ICANN content policing power grab may be dead

A move by ICANN to grant itself more formal “content policing” powers may be dead, after the community was split on the issue and governments failed to back the move.

The Governmental Advisory Committee yesterday sent comments essentially opposing, for now at least, the idea of ICANN reforming its bylaws to give it more powers over internet content, making it very unlikely that ICANN would be able to get such amendments approved by its community overseers.

The comments came a few days after ICANN extended the deadline for responses to a December 2023 consultation on whether applicants in the next new gTLD round should be able to sign up to so-called Registry Voluntary Commitments that regulate content in their zones.

RVCs would be an appendix to ICANN Registry Agreements which would commit a registry to, for example, ban certain types of registrant or certain types of content from domains in their gTLDs.

They’re basically a rebadged version of the Public Interest Commitments found in RAs from the 2012 round, in which the likes of .sucks agreed to ban cyberbullying and .music agreed to ban piracy.

But they’ve got ICANN’s board and lawyers worried, because the Org’s bylaws specifically ban it from restricting or regulating internet content. They’re worried that the RVCs might not be enforceable and that ICANN may wind up in litigation as a result.

ICANN has therefore proposed a framework (pdf) in which RVCs would be enforced by ICANN only after an agreed-upon third-party auditor or monitor found that a registry was out of compliance.

The board sent out several pages of questions to all of its Supporting Organizations and Advisory Committees in December, asking among other things whether the bylaws needed to be amended to clarify ICANN’s role, but the responses were split along traditional lines.

Registries and registrars were aligned: there’s no need for a bylaws change, because ICANN should not allow RVCs that regulate content into its contracts at all.

“ICANN should maintain its existing bylaws which exclude content from its mission, and allowing any changes to this could be a slippery slope opening ICANN to becoming a broader ‘content police’,” the Registrars Stakeholder Group said in its response, giving this amusing example:

An example of a content restriction is provided in the proposed implementation framework for .backyardchickens (e.g. no rooster-related content). Restricting rooster-related content would require a significant amount of policing, and could even prohibit valuable content that would benefit such a TLD. For example, a backyard hen farmer might want to promote the pedigree lineage of the roosters that helped sire the hens, show pictures of the roosters that were the fathers, etc. All of this could in theory be prohibited,but would also require review and subjective analysis. This would be a very slippery slope for ICANN, and a substantial departure from its mission. Restricting rooster content would then put ICANN in the place of enforcing laws that prohibit backyard roosters, rather than relying upon the competent government authorities charged with overseeing residential animal husbandry.

The Non-Commercial Stakeholders Group was more strident in its tone, even raising the possibility of legal action if ICANN went down the content policing route, saying “the best way for the Board to address content-related PICs and RVCs is to make it clear that it will reject them categorically.” It added:

The prohibition on content regulation in ICANN’s mission is extremely important and very clear. Mission limitations were a critical part of the accountability reforms that were required before ICANN would be released from US government control in 2016… NCSG will mount a legal challenge to any attempt to dilute this part of the mission.

The opposing view was held by the Business Constituency, the Intellectual Property Constituency, and the At-Large Advisory Committee, which is tasked with representing the interests of ordinary internet users.

They all said that ICANN should be able to allow content-related RVCs in registry contracts, but the IPC and BC said that no bylaws amendment is needed because the bylaws already have a carve-out that enables the Org to enforce PICs in its agreements. The ALAC said a bylaws amendment is needed.

“There is a distinction between ICANN regulating, i.e imposing ‘rules and restrictions on’ services and content, versus the registry operator voluntarily proposing and submitting to such rules and restrictions,” the IPC wrote.

“There is also a distinction between ICANN directly enforcing such rules and restrictions on third parties, i.e. registrants, versus ICANN holding a registry operator to compliance with the specifics of a contractual commitment,” it added.

The last community group to submit a response, fashionably late, was the GAC, which filed its response yesterday having reviewed all the other responses submitted so far. The GAC arguably has the loudest voice at ICANN, but its comments were probably the least committed.

The GAC said that ICANN should only go ahead with a bylaws amendment if it has community backing, but that the community currently lacks consensus. It said, “at this stage there are not sufficient elements to justify commencing a fundamental bylaws amendment to explicitly enable the enforcement of content-related restrictions”.

However, the GAC still thinks that RVCs “will continue to serve as tools for addressing GAC concerns pertaining to new gTLD applications during the next round” and that it wants them to be enforceable by ICANN, with consequences for registries found in breach.

The GAC said that it “will continue to explore options to address this important question”.

This all means that ICANN is a long way from getting the community support it would need to push through a bylaws amendment related to content policing. That’s considered one of the “Fundamental Bylaws” and can only be changed approved with substantial community support.

Such amendments require the backing of the Empowered Community. That’s the entity created in 2016 to oversee ICANN after it severed ties with the US government. It comprises individuals from five groups — the GAC, the GNSO, the ccNSO, the ALAC and the Address Supporting Organization.

For a fundamental bylaws amendment to get over the line, at least three of these groups must approve it and no more than one must object.

With the GNSO, given its divisions, almost certainly unable to gather enough affirmative votes, the GAC seemingly on the fence, and the ASO and ccNSO recusing themselves so far, only the ALAC looks like a clear-cut yes vote on a possible future bylaws amendment.

Perhaps that’s why ICANN chair Tripti Sinha has written to the ASO and ccNSO in the last few days to ask them whether they’d like to think again about ducking out of the consultation, giving them an extra two weeks to submit comments after the original March 31 deadline.

The ccNSO handles policy for country-code domains and the ASO for IP addresses. Both have previously told ICANN that gTLD policy is none of their business, but Sinha has urged them both to chip in anyway, because “the ICANN Bylaws govern us all”.

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