Health Experts Issue Call To Prevent ICANN's Commercialization Of New .health Domain Leading To Exclusive Control Of Online Health Information

from the enough-is-enough dept

Last month, we wrote about a troubling decision by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to give control over the new .pharmacy domain to big pharma — thus allowing it to lock out sites around the world that threaten its generous profit margins. An article in the journal “Globalization and Health” warns that something similar could be about to happen in the realm of public health:

In just a few weeks, the Internet could be expanded to include a new .health generic top-level domain name run by a for-profit company with virtually no public health credentials — unless the international community intervenes immediately. This matters to the future of global public health as the “Health Internet” has begun to emerge as the predominant source of health information for consumers and patients.

The paper, which is open access, and can therefore be read for free in its entirety, gives some hypothetical examples of what could happen:

http://www.[smoking].[health](potentially purchased by a tobacco company)

http://www.[vaccinatekids].[health](potentially purchased by anti-vaccine activists)

http://www.[obesity].[health](potentially purchased by a junk food company)

http://www.[cancer].[doctor](potentially purchased by unscrupulous vendors catering to the desperate dying)

The paper’s authors explain:

Despite this increasing use and reliance on online health information that may have inadequate quality or reliability, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) recently announced it intends to move forward with an auction to award the exclusive, 10 year rights to the .health generic top-level domain name. This decision is being made over the protests of the World Medical Association, World Health Organization, and other stakeholders, who have called for a suspension or delay until key questions can be resolved.

ICANN responded to those concerns by asking the International Chamber of Commerce to decide whether a company, rather than a health organization, should be allowed to run the .health domain. No surprise what the outcome was:

a rejection of challenges filed by ICANN?s own independent watchdog and others, such that ICANN’s Board decided in June 2014 that there are “no noted objections to move forward” in auctioning the .health generic top-level domain name to the highest bidder before the end of the year.

“No noted objections” if you exclude important chunks of the world’s medical community, that is. Or perhaps ICANN simply meant “no noted objections from the companies that stand to gain the most from controlling this lucrative domain”. The paper’s authors conclude:

we call for an immediate moratorium/suspension of the ICANN award/auction process in order to provide the international public health community time to ensure the proper management and governance of health information online.

In fact, we need to go much further. Rather than simply calling for a moratorium on the auction of these new domains, we should be calling for ICANN itself to be abolished, and replaced with an organization that is concerned with maximizing the global benefits of running the Internet domain system and not, as presently seems the case, with maximizing the profits of a few lucky companies. ICANN has had long enough to show that it is a worthy guardian of this unique and critical resource; it has failed to do so. Time to get rid of it.

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Comments on “Health Experts Issue Call To Prevent ICANN's Commercialization Of New .health Domain Leading To Exclusive Control Of Online Health Information”

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Dave Cortright says:

The TLD is of only minor relevance to PageRank

“The Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” —John Gilmore

PageRank isn’t going to be fooled, regardless of under what authority the new domain is created. If the most relevant health-related websites are under .health, they will be highly ranked. If not, then they won’t.

If I were in the health care business, I would focus on creating a valuable site and service for my customers, and worry a lot less at which specific characters appear in the URL bar.

Anonymous Coward says:

Do people actually pay attention to TLDs in this way?

I find TLDs useful for a few things: 1) I can bulk-block most of them in my email filter (useful) 2) they indicate to me when I’m on a non-standard site.

That’s about it.

I agree with Dave; PageRank took centre stage away from TLDs years ago. People could use IPs now, and other than the fact that they don’t vhost well, and address mobility is limited, there’d be little difference.

I pay more attention to a site’s SSL certificate than I do to the TLD.

That said, if they auctioned off a country’s domain (oh wait, like .su, .cc, .cz, .co, etc already have)… what am I saying? That would make blocking things easier too.

I’d have issues with .edu being sold off, except that all educational institutions I’ve had a direct relationship with didn’t use a .edu TLD.

So yeah… what’s the issue again?

Jennifer Hoelzer (profile) says:

Re: Do people actually pay attention to TLDs in this way?

The issue is that the policies shaping the future of the Internet are increasingly being made by for profit corporations & interests while the rest of us get shut out of the process (and might not even know there was a process if not for Techdirt.)

You’re saying this shouldn’t be an issue because it doesn’t personally impact you is a little like my saying, I don’t see why I should care about Net Neutrality since I only use the Internet for Facebook (I don’t) or I don’t care if the government is collecting my geolocation records because I don’t go anywhere interesting.

Every time corporate or special interests co-opt a piece of the Internet’s future for their own purposes, the Internet takes another step towards becoming an instrument for the few versus a platform for the many. And I think that’s reason enough to oppose it.

Beyond that, there are reasons you should care:

1. Not everyone who uses the Internet is as savvy as you and the more for profit health providers are able to control the flow of information to (at least some) patients — recommending pricey treatments and medications that patients might not need — the more health care costs go up. Sky rocketing health care costs hurt everyone in the form of increased taxes and/or loss of government services, the availability of treatments and your employer’s ability to raise your wages among many other things.

