The Internets Own Your Religion

I am a scholar of religion by profession, but I like to play in technology. So when the  Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the body responsible for generic top level domains (gTLD) like .com, .org., and .net, asked for proposals for new gTLD, I watched with some fascination.

One of the earliest discussions was around allowing “.xxx” to indicate pornography-related sites. However, I am interested in a new round of names that may potentially define who is in and who is out of religious communities. In particular, I am looking at the applications for “.islam” and “.shia”.

Ownership of these gTLD could potentially define who is part of the fold of Islam broadly, and Shi’ism in particular.

Since the Islamic faith is not a monolith, and there is no universally recognized religious leadership, it becomes hard for someone to come forward to act as a gatekeeper. Even if there were Catholic-style hierarchy, you can imagine the type of games that could be played with granting access to use of the domain. For example, would nuns invested in social justice be allowed to register under “.catholic”? 

In the case of Muslims, we don’t know who is registering these gTLD and to what purpose. Although their application says it’s for people interested in Islam, will they allow anyone to register? Does that include people from the Islamophobia Industry? Or the Ahmadiyya community? Turkey, which is a predominately Sunni country, is an odd place to register the “.shia” gTLD from.

(More logical choices would have been Iran, Iraq, or Lebanon, where there are large numbers of Shi’ah, and well-established hierarchies. Although, looking over the names on the application there are some very Persianate names on the list, so it may be that the Turks are simply a proxy for another group.)

This lack of clarity furthers the point that ICANN needs to have a policy of regulating the use of religions’ names—it should not be easy and trivial for someone to claim internet ownership over a religion. There should be a compelling, clear case made, and at best, I can see it only affecting specific communities of interpretation, so that Catholics can claim “.catholic”, and work out their own internal issues, but the Pope cannot claim “.christian”.

I am not sure the technical community understands what is at stake in allowing people to register the names of religious communities, but we on the religion side do, and we should make sure we give feedback. You can find information submitting comments here, or tweet here.

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