In what can only be described as an ominous sign of things to come, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) has issued new recommendations to WIPO's member states. These recommendations include new bans on domain names that, if accepted, will open the door to further - and more encompassing - restrictions in years to come.
It all revolves around weird-sounding names like "International Nonproprietary Names" (INNs). According to WIPO, "In recognition of the importance of the role of identifiers, prior to the arrival of the Internet, the health sector had developed a system for ensuring that a certain class of identifiers would be free from appropriation through private rights and available for public use. This system, developed and managed by the World Health Organization (WHO), attributed such public status to those identifiers that were classified as INNs."
The World Health Organization's Division on Drug Management and Policies (WHO/DMP) stated in 1997 that "the underlying reason for ensuring that no party can claim any proprietary rights in INN is to protect the safety of patients by allowing them to identify a specific pharmaceutical substance under one single, globally available name. After their selection, INN are adopted by the national authorities of WHO Member States, which means that such INN may not, in principle, be registered as trademarks. INN are published in the following official languages: English, French, Latin, Russian and Spanish."
While restricting the registering of a pharmaceutical name as a trademark makes a good degree of sense, this idea of banning the use of these names as Internet sites is something else entirely and represents a big step towards overall restriction of speech on the net. It's ridiculous, for example, to expect every site on the net with the word "minoxidil" in it to be a trusted medical source and it's downright dangerous to give people the idea that such a thing is even possible. Instead, there should be a method for locating trusted sources, such as a medical top level domain.
From the WIPO report: "With the arrival of the Internet and the domain name system, a new opportunity arose for tainting the public status of an INN. By registering an INN as a domain name, the functional capacity of the INN to serve as an address locator and identifier on the Internet could be appropriated and controlled by the domain name holder."
This is a risk that every word and name ever created runs when dealing with the Internet. By using a nice-sounding group like the World Health Organization, it's hard to refute their concern over the misuse of pharmaceutical names. But how many really believe it will end there? Once the precedent has been established, you can count on all kinds of other names being regulated because of concern over misappropriation and control by the wrong people. What if the people who register words like freedom, patriot, or founding-fathers use them in ways deemed unacceptable by the authorities? What if words like communist, immorality, or overthrow-the-government are themselves found to be offensive?
There are currently no words that are banned from being registered on the net. There are disputes that arise over who owns the right to certain names and there are some registrars who forbid the use of offensive words. But there is no blanket ban. What WIPO is suggesting is an end to this:
"[I]t is suggested that an exclusion mechanism could operate through reference to a database of INN names during the domain name registration process, so as to block registration of such listed names.... It is proposed that the exclusion mechanism function by means of registrar and public access to a freely searchable online database of proposed and recommended INNs."
Still don't believe there's a bigger threat? The report also recommends looking into restricting the use of "geographical indications" in domain names, meaning these same restrictions could be applied to the names of countries or even cities.
Later on in the same document, recommendations are made to "protect the names or acronyms of IGOs" in a similar manner. IGOs are International Intergovernmental Organizations, nearly all of which can be found in the .int domain. Sites like theunitednations.com could find themselves forced off the net. And once THIS becomes a precedent, you can kiss whitehouse.com goodbye as the same rules get applied on a national level, no doubt with the help of a WTO treaty or two.
A section of the WIPO document actually proves why such steps are completely unnecessary: "The .int top-level domain provides an existing basis for protection of IGOs within the DNS. Because of the restricted nature of this top-level domain, no individuals, companies or other entities can obtain a domain name registration in .int, let alone register the name or abbreviation of an IGO in that domain. So long as the registration procedures of .int are properly applied and enforced, the .int top-level domain is a space where Internet users can have reasonable confidence and trust as to the genuine identity of the organizations registered there under their respective names or acronyms, and of the validity of the information provided by those organizations."
Clearly the answer lies in many more top-level domains that are dedicated to a specific purpose, rather than attempts to control and manipulate every use of a particular name or word throughout all Internet domains. Unfortunately, WIPO doesn't appear to see it that way. They conclude: "It is considered that mere reliance upon the .int top-level domain for the protection of the names and acronyms of IGOs is insufficient and it is recommended that additional protection for those names and acronyms be established."
It's an unfortunate move on their part and this "additional protection" is likely to cause great harm to the remaining freedoms of the net. To demonstrate the threat here, and to officially challenge these potential restrictions, we have gone ahead and registered world-intellectual-property-organization.com. We now ask that someone out there construct a page all about the dangers of WIPO and submit it to us. Only the most inept of fools will get confused and think that this is an official WIPO site. And it will certainly be interesting to see if WIPO tries to bring us before WIPO to settle this.
The WIPO Report
Your chance to submit comments - deadline is June 8, 2001