2. Opportunity Cost. Yes, you have a way to avoid the negative consequences of .health being purchased by a for profit spammer, but might you have benefitted from .health being used for a different purpose? Like…what if — for example — instead of selling .health to the highest bidder, ICANN granted it to a non-profit to turn it into a global health care wiki that would gather the collective wisdom and experience of doctors and health care experts around the world. Thus giving you immediate access to unbiased information and making it harder for pharma and other for profit actors in the health care sphere to control the flow of information re: their products, hide adverse effects, studies, etc….

ICANN is shaping the future of the Internet and steps like this not only take the Internet in the wrong direction, they mean we’re forgoing an opportunity to take the Internet in a positive direction.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Do people actually pay attention to TLDs in this way?

The problem with #2 is that the opportunity cost is really negligible. Everything in your example could also be done without ICANN giving away .health domains. Nobody had to give Jimmy Wales the .wiki or .encyclopedia tld in order for wikipedia to begin. I don’t think there are any non-profits sitting around waiting to do this if only someone would give them a website address. That is the least important part of that equation.

As far as #1, that’s probably not that serious of a problem. Most non-tech-savvy people I know, at least, don’t use URLs to go to websites other than I’ve watched people going to google and typing “yahoo mail” in the search box because that’s how they get to their mail. And even with or without the .health tld, you won’t be able to stop less scrupulous people from giving bad information.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Re: Do people actually pay attention to TLDs in this way?

In fact there are people that are completely oblivious to technology but still use it. I had this old lady that was using her android with some mail that some guy registered for her and she didn’t even have the password. Nor she understood how things worked in her phone. While we can’t act as nannies for those people I do believe that some regulation can be imposed to avoid scammers and stuff without making things worse for the general user. I’m not sure how to do it but ICANN is not helping here for sure.

Jennifer Hoelzer (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Do people actually pay attention to TLDs in this way?

Yes, I would argue that the folks who will be most vulnerable to this will most likely be senior citizens, who are the least tech savvy and the biggest consumers of health care. I mean, these scam sites wouldn’t invest in this stuff if they weren’t making money off of them, so I think it’s pretty safe to assume that someone’s getting scammed.

I’d also argue that the threat here isn’t just scam sites looking for ways to cheat your grandparents out of their life savings (although those folks definitely exist), you’re also dealing with a multi-billion health care industry that is already out there paying doctors millions to recommend their treatments over others. This is just an educated guess, but I’ll bet good money that you’re going to see major pharmaceutical companies and/or medical device company’s buying up the TLDs associated with the diseases they treat. e.g. and then they’ll invest a million (which is no skin off their nose) to make it the best resource for the disease out there. It won’t just be informative, it will be useful. You’ll be able to chat online with a doctor and find support on message boards, read inspirational stories and learn strategies for educating your kid on the disease. It will be so great that it will become the go-to site for any family fighting the disease. The only problem with the site will be their treatment recommendations. They’re not dumb, they won’t recommend their products for everyone, just almost everyone. They also won’t publish the downsides of their medications or any adverse effects of their medication, which yes, parents can find on other sites, but they won’t look for that information until/unless something goes wrong. Yes, ideally, doctors wouldn’t prescribe medication just because a patient asks for it, but if that was the case, why do pharmaceuticals advertise so extensively? (Also these companies market to doctors so these would just be an extension of those efforts.)

I’m not saying my #2 (which I thought up in 30 seconds as I typed that response) is the answer. Although I do think a health wiki that you accessed simply by typing (vs. having to go through an entire wiki site would be helpful) but I do think its worth thinking through what the opportunity cost is here of not taking this opportunity to set up incentives to populate the Internet with useful, unbiased health information for patients versus giving for-profit health interests an unending stream of avenues to market themselves. Again, I’m not suggesting that I have the answer or that the answer is easy, only that it’s a problem that we should be looking for ways to address.

Neil Pakenham-Walsh (user link) says:

ICANN's disregard of public health objections is scandalous

Several health organisations, including WHO, have expressed deep concern about the sale of .health to a commercial, for-profit company without adequate public health safeguards. In a farcical process, ICANN dismissed the independent objector’s arguments on the basis that “.health” is not an offensive word. ICANN is there to prevent the sale of TLDs such as “f***” but is unable or unwilling to prevent the sale of TLDs such as “.health” to commercial entities. Such a sale will inevitably make it even harder for people to differentiate reliable from unreliable health information on the internet. People who are already disadvantaged are those who will be most vulnerable to health misinformation and consequent harm.

SomaGenix (user link) says:


SomaGenix Pharma Ltd.
Somagenix,a leading supplier of API’s and steroid hormone powders in Hong Kong. Our state of the art facility employs top chemical engineers and technicians while meeting quality assurance and compliance with North American and European standards. Our company allocates a substantial percentage of its investment towards Research and Development as we believe it is crucial in meeting market demands and innovation.

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