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A September 29 meeting at the White House may have a major impact on the future of free speech and the Internet. Drug lobbyists are seeking to get ICANN to delete the domain name registrations of companies which do not comply with US law, even if those companies are based overseas and are complying with the laws of their native countries.
Such a move would be nothing less than an existential threat to the Internet and hence to free speech and all of the benefits which the Internet has brought about.
Ostensibly the meeting is to address the matter of importation of pharmaceutical drugs by US residents. Some nations do not require prescriptions for certain drugs, and recently a teenager reportedly overdosed on a painkiller purchased over the Internet.
Most nations impose regulation on pharmaceutical products. The United States remains the most profitable market for drugmakers. As more Americans order drugs from Canada and elsewhere, the drug lobbyist, known as Big Pharma, see a significant long-term threat to the profitability of pharmaceutical manufacturers. A former Bush administration official, John Horton, set up a company while he was still working in the White House, and that company (now known as LegitScript.com) claims to vet websites selling drugs.
Horton argues that he didn't actually set up the company until two weeks after he left the administration but rather he only set up domain names for it (March 2007). Therefore, he claims that he was in compliance with federal ethics laws. What Horton does not mention is that at the same time, his boss was issuing a report blasting a company named PharmacyChecker.com (April 2007), just a few days before Horton quit the White House. [Allegedly, Horton was the key staffer assigned to write the report blasting PharmacyChecker]
The problem is that Horton's major competitor is New York-based PharmacyChecker.com--and the site is not sufficiently restrictive for the tastes of Horton's financial backers. A close examination of Horton's statements as to his financial support leads many to suspect that Big Pharma is the de facto funder of Horton's site via purchasing "research reports" offered for sale by LegitScript. At very least, there is an appearance of impropriety when a White House official blasts a company by name at the same time his subordinate is busy setting up a competitor company.
All of this effort to preserve high drug prices in the USA would not be news to any uninsured American who has followed the debate over importation of pharmaceuticals and who understands that importation saves lives.
The practice is so common that the US government has an informal understanding that shipments of drugs for personal use not exceeding 90 days supply will not be turned back at the border. Nevertheless, Google has now begun taking aggressive action against pharmacies which don't comply with US law, including banning and suing them.
Having failed to get the cooperation of the FDA, the supporters of Big Pharma have now taken another approach. Led by Horton and LegitScript, they have put pressure to take down the websites of companies sending drugs to Americans via certain countries such as Vanuatu. Major drugmakers such as Cipla supply drugs to intermediaries in Vanuatu, which are then shipped to the United States.
In an interview today, Horton denied that he is funded by the pharmaceutical industry.
The meeting at the White House is with representatives of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, ICANN, a not-for-profit U.S. organization that coordinates unique domain name identifiers across the world. It is the organization that ensures that domain name TacoBell.com is assigned and gets you there, and not to say, DelTaco.com.
For many years, foreign governments have been wary about how much influence the US government exercises over the Internet, and while ICANN and the US government have dismissed such concerns as unwarranted, the September 29 meeting may give new impetus to proposals to set up alternate webs which cannot be controlled by ICANN.
[A detailed discussion of the relationship between ICANN and the US government, and some legal issues raised, can be found in Prof. Froomkin's article (pdf copy here); the power of Google to "remove scammy URLs from our index" raises a question as to the impartiality of Google and the influence of this private company, but that is beyond the scope of this article.]
To have a low-level meeting at some agency office is one thing. But any meeting which is scheduled at the White House necessarily sends a message independent of the substantive content of the meeting. And to have the top ICANN officials summoned to discuss taking down internet access to companies which don't dance to the US tune is a remarkable start down a slippery slope. Indeed, a Dutch observer notes:
I think that ICANN has no other option. Imo this is not a task for ICANN.
Let me explain. I live in the Netherlands and when it comes to softdrugs we have a liberal policy.
Now what if the ICANN receives complaints from some groups located in the USA regarding some websites that offer information about softdrugs.. As soon ICANN regulates this and pulls the plug on those domains they will directly violate several Dutch laws.
A PharmacyChecker spokesperson said that his company is run by a medical doctor. He argues that his firms certification standards are every bit as restrictive as legitscript, except that his firm allows non U.S. pharmacies to be certified.
Apart from the PharmacyChecker letter to the White House (posted on their website) the media has not picked up on this story.
This is a story which has rammifications far beyond a few pills dispensed without a prescription. People will die from lack of medicine, and the foundations of the Internet are under attack as well.
Once the genie is out of the bottle, it may be impossible to put it back.
Author Note: Both PharmacyChecker and LegitScript contacted the author to note factual inaccuracies in the article, and the article was edited to take those comments into account. However, LegitScript is still disputing the statements made in the above article, and John Horton has sent emails to the author and to the webmaster threatening a lawsuit. The emails from Mr. Horton are appended in the "Comments" section of this article, and readers are invited to read his words verbatim and make their own conclusion.
After this article was published, it was reported that ICANN declined to attend the White House meeting, but there is still debate as to what role ICANN and the White House are playing in the shut-down of websites.
According to a reporter who interviewed participants at the White House meeting, the matter of IP protection--the mission of the sponsoring WH office-- was not raised. General Counsel for GoDaddy said that it supported "an FDA-led solution."
...if one US government agency can order the cancellation of an Internet domain name, why not any government agency?
This is a dangerous path, and when the "#1" domain registrar applauds the US government deciding who is barred from the internet, that is something we all should be concerned about.