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The coming fight over .gay domain (Q&A)

Scott Seitz wants to apply for the .gay top-level domain, a move that is likely to kick off an international dispute over free speech, morality, sovereignty, and gay rights.

Scott Seitz, CEO of dotGay Declan McCullagh/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO--Scott Seitz has the dubious distinction of proposing what might become the most controversial new top-level Internet domain: .gay.

Seitz, the chief executive of dotGAY, is the founder of SPI Marketing, which bills itself as a "full service" gay marketing, public relations, and event planning agency. Clients include Absolut Vodka, American Express, Subaru, and Travelocity; campaigns included a Ru Paul drag race.

Now, as soon as the application period begins, Seitz is planning to ask the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, to approve .gay. At least 115 proposals are expected, including .car, .health, .nyc, .movie, and .web.

Controversial Internet suffixes have a history of suffering the geopolitical equivalent of being referred to a committee that never reaches a decision. An entrepreneur named Stuart Lawley applied for the rights to run .xxx in 2004, and thanks to opposition from the Bush administration and nations including Brazil, it still has not been approved.

That could happen again. As CNET reported last week, the Obama administration is quietly seeking the power for it and other governments to veto future top-level domain names; that proposal will be incorporated into a so-called "scorecard" that's expected to be released in the next few days. Milton Mueller, a professor of information studies at Syracuse University and author of a new book on Internet governance, says conversations with government officials in conservative Arab countries have made it clear they'll try to veto .gay.

CNET sat down with Seitz last Friday at the .nxt conference, organized by longtime ICANN-watcher Kieren McCarthy, where scores of hopeful applicants gathered to figure out how to raise money and piece together a compelling application. ICANN is expected to finalize the process during its March or June meetings.

Q: How did you get involved in .gay?
A: I was in sales and marketing at Kodak and then went on to Pepsi. Alexander (Schubert) created the concept for all of this. He was reaching out to a number of people in the gay and lesbian community. It wasn't just me. He was very public about finding someone as a partner for .gay, the need to find someone in the community as an owner in that effort.

I was really shocked to see that we're getting ready to see the Internet reborn again in a very different way. And that such a limited number of people were even aware of it. I got involved because I saw what the opportunity was for the gay community. A lot of communities including ours are in flux right now.

Hasn't this been happening for a while?
Now it's a much more integrated community in many ways. As the community has become more integrated, it's become more difficult to reach the community in media, because you have more choices than you had before. .gay will be a venue for enhancing our ability to interact with each other as a community. It also became a global networking opportunity, linking community centers...

But you don't need a top-level domain to network community centers, do you?
I disagree. Instead of what most people would do, which is