A rather peculiar circumstance has come to my attention over the new generic top level domain (gTLD) process currently chugging along at the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). As is so often the case with such things, it is at the same time both trivial and highly illustrative of the problem of dealing with a global medium where symbols have semantic meaning as well as functionality.
It also highlights the bind for the U.S. Government. Other governments are free to weigh in on behalf of various orgs and groups that petition them for help, if those governments so choose. The U.S., because if its relationship with ICANN, faces serious political problems if it weighs in with regard to TLD policy. This does not preclude the U.S. from acting if it wants (as folks who remember the .XXX controversy will recall). Nevertheless, for the U.S. to preserve the integrity of the process and avoid accusations of meddling, it needs to tread very cautiously before wading in on behalf of any specific TLD or objection.
All of which brings us to the current case. It involves the treatment of two proposed gTLDs, “.kosher” and “.halal.” They have similar meanings to their respective communities, and similar concerns arise from allowing their use. We can certainly say to both communities “sorry, but nothing requires you to respect the designation of the gTLD manager, so just learn to live with it.” Alternatively, we might say “these TLDs raise some questions that impact these communities disproportionately, lets deal with them differently than from regular applications.” But it would be hard to justify treating the terms differently from a principled standpoint. the objections to one apply equally to the other — or not.
There is, however, a rather important political difference: there are about ten to twenty times more people in the world who (potentially) care about .halal than care about .kosher. in fact, there are probably more people in the city of Cairo who would care if .halal were held by a Shia rather than a Sunni than there are people in the world who care if .kosher is held by someone who holds by chalav yisroel or not. (The vast majority of the world, of course, does not even know what the last sentence even means.)
Also, as discussed below, while certain governments have voiced objections in the ICANN Government Advisory Committee (GAC) have voiced objections to the .halal TLD, no one has for .kosher. (Israel does not participate in the GAC, for those who jumped to the next logical question.) This has prompted the kosher organizations objecting to the .kosher TLD application to send letters to Commerce Secretary Pritzker, as well as ICANN Chair Fadi Chehade asking for reassurance that .kosher and .halal will be treated the same. While there is no indication that they won’t, we Jews do not take equal treatment for granted (it’s a history thing, got an hour for me to explain it? No? So trust me on this . . .) As noted above, this potentially puts the U.S. in something of a bind.
Which brings me to the peculiar story of .kosher and the question of whether it will or will not be treated like .halal. Because whatever the actual outcome, it would be nice to think that the two communities will be treated with equal fairness regardless of size or political clout. I mean, no one really expects it, but it would be nice.
More below . . . .
As an initial matter, I need to stress more than usual that this is my personal blog and not that of my employer, Public Knowledge. Public Knowledge does not have any position on any of the issues around the expansion of the Internet name space and doesn’t generally do anything in the ICANN space.
My personal connection with this is that a dear friend of mine is a Rabbi involved with one of the kosher certification orgs protesting the .kosher TLD and he mentioned this to me. It is rare enough that my religious and professional life so perfectly intersect, so I have indulged myself and blogged about it.
What’s Up With .Kosher?
For those looking for background, the Jewish concept of “kosher” means, generally, ‘fit for use.’ Applied to food, it means food that applies to the extremely complex dietary laws that we Jewish people have picked up over the last 3,000 years. The bulk of these come from the Bible and practices settled in place during the Talmudic period about 2000 years ago.
Cultural drift from being in different communities around the world, and the ever-growing complexity of the modern food production, have created huge diversity of opinion among the various Jews who care about kosher laws.
The split likewise applies to the various organizations that exist that provide kosher certification. There are hundreds of organizations around the world that provide certification to manufacturers and restauranteurs and other providers of food services certification that they are kosher and therefore suitable for those of us who keep kosher. But, since standards vary so much, the next natural question is “is this a heksher (a word meaning ‘symbol of kosherness’ or ‘kosher certifying authority’ I can trust?” For this, everyone has a somewhat different answer. Sometimes the dispute is over legal opinions (e.g., this org concludes something like gelatin derived from animals is o.k., but my personal standard holds it is not kosher). Sometimes it has to do with the perceived trustworthiness of the organization (e.g., Organization Y claims to inspect the food plant but they really just show up and collect a check).
None of which matters to 99.99% of people in the world. But for the .01% who care, we care very intensely.
Which brings us to the application for the .kosher generic top level domain (gTLD). One of the U.S.-based kosher certifying organizations, (the Committee for the Advancement of Torah, which give the OK kosher certification) applied for the .kosher TLD through a corporate entity called Kosher Marketing Assets LLC (which is the official name of the applicant) (Application here). The five largest competing kosher certifying orgs in the U.S. and Canad — The Orthodox Union (which gives the OU certification), the Star-K, The Chicago Rabbinical Council (CRC), Kashrus Council of Canada, and Kosher Supervision Services, Inc. (called the Chof-K and whose symbol is in Hebrew letters I can’t reproduce here) — filed a protest against the application a filed a protest on the grounds that no one organization can say what constitutes “kosher” and that assigning .kosher to a single organization (or any organization) would create serious problems for the impacted community.
