Update, November 4: The CEO of .xyz has written to deny that any domains would be blocked by their registry, as their proposal had suggested. Whether this had been a miscommunication in the proposal, or is a reversal of their previous position, we welcome the now unambiguous statement by .xyz that Internet users in China and worldwide will be free to register strings that offend the Chinese government in any of the .xyz registry's top-level domains.
Domain registry xyz.com has put in a proposal to ICANN [PDF] that would see it automatically censoring new domain names that match a Chinese government blacklist. Industry news site Domain Incite has reported that this puts perhaps close to 12,000 banned words and expressions onto the blacklist, thereby preventing terms such as the Chinese words for “democracy” and “human rights” from being registered within any of the company's top-level domains—which include .xyz, .college, .rent, .theatre, .protection and .security. This will apply not only to Chinese registrants, but to registrants worldwide.
In describing to ICANN the consultations that it has undertaken about these censorship plans, xyz.com blithely claims “We believe that no parties have any legitimate reason to object to the introduction of this service”. Chinese bloggers and dissidents, some of whom have received sentences as severe as life in prison for speaking out online, might beg to differ with this assessment.
Censorship of a domain name is not the same as censorship of the content hosted at that domain name (the Chinese government does both, but xyz.com's proposal only affects the former). Neither would the censorship plan prevent users from registering domain names from the government blacklist in any of other hundreds of top-level domains run by competing registries (though China will still block these from access by Chinese users), or registering trivial variants that avoid the blacklist. Even so, as ineffective as it may be, xyz.com's complicity in advancing the Chinese government's censorship of the Internet remains profoundly misguided, and contrary to their role as a provider of domain names to the world.
Sadly xyz.com is not solely to blame here. ICANN itself opened this can of worms in 2012 by adding, with minimal community consultation, a list of no fewer than 1,281 reserved names that would be unavailable to register in any of the new global top-level domains, due to claims from governments, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Red Cross. For example, try registering something like “olympics.sucks” or “idea.tech”, and you'll see that you can't, even though those domains haven't been (and can't be) registered by anyone else, because ICANN has reserved them (respectively for the IOC and the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance).
Additionally, over 26 thousand trademark owners are given the right to jump the queue to register their names in the new global top-level domain space, further constricting the corpus of available speech that can be registered as a domain name by ordinary users. And on top of that, ICANN imposes no limitation on the ability for a registry to reserve whatever other domains it chooses, based on government advice, pressure from rightsholders, or on its own whim.
xyz.com's casual acceptance of Chinese censorship of its domain space provides an open invitation to China and other governments to apply more pressure on registrars and on ICANN itself to further limit the expression of speech through domain names. In the long term, this will only further erode the ability for users to express themselves online, by registering domain names that describe or complement speech hosted at that domain, or are a short and pithy speech act in themselves.
The good news is that it is not altogether too late to halt xyz.com's acquiescence to governmental control, since the registry's proposal to integrate Chinese censorship into its system remains open for public comment, and the perfect time for you to do so would be during ICANN's 54th public meeting this week. Keep reading Deeplinks this week for further updates from that meeting.