Domain Name Regulation Talk and McGeorge ICANN Conference Recap

By Eric Goldman

Yesterday, I went to the McGeorge conference on ICANN and domain names. My slides from my talk entitled Keyword Regulation and Domain Name Exceptionalism. I made the point (first outlined in my Deregulating Relevancy article) that domain names are just a subset of navigational keywords, yet we’ve developed a pretty extensive list of domain name-specific regulations. I argued that we should harmonize the regulatory treatment of keywords by deregulating domain names.

A couple of other noteworthy talks from the event:

* Dr. Filomena Chirico from Tilburg University spoke about “Restrictions on Competition in Internet Governance“–basically, an antitrust analysis of the domain name market. The analysis was nicely presented but, I think, misses a critical point–she focuses on domain names as a standalone market, while I think there’s significant cross-elasticity of demand between domain names and other types of marketing/keyword purchases.

* Dr. Todd Davies of Stanford gave an excellent talk entitled “Communication Infrastructure and Information as Forms of Private Property: A Behavioral Perspective on Technology Evolution.” Effectively, this was a behavioral economics analysis of developing IP regulations. He then applied these principles to ICANN, showing that establishing ICANN creates a number of predictable problems from a behavioral economics approach, so we would be better off without ICANN trying to regulate domain names. He brought a number of interesting and valuable social science tools to the process of developing IP regulations. For example, he pointed to the psychology principle of “loss avoidance” and showed that endowing a person with IP rights creates the prospect of loss avoidance if that person feels like they are being deprived of their property. I’ve seen a lot of discussions about the problems of creating IP rights, but I’m not sure if I can recall seeing the loss avoidance principle raised as part of the reasons why IP owners fight so hard to protect their rights and howl whenever there is a proposed scale-back of rights. This looks worth exploring.

* Clark Kelso, California’s Chief Information Officer (and a professor at McGeorge), gave the lunchtime keynote talk. He started the talk by listing a parade of horribles about Internet content/behavior (porn, spam, security threats, etc.) which led him to characterize the Internet as a “sewer” that needed substantive regulation to clean it up. In Q&A, I asked him if the Internet was more of a sewer than any other communication medium (his response indicated that he probably didn’t understand my point). I shudder to think that he might be advancing the “Internet-as-sewer” meme throughout the corridors of power in Sacramento. Clark also came out swinging against net neutrality regulation. It will be interesting to see if the Schwarzenegger administration takes a more aggressive stance in that debate.