Imagine that you run an organization out of a building. Imagine that the landlord comes one day and says, “Oh I didn’t know you are a resident of country X or dealing with anybody from country X. I have to close this place down right now.” And then you are done. You don’t have an organization anymore.
This very scenario happens on the Internet. Residents of sanctioned countries cannot register a domain name in some new generic top-level domain space. These new gTLDs (like .MARKET) do not serve residents of sanctioned countries and if the registry finds out that a domain name registrant is domiciled or serves residents of sanctioned countries, the registry will inform the registrant and suspend their domain name.
You might argue that displacement of this sort happens every day in this world, not just on the Internet. That might be true to a certain extent, but it is still a discriminatory practice. Also, what happened to our “one world one Internet” and “Internet is for everyone” values? Confiscating people’s domains merely because of their nationality goes against the values of the Internet we cherished. But there are solutions to overcome this injustice, if only Internet governance institutions and actors truly want to uphold the value of global interconnectivity. In this blog, I will tell you how we can uphold those values.
Note that in this blog and wherever else I talk about sanctions and access, I do not mean at all those entities and individuals that can be found specifically named in lists such as the US OFAC’s specially designated nationals list or similar. I restrict this discussion to the access by the ordinary residents of sanctioned countries. These are people and organizations that are deprived of access merely because of their nationality or place of residence, and not entities and individuals mentioned in designated sanction lists.
Readers of this blog are probably familiar with ICANN, but it’s worth a quick recap. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers coordinates the development of policies around allocation and assignment of domain names at the top level of the domain name system (the “root zone”). One of its core commitments is to provide global interoperability and global coordination (See ICANN Bylaws). While ICANN does not have a direct authority over what is happening outside the root zone, they sometimes have policies that affect things outside the root, because they impose those policies as a prerequisite for permitting entry in the root. For many years, the Domain Name System root (the top-most part of the domain, like “com” or “org”) was stable, but starting in 2001, ICANN started making it bigger. This gathered speed in 2012 with the main round of “new gTLDs”. The new gTLDs had a community developed guidebook that came up with some restrictions and policies about names such as geographic names, names that targeted a certain community, brand names and others. If this seems arcane, it all becomes relevant below.
Why do sanctions affect access to register domain names?
ICANN is incorporated in the US and is bound by US jurisdiction, so it must also comply with US laws. But contrary to common beliefs, it does not seem that ICANN’s incorporation under US jurisdiction causes these problems on its own. The problems (to my knowledge) are:
1) There is inefficiency in applying for and receiving a license to provide services to sanctioned countries;
The Work Stream 2 (WS2) on Accountability working group recommended to ICANN in 2018 to start applying for an OFAC license (after some risk analysis). The license would not have solved all the problems, but at least we would have had clarity on what problems might lie ahead. ICANN has not started implementing most of the work stream 2 on accountability recommendations since 2018.
2) One of ICANN’s new gTLD policies creates a direct relationship between registrants and registries. The policy might make the registries liable and increase their risk.
This policy is called Specification 12. It addresses “community” new gTLDs, and it creates a direct oversight role for the registries to ensure they enforce certain conditions on the registrants. Such conditions can include certain eligibility criteria, name selections, and content and use restrictions. (See .RADIO’s agreement for an example.) Because of this direct role, many registries that have adopted Spec 12 prohibit their registrars from serving sanctioned countries.
When doing research about sanctions, one might form the impression that the sanctions would only affect registries that are based in the US and have to follow US OFAC restrictions. This is, however, not the case. Registries that have adopted specification 12, even in a non-US jurisdiction, over-comply with OFAC. For example, .ASIA’s Paragraph 11.1 (A) of End User agreement requires each registrar to warrant that it is not “directly or indirectly in or from any country that is subject to comprehensive U.S., EU and or UK export or sanctions restrictions (currently including but not limited to Iran, Sudan, Syria and North Korea)”, “nor [that the registrar] intends to transmit or sell domains to such countries unless specifically licensed for such export.”
3) Registries’ internal policy
It is possible that a registry not bound by Spec 12 still adopts a risk-averse policy to avoid transacting with residents of sanctioned countries. The rationale seems to be similar to other tech-companies’ rationale when dealing with sanctions: it is simply too expensive to risk getting fined by OFAC, and it is simply too complex to apply for a license. Even if a firm such as a registry applies for a license, third parties will rarely serve the firm’s customers because the third parties also comply excessively with sanctions.
It seems like the solution lies in discarding Spec 12. This clause in a way is against ICANN’s mission, which is to ensure interoperability of the DNS globally and coordinate the allocation at a global scale. Note that it needs to coordinate the allocation at a global scale, not to eliminate allocation of some domains to facilitate coordination.
Another solution is for ICANN to implement the WS2 on Accountability recommendation, undertake research and apply for an OFAC license.
When it comes to registries, all we have left is to raise awareness about the issue, and in some instances try and apply for OFAC licenses to pave the way, thereby easing sanctions on ordinary people who live in or are from sanctioned countries.