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Timeout, Time Lords: ICANN says there is only one kind of doctor

Time travelers, PhDs, antivirus vendors and carpet cleaners – be gone!

Domain-name overseer ICANN has decided that only one kind of doctor may be allowed online – and that is a medical doctor.

In a decision made late last month but challenged on Friday by one of the companies vying for the rights to run the internet registry .doctor, ICANN will insist that all dot-doctor domains be verified as belonging to "legitimate medical practitioners."

The dot-doctor top-level domain is one of a handful of the internet's new .things that are deemed to be "category 1, heavily regulated TLDs" and so require additional safeguards.

But while .doctor is clumped together with .pharmacy, .surgery, .dentist and .hospital in the "health and fitness" restricted use TLDs, and with .attorney and .lawyer in the "professional services" restricted use TLDs, none of the others has been told exactly who they must be sold to.

This is unfair, says one of the applicants, Donuts because there are many other types of doctor. "If this edict is allowed to stand, 'doctors' of all stripes – except for those ICANN finds worthy – would be frozen out of a useful gTLD," said company VP Jon Nevett in a blog post. "Juris doctors, doctors of dental surgery, Ph.D.s of every sort, even veterinarians… all could be censored on the Internet because they earned the wrong version of the title."

We can think of other doctors: Dr Marten's boots, Dr Solomon's antivirus software, Rug Doctor, GlassDoctor, and Dr Who.

Some irony

The irony is that the very fact that the word "doctor" has been used by many others than medical doctors is what is spurring ICANN to insist that it is only medical doctors that should be entitled to a "doctor" domain name.

There are no such restrictions on "lawyer" being used for the legal profession or "dentist" used for the dental profession, mostly because there is no broader usage of those terms.

And while you could make a case that for most people the term "doctor" applies to the medical trade, the decision by ICANN to impose the rule as part of a contractual condition may serve as a dangerous precedent.

As ICANN's own CEO Fadi Chehadé testified in front of the US Congress a few weeks ago: "ICANN has nothing to do with content. We do not deal with content. Our work is very limited to the names and numbers and the protocol parameters which are way down in the plumbing of the Internet."

Unfortunately, many others are willing to try to force what is a technical body into the realm of content regulation. Recently both the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) have been applying pressure to ICANN to get involved in intellectual property issues.

The MPAA wants ICANN to use its position to tackle the "use of domain names for illegal and abusive activities, including those related to IP infringement" and the RIAA said [PDF] it was "disappointed" over the organisation's "treatment of copyright abuse complaints filed to date" and pushed its compliance department to do more.

The broader internet infrastructure industry is heavily opposed to ICANN involving itself deeper into content issues and comments on Donuts' blog post – from many of the largest registry companies online – demonstrate a similar sense of frustration over ICANN's dot-doctor decision.

Donuts has filed a "reconsideration request" with ICANN over the decision but as well demonstrated last week, ICANN's processes for reviewing decisions is sorely lacking.

ICANN's staff recommended the dot-doctor change after a recommendation from its Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC) a year ago. ICANN's Board has often skirted or disagreed with GAC advice through the new gTLD process, almost always in the interests of keeping the internet as open as possible. Why it decided not to follow those precedents in this case is not known. ®

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