Within the next two weeks, the governing body of the Internet will rule on who gets to operate the new domain .GAY. I'm concerned that this decision is about to go badly for LGBT people.
If you're a layperson, the issues are hard to understand. But the consequences will be huge for you or someone you love, so pay attention now, or you may be sorry for a long time. Here's a playbook to get you started.
First, meet ICANN--the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. This nonprofit corporation governs everything to do with domain names and global IP addresses. ICANN's power is awe-inspiring. As of 2013 it was already overseeing 275 million domains, all organized under just a few dozen Top-Level Domains (known by their abbreviation, TLD), including .com, .org, and .net.
With some $5 trillion in annual commerce on the Internet, these few original TLD's have been stretched to capacity. And they're limited to English characters only. So ICANN is expanding the online universe by selling the right to own and operate some 1,500 new TLD's.
This will vastly enrich your Internet experience. (It will also enrich ICANN, which is charging six figures per application.) You'll be seeing domains grouped under .HOTEL and .REALTOR and .MUSIC. You'll be able to shop at domains registered in Chinese characters.
You'll also be able to visit a whole universe of fabulous domains under the new designation .GAY. But will you be safe while you're there? Is .GAY simply online real estate, or is something more at stake?
I was invited to discuss this question two weeks ago at a meeting between ICANN and a small company called dotgay LLC, led by my longtime fellow activist Scott Seitz. Scott and his team had spent the past five years in the effort to buy and operate .GAY as an ICANN community-based registry.
ICANN's evaluators had rejected dotgay's application, for reasons that, to me, pointed toward a simple misunderstanding of a word that's constantly evolving for LGBT people--community.
In ICANN's process, community is a business proposition, a favored status that carries considerable rewards for the selected community. In contrast to his purely commercial competitors, Scott's plan shares the wealth with our community, by giving back 67% of profits from domain name sales to LGBTQIA causes via an independent nonprofit foundation.
On this point and throughout ICANN's exhaustive evaluation, Scott and dotgay earned nearly perfect scores. The problem was a question called community nexus, which asks whether an applicant really speaks for the community it claims to represent.
How, ICANN's evaluators asked, could .GAY speak for an unknown and unknowable worldwide population of perhaps 70 million, most of whom are not able or willing to stand up and be visible? And how could that single word gay serve as a gathering place for lesbians, transgender people, friends and allies, and millions of people yet to come?
Scott and his team spent years working through these questions. They selected .GAY because more than 70% of Internet searches start with gay. It's the one word that's known all over the world, whatever the language spoken. It also became clear that recent usages, like LGBTQIA--Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning or Queer, Intersex, and Asexual or Ally--are expanding our concept of gay rather than supplanting it. In major publications, journalists often alternate the terms. But when we need a single word to describe ourselves, the shorthand is always gay: gay rights, gay pride, Gay Voices.
Then there's our understanding of community--a word so central to us that it's almost beyond definition. It's the all-important "we," a circle of safety that materializes only after we've found each other. None of us knows the precise measure of our community. But we all know that it exists, because we know how unbearable life was without it.
Surely that's why dotgay's community approach has earned the backing of so many of our people worldwide. More than 240 international organizations, representing millions of LGBTQIA people from all segments of our world, signed letters of support for dotgay's application.
Not good enough, said ICANN. What about the rights of all those people who aren't out or active in the gay community?
Well, most of those people don't have any rights. Considering that they live in places where just holding hands is a risk, they're not signing their names to any international petitions.
Which makes it doubly important that we reach out to them.
As the former Editor in Chief of The Advocate, I can tell you that people who aren't queer don't realize the dangers we face. I know, because I care to know, that the Internet is perhaps the single most virulent breeding ground for human rights abuses against us.
In Vladimir Putin's Russia, gays are lured by online ads, then beaten and tortured on video that's posted for the world to see. There's no protection under the law, no appeal to the police. And Russia is not even one of the 5 countries where homosexuality is punishable by death.
I think it's our job to make a safe place for the millions who are still invisible, and I think ICANN ought to help us do it. But what do you think? Should .GAY be a strictly for-profit marketplace, or should it be organized as a community where LGBTQIA people can support our own organizations and ensure that online predators are not left unchallenged?
At this moment, ICANN is evaluating dotgay's appeal for reconsideration. Your voice could make a difference. I hope you'll join the social media discussion at #reicann (= reconsider ICANN) to support community.
If we don't succeed, .GAY will simply be sold at auction to the highest bidder. And from Singapore to Saudi Arabia, we'll take our chances.