Of note to my friends who keep kosher, none of the orgs challenging the TLD application have raised any questions about the standards or acceptability of the OK. So OK is still o.k. if you held by OK before. O.k.? Good.
How Did .halal Get Into This?
So far, we have a run of the mill objection on par with what we expect in this kind of process. Nor is .kosher the only religiously significant word up for grabs, which brings us to the next part of our story.
At the ICANN Meeting in Beijing a few months the Government Advisory Committee (GAC) met and, as usually, issued a Communique which touched on, among other things, government objections and concerns with regard to the never-ending process of selecting new TLDs. Of relevance here, the GAC noted that words pertaining to religion are particularly sensitive. All fine so far. But two GAC members: Saudi Arabia and India, raised particular objections to .halal as needing to comply with their own national halal laws and raising concerns that the issuance of the TLD would be particularly divisive and offensive to certain parts of the Islamic community.
The same objections apply to .kosher of course, just on a much, much smaller scale. But no country raised concerns about .kosher. Israel, the one country in the world that has Judaism as its state religion, does not participate in the GAC. Also, with two chief Rabbis and a host of religious sects that refuse to acknowledge each other’s authority, and with a large secular population that regards kosher laws as, and I am paraphrasing the Hebrew here, “a stupid pain in the ass,” it’s not exactly clear what Israel would say if it did participate in the GAC.
Reaction to the Beijing Communique
Mind you, it’s not so clear that GAC objections carry the day here. There are good reasons why ICANN should try to minimize its involvement in the gTLD selection process. ICANN Chair Steve Crocker, while acknowledging that GAC advice “carries a lot of weight,” has also said that the Beijing Communique is not “the end of the story.” Besides, with only two countries lodging specific objections to .halal, the advice on .halal specifically is not considered “consensus advice” from the GAC but rather is simply considered comments from the specific country. Again, that carries weight, but how much and what will happen remains unclear.
So the Kashrus orgs objecting to the .kosher TLD have spent the time since the Beijing meeting in April pushing to get confirmation that whatever happens with .halal, .kosher will get equal treatment. This should seem fairly straightforward and obvious, except (a) nothing in ICANN is ever straightforward and obvious, and (b) No one has bothered to provide these guys with the reassurance they want that .kosher will be treated equally in the process as .halal.
A Bind For The U.S.
Not surprisingly, the objecting Kashrus organizations have asked that the Commerce Department weigh in with ICANN that it treat .kosher and .halal the same way — whatever that means. Unfortunately, the Commerce Department has excellent reasons to avoid any perception it is meddling in the process on behalf of any particular set of applicants or objectors. After all, the “special relationship” between the U.S. and ICANN is a constant source of friction between the U.S. and other countries and is always brought up by those who would like to eliminate ICANN or move its functions to some presumably more “neutral” place. (And, lets face it, the fact that the world is pissed at us for NSA spying, while not relevant to ICANN, doesn’t help.)
At the same time, pretty much every government has the right to weigh in on behalf of its citizens, companies, or groups within its boarders that ask it to do so. Should U.S. interests be at a disadvantage because of the U.S.-ICANN relationship?
But is this really something Commerce ought to weigh in on anyway?
My Presonal View — Protect The Integrity of the Process By Treating Like Applications The Same.
My purely personal view is that the best way to protect the integrity of the process is to treat like applications the same. There is no real distinction, other than size of community (and its political clout) between the community impacted by .halal and the community impacted by .kosher. If ICANN thinks it needs to minimize involvement in TLD selection, that applies to both .halal and .kosher. If it wants to respect religious sensitivities, I can assure you that Jews are plenty sensitive on the question of what is and isn’t kosher just as Muslims are sensitive to the appropriate standard for halal.
Nor does it compromise the Department of Commerce to urge the GAC to reaffirm that like applications should be treated alike, or even to affirm such a basic principle on its own. Fundamental fairness ought to be the cornerstone of any process worthy of respect. The Commerce Department (hopefully with the rest of the GAC) can certainly affirm that general proposition without pressuring ICANN as to how to make a particular disposition. Simply treat everyone the same.
It’s an old saying that “What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.” That applies even if the goose is halal and the gander is kosher. While it may expect too much for the ongoing ICANN meeting in Durban to resolve the substantive objections with regard to either .kosher or .halal, I would hope that ICANN could at least answer one question: will like applications with like community objections be treated the same? Also hopefully, the answer will be “yes.”
Stay tuned . . . .