As many readers of this blog will know, ICANN is intent on the development of policy through a "bottom-up, multi-stakeholder" process which gives all members of the Internet community a say in the administration of the domain name system. When constituents come together in this way, policy is developed through compromise, even if no-one gets everything they wanted.
But what happens when the "greater good" is unpalatable to one or more constituents? In particular, if those members have exhausted existing avenues of communication and reasoning, without success, what are their options? This is the situation in which France finds itself. It wants ICANN to block the applications to run top-level domain registries for .wine and .vin, so that second-level names such as champagne.wine or bordeaux.vin cannot be registered in contravention of regulations protecting the exclusivity of certain geographical indications relevant to the wine industry, particularly in France.
While some other participants are sympathetic to the French position, including within the Governmental Advisory Committee (the “GAC”), these applications have now passed all necessary evaluation steps required by the Applicant Guidebook and the deadline for filing objections passed well over a year ago. France's only options, now, appear to be to work with the applicants to try to persuade them to regulate second-level registrations in accordance with France's preferences, to accept that sometimes the multi-stakeholder model produces unfavourable results, or to try to exert external pressure to force ICANN's hand. France has chosen the latter of these options.
In a Tweet posted during ICANN's 50th meeting, which took place in London in June, the French Deputy Minister for Digital Affairs Axelle Lemaire Tweeted that blocking these applications is now a condition of France's further participation in the reform of ICANN.
A statement released by the Ministère de l’Economie du Redressement Productif et du Numérique further denounced ICANN as no longer the appropriate forum to discuss Internet governance. While some may agree with that, there is no current alternative and some Churchillian wisdom on the matter was recalled at ICANN 50's session on “Enhancing ICANN Accountability” (transcript here): "ICANN is the worst possible way to manage the Domain Name System, except for the alternatives".
Although these Tweets might appear to be France removing itself from the ICANN process, it could signal something much more significant: since the GAC can only issue Advice to the ICANN Board when there is "consensus" (i.e. there are no formal objections, regardless of the number of supporters), France could actually be saying that it will object to and therefore veto every GAC motion directed at ICANN reform until its demands on .wine and .vin are met.
This is an interesting development at a time when ICANN's accountability mechanisms are under scrutiny in advance of the transfer of the NTIA's stewardship of the IANA functions, and when the GAC has told the ICANN Board in its London Communiqué that its Advice on the Red Cross / Red Crescent protections “should not be subjected to, or conditioned upon, a policy development process”.
In other words, France’s ultimatum has come at a time when governments are advocating being responsible for the development of policy without the input of the remainder of the ICANN community.
In this light, the GAC consultation on the protection of strings with national, cultural, geographic and religious “significance” in the current and future rounds of gTLD applications becomes all the more important. Applicants, whether for Round 1 or Round 2, and brand owners in particular, need to ensure that policy in this sensitive area is not defined without their input, by using one of the many available means of ensuring that their voice is heard.