the matter, and the United States may object again given the change of administrations in Washington.
Amazon behaved in accordance with the rules, has a strong interest in acquiring .amazon, and is within its rights to pursue it. It has reached out to the objecting governments with respect and offered what it feels are good faith mechanisms for addressing their concerns. Brazil and Peru have strong political and cultural reasons to object to .amazon. The ICANN community would make a mistake if it diminishes Brazil’s concerns or engages in aggressive libertarian rhetoric. The fact that the Amazon region was not on the ISO list of protected geographic names feels like an arbitrary technicality to Brazil, Peru, and their allies. If geographic names are controversial, as ICANN recognized, and that the Amazon constitutes a recognizable geography, then it is logical to conclude that it should have been protected.
The challenge for ICANN leadership and the larger ICANN community is whether this dispute is resolvable without governments feeling dismissed or disrespected. The United States is likely to support Amazon on procedural and substantive grounds but to succeed without being isolated within the GAC and other gatherings of governments, Washington needs to acquire the vocal support of other governments that agree that Amazon’s compliance with the rules as they were written requires ICANN to grant them the gTLD.
This dispute gets to the root of a larger debate. ICANN is not a political or cultural organization. It is a multistakeholder organization whose decisions sometimes have political or cultural effects. It is undeniably imperfect. But the alternative, to subject ICANN to political and cultural oversight decisions made by governments, is to turn the GAC into a governing committee. The larger internet community is highly unlikely to agree to that. But Brazil and its allies are not without tools outside of ICANN to act on its views, including sovereign authority over commerce in their markets. This is a sensitive situation that requires diplomacy, the exercise of mutual respect, and creative mechanisms for ensuring all sides feel fairly treated.