What's in a Name?

[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent.]

A colleague recently sent me a link to a story originating from Ireland, in which the national domain administrator refused to allow the registration of certain terms. I’ll let the author of the original article explain:

‘I’ve been trying to register the domains porn.ie and pornography.ie for about four years. Every time I try to register either domain, the Irish Domain Registry (IEDR) refuse my application because “the proposed domain name must not be offensive or contrary to public policy or generally accepted principles of morality.”’

(For reference, ‘.ie’ is the two letter domain name (properly called a country code Top Level Domain, or ccTLD) that that signifies Ireland. Vanuatu’s ccTLD is ‘.vu’.)

The writer continues: “I found myself a solicitor who specialises in digital law (e.g. cases involving the Internet) and arranged an appeal against the refusal of registration.

Eventually, a court found that there was nothing inherently offensive about the domain names, but to the author’s astonishment, it still found against him. The rationale? The court had no mandate to intervene with the actions of the domain administrator. The body managing Ireland’s ccTLD is a purpose-built non-profit organisation, and though the Irish government has reserved the right to take control of the ccTLD, they haven’t exercised it. In all likelihood, they wouldn’t, except in an emergency.

Vanuatu is currently taking a look at how its ccTLD will be managed in the future, so it’s worth taking a few moments to consider what we would do in the same situation.

I don’t doubt there’s more than one of us who would rather not see any pornography in Vanuatu’s .vu domain. The question seems to be, then, how do we propose to go about doing that?

That’s actually not the question, because it presumes a certain outcome, and assumes consensus on very contentious issues. The plain fact is that when we get down to it, objectionable material is in the eye of the beholder. In practical terms, pornography – or any other contentious material – is something that defies definition.

Vanuatu has laws against the portrayal of nudity, but for thousands of years village women have worn clothing that many other cultures consider immodest. Likewise, women breast feeding in public is considered rude in some locales, but (rightly, I say) perfectly natural here.

Throughout the country, we find that the depiction of the human body, the discussion of certain topics, to be perfectly appropriate in one community, but tabu in the next.

At the core of the problem, therefore, is the question: How can we usefully engage on a discussion of controversial topics – not just pornography, but politics, society, kastom, religion… you name it – if we don’t allow certain words and terms to be used?

In the example above, the would-be registrant didn’t necessarily want to create a porn site; he wanted to create a site where he could talk about it. Those are two very different things.

The role of a ccTLD administrator is not to arbitrate public morals. While simple rules can be set concerning appropriate use of the domain, they need to be kept to a minimum. The approach we need to take is a minimalist one. There are some terms, for example, that do little or nothing to enhance the public dialogue. Swear words, for example.

But that does not mean that a domain administrator should have any direct role in defining what topics can or should be discussed in the public sphere.

Vanuatu has laws, and everyone has to respect them. Every national ccTLD administrator has a responsibility to uphold those laws, and to the extent that it’s reasonable to do so, it should ensure that those laws are upheld by its stakeholders and clients.

But a ccTLD administrator is neither pastor, policeman nor politician. It does not exist to make rules about public morality, nor should it be given powers beyond the minimal set necessary to ensure the smooth operation of its part of the Internet Domain Name Service (DNS).

It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that a ccTLD administrator’s role is primarily technical. But there you have it. Most of what they do is make the registration of domains by multiple parties practical, simple and conducive to the conduct of a public exchange of information, for whatever purpose.

The thing that I found most worrying about Ireland’s example is that the oprganisation took on a role that effectively allowed it to operate with impunity. Even though the courts recognised that there had been a mistake, they were loath to step in to rectify the problem. That is certainly not something we want to happen here in Vanuatu.

I don’t have any particular prescription for this issue. The process of defining how we manage the national domain is something that has to be arrived at through education, dialogue and, ideally, consensus. It’s sure to take time, and there will be occasions where we struggle to find common ground.

The only advice I have for the moment is this: We don’t need to decide everything at once and forever. Management of the .vu domain, just like any other management task, is more a parenthood issue than a design challenge. We don’t need to get the shape of it perfect from the start. We do, however, need to ensure that the process of improving its management remains productive, instructive and ultimately useful to all ni-Vanuatu who want to make their voices heard online.

The task of creating a set of simple, practical rules for the management of our Internet resources is a shared one, but it requires a gardener’s perspective. We should spend more time cutting back than planting. The scope of operation of an effective ccTLD administrator should, in my opinion be defined as tightly and simply as possible.

If we get the fundamentals right, and ensure that processes exist to improve things as we go, I believe we’ll find that we can keep clear of contentious and questionable practices such as those of the Irish. What’s more, we’ll have an environment in which we can constructively discuss issues where agreement can be reached by the proven process of respectful, sometimes heated but always healthy dialogue.