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October 2000
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The Internet Society and Public Policy
The Internet Society identifies the policy issues it believes are most critical

By David Maher

When Don Heath, president and CEO of the Internet Society, made the decision to create the office of Vice President for Public Policy, he proposed the following, both as a job description and as a program for the society:

The Internet Society is now an active member of the Noncommercial Domain Name Holders Constituency as a part of ICANN's Domain Name Support Group and will participate in deliberations regarding the domain name system and other aspects of Internet governance.

At a recent ISOC board meeting, the following public policy issues were identified as most critical at this time. In each case, the development and formation of a position by the society will require analysis and debate, taking into account different regional and national views that often vary widely.

Censorship and Freedom of Expression

While the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is well recognized as a preeminent guiding principle of freedom of expression, it is not universally accepted. Even within the United States, there are differences of opinion as to how it should be applied. In other countries, there are historical and social issues regarding censorship and expression that must be considered.

In regard to issues of censorship and free expression, the responsibilities of service providers vary significantly from country to country.

Protection of Privacy

Data collected by service providers and Web site operators about Internet users has become a major issue both nationally and internationally. For example, European Union directives on privacy have conflicted with U.S. encouragement of a nongovernmental, private-sector approach.

The control of unsolicited mail (spam) has provoked a variety of different legislative initiatives in different countries.

There has been controversy within the IETF over possible enablement of data interception in the new protocols of IP ver 6.

With respect to the identification of domain name holders and access to domain name databases, there is significant conflict between the interests of trademark owners in accessing the information and the privacy interests of individual domain name registrants.


There are both international and U.S. concerns over burdensome taxation that could stifle development of the Internet as a worldwide marketplace. In the United States, there is controversy between state and federal governments arising from state concern that the traditional state revenue base of sales taxes may be destroyed by nontaxable e-commerce transactions.

Internet Governance

The Internet Society has strongly supported ICANN as the best hope of a nongovernmental approach to Internet governance. The future of ICANN depends on its ability to develop international support for its programs and to build a stable financial base. The sometimes conflicting interests of governments, of the operators of the country code top-level domains, and of various nongovernmental parties cannot be resolved without serious attention to a variety of public policy issues. These include questions about the primacy of public interest versus commercial interests, the continuing role of the Internet Society, and the continuing conflict between the needs of trademark owners and the interests of Internet users in expanding the domain name space.

Intellectual Property

Closely related to questions about Internet governance are questions about protection of trademarks. For the past five or six years, trademark issues have dominated the domain name debate. ICANN's adoption of a Uniform Dispute Resolution Policy has created an international code of trademark protection that is unprecedented in international law. While widely supported, the UDRP has also raised concerns among users of generic terms and other words or phrases that have meaning both as trademarks and in noncommercial speech.

In addition to the trademark issues, there are conflicting views on copyright issues, such as the appropriate protection of databases. For example, the European Union and the United States are pursuing different legislative approaches to database protection. Those different approaches could have serious impact on the commercial value of these database properties.

Each of the foregoing public policy issues poses a substantial challenge to the Internet Society. I hope that as time goes on, a wide range of voices and opinions will arise to develop policies that best serve the goals of the society and the Internet. Volunteers to help develop and articulate those policies are always welcome.

Join the Internet Society today: http://www.isoc.org