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The Mosque and the Bazaar: Islam, ICANN, and the New gTLD Program

The launch of the new gTLD program in January, 2012 was undoubtedly one of the finest moments for ICANN; and rightly so. The launch was a culmination of thousands of hours of hard work by thousands of people from various countries, interests, and walks of life. In the end, a 338-page Applicant Guidebook with details about how the new gTLD program was to be implemented was produced. Thus was set the stage for the greatest cyberland rush in history.

The Bazaar

Although ICANN was expecting about 500 applications, over 1,900 applications were received. Among these were applications for brand TLDs such as .IBM and .Canon, city TLDs (e.g. .Newyork, and .Moscow), lifestyle TLDs (e.g. Sport, .Health), and TLDs for professionals such as doctors, accountants, and lawyers.

Religions and religious groups were not left out. Examples of new gTLDs aimed at religious groups are .Church, .Bible, and .Catholic for Christians. Similarly, .Islam, .Halal, and .Ummah (which has since been withdrawn) were the only three applications aimed at the global Islamic community. In addition, there are .Imamat, .Ismaili, and .Shia, which are meant for specific Islamic groups. In contrast, there are 16 gTLDs such as those related to pornography, gambling, and alcohol, which are contrary to Islamic values.

Muslims also have a very poor representation in the new gTLD program in terms of the number of applicants. Only 9 of the 57 members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) applied for 65 TLDs. Of these, the United Arab Emirates accounted for 36 (30 of which were accounted for by one company), and Turkey accounted for 10, eight of which were applied for by Asia Green IT System (AGIT), for which this writer is a consultant.

In contrast to other intergovernmental organizations such as the Arab League (which applied for 2 TLDs), and the African Union (which supported a .Africa application), the OIC never applied for, nor backed any new gTLD application. Indeed, besides the .Ummah application from The Gambia, no other OIC member country except Turkey applied for any Islam-related TLD, indicating extreme disinterest in, and/or ignorance of the new gTLD program in OIC countries.

Enter the dragon

Despite the paucity of new gTLD applications aimed at Muslims, there is the prospect that two (.Islam and .Halal) of the remaining five of them will not be approved by ICANN, if the OIC, which has given itself the mandate of protecting Muslim interests, has its way.

The OIC is second largest intergovernmental organization in the world, with 5 Observers, including the Russian Federation. The Australia, US, UK, France, Canada, and Italy through their Special Envoys, maintain special relations with the OIC. The OIC Member States have an estimated 1.3 billion of the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world.

The OIC clearly is an important organization. However, its role with regards the protection of the interests of Muslims around the world should be seen in the context of the fact that non-OIC countries have 321.4 million Muslims, almost the same as the total number of Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa. India, a non-member of the OIC, has an estimated 177 million Muslims, more than the entire Muslim population of 39 of the 57 (or 68.4 percent) all OIC members with the least number of Muslims. So the OIC cannot be seen as the sole guardian of the interests of Muslims around the world.

Once beaten, keep trying

Despite its clout, and the vast resources at the disposal of some of its members, the OIC and its supporters (more like insinuators) such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE failed in various ICANN channels to stop the .Islam and .Halal applications. In the first place, the UAE and Saudi Arabia provided negative comments on ICANN’s public comment pages in a bid to influence ICANN’s Independent Objector (IO) against these TLDs. AGIT was asked to, and responded effectively against these objections. As a result, the IO concluded there were no sufficient grounds for it to object to these two strings.

The Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of the UAE also filed formal objections against .Islam (using ICANN’s funds set aside to finance such objections), and .Halal (using its own funds). Although the UAE was allowed to submit additional evidence, including emails from the likes of Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, and Egypt, as well as a draft resolution from the OIC opposing these TLDs, their efforts at thwarting these applications failed. The Expert concluded that the evidence provided in support of the objections against the strings did not constitute “Substantial Opposition of the community” and ruled in favor of AGIT with regards to both .Islam and .Halal.

But the OIC and its insinuators did not stop there. Instead, the OIC became a GAC Observer last October, and promptly wrote last November to the GAC Chair requesting that the .Islam and .Halal applications should not be approved because of lack of community support. This claim clearly contravened the findings of the IO, and ICANN’s formal new gTLD program objection procedures. Furthermore, the OIC said in its letter that their opposition was the official position of OIC Member States, even though a formal resolution on the matter was only passed at its Foreign Ministers meeting held last week in Conakry, Republic of Guinea.

No wonder then that the GAC Chair politely wrote back to say the GAC considers their April 2013 Beijing Communiqué as their final word on the matter, and that they had “for clarity,” highlighted this in its Buenos Aires Communiqué issued earlier this month. In effect, the GAC said that while some of their members have expressed concern about the .Islam and .Halal TLDs, they were not able to reach a consensus on the matter, and hence could not issue any formal advice against the TLDs.

The OIC finally passed a resolution at its Council of Foreign Ministers meeting in Conakry, Guinea last week, calling for its General Secretariat to communicate with ICANN “to file an official objection to the use of” .Islam and .Halal TLDs and “preserve the rights of member states in this regard.” In addition, the resolution urged member states to block the sale of .Islam and .Halal domain names. Clearly, the OIC has not taken an ICANN “No” for an answer.

Do the right thing

The facts of the .Islam and .Halal applications are now as follows:

  1. All objections filed through ICANN channels against the applications have failed
  2. The ICANN board asked the GAC to provide their advice on the TLDs, but the GAC said they have no strong feelings on the matter, and threw the ball back to board
  3. The OIC, which failed to apply for the .Islam and .Halal strings, or any other string for that matter, has pledged to continue the fight the applications
  4. Denying the two strings would deny the about 1.6 billion Muslims around the world an important opportunity to benefit from the new gTLD program

At this point, ICANN has a stark choice to make: either approve the .Islam and .Halal applications, or bow down to the OIC’s demands and disallow them. The first option is clearly what one would expect of an ICANN that is true to its word, respects its community-driven multi-stakeholder policy development process, and is committed to having a transparent new gTLD program.

On the other hand, a failure to approve the .Islam and .Halal applications would send a loud message to all that ICANN wobbles under pressure, and that its rules and regulations are not worth the piece of paper they are written on; never mind the lengthy, arduous work that was put by thousands of volunteers into developing them.

As someone who spearheaded the .Ummah application which had to be withdrawn because of a strict enforcement of ICANN rules, I would loath the prospect of ICANN bending its rules to serve the demands of the OIC. Such an action would send the message that ICANN enforced its rules to scuttle the .Ummah application, but would flout them to deny Muslims the .Islam and .Halal applications. The message would then be sent out loud and clear to all Muslims around the world that with ICANN, they can’t win because, and to paraphrase someone, just when they make ends meet, ICANN would move them. ICANN ought to know better than that, and do the right thing by approving the .Islam and .Halal TLDs.

By Katim Seringe Touray, International Development Consultant, and writer on science, technology, and global affairs

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The Bazaar itself Siavash Shahshahani  –  Jan 1, 2014 5:25 AM

Ironic that in your Bazaar you don’t mention the approved IDN dotBazaar <.?????>

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