amazon_basin_map-maxWith the ICANN meetings in Durban, South Africa wrapping up today the GAC (Government Advisory Council) officially objected to the application by Amazon, Inc. for the .AMAZON top level domain name. This is not so much news as a confirmation of what the GAC had already indicated months earlier via its Beijing Communique – namely, that it had a problem with the application. 

The GAC’s “official” objection is not a “binding” determination (as per its Operating Principles) and the ICANN governing body can choose to accept it or reject it.

The broad purpose of the GAC was to allow governments to chime in and give their opinion on matters – not so much because ICANN wants them to participate, but because the practical reality of the multi-stakeholder model at the core of the ICANN mission requires it. Article IX of the ICANN by-laws describes the GAC mission as advising “[…] on matters where there may be an interaction between ICANN’s policies and various laws and international agreements or where they may affect public policy issues.”

Some commentators have indicated that the GAC objection to the .AMAZON application is an abuse of power, and that companies who followed the rules should not be penalized by what has been framed as “back-room” dealings on the part of government and ICANN officials.

Although I don’t necessarily agree with the GAC decision, the process ICANN has followed has been extremely transparent and methodical. The GAC sent an early warning in November 2012 and then an initial objection in April 2013 via its Beijing Communique. The Independent Objector, Alain Pellet also objected to the application for .AMAZON (in multiple languages) in March 2013.

The GAC objection was based on a filing by all of the countries that are party to the Amazon Cooperation Treaty. Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Suriname and Venezuela all filed a joint objection to the .AMAZON branded TLD. Amazon, Inc. is not up against one country – it is up against an entire region.

The objections are also not without merit. Mr. Miguel Palomino of Peru’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs, told SciDev.Net earlier this year that: “[t]he firm Amazon doesn’t have any geographic, cultural or historical link to our region,” and “[w]e are not questioning the brand, but pointing out that a geographic name that is the heritage of the Amazonian countries cannot be an object of an Internet domain.”

This would be a better point if the word “domain” at the end were replaced by the term “registry”, as it is the unique ability to control an entire vertical slice of the Internet – as opposed to just owning a small piece of it by purchasing a second level domain name like www.amazon.com – that is the basis of the objection. Mr. Palomino’s basic message seems to be “hey, were not trying to stop Amazon, Inc. from using its name – just don’t forget about the Amazon countries and rainforest too.”

Should the United States government get involved and lobby on behalf of Amazon, Inc.? Probably not, and definitely not right now. Amazon, Inc. has applied for roughly 80 TLDs and no one else is making a claim to the .AMAZON registry. There will be further rounds of applications for TLDs in the future and if Amazon, Inc. can come up with a creative co-sharing solution that takes into account the concerns of the ACT countries, maybe it can still obtain the TLD.

Further, this does not appear to be a situation where Amazon was unfairly targeted by a government to stymie its business or make a political point by hurting a U.S. company. None of the ACT countries objected to another registry application – Australia on the other hand objected to 129.

The question of “fairness” and giving governments the power to prevent companies like Amazon, Inc. from owning their own branded TLDs cuts to the heart of whether Internet governance should be free of any and all government interference. Although government involvement in the DNS is necessary it presents a real challenge to ICANN. A recent Congressional Research Service Report summarized this challenge in the following manner:

“Congress may wish to examine where an appropriate balance exists between a sufficient level of governmental influence within the ICANN system, and an inappropriately excessive level of governmental control through the GAC that might threaten the multistakeholder model that ICANN represents. […] To the extent that ICANN is successful in its endeavors and its credibility remains strong with Internet stakeholders, the argument for a multistakeholder model of Internet governance will be bolstered. By contrast, to the extent that ICANN falls short, the arguments for a growing role for some sort of formal intergovernmental body could become stronger.”

The ICANN multi-stakeholder model gives everyone a seat at the table, for better or for worse, and the DNS requires cooperation amongst countries to make it work. Just the fact that the New gTLD program is moving forward when the U.S. government and several large U.S. business groups had numerous complaints and objections is evidence that ICANN and the multi-stakeholder model can “balance the interests and positions of differing stakeholders on particularly controversial issues” like the New gTLD program.

The alternative to the ICANN approach does not appear to be less government intervention, but more. Let’s hope ICANN can make it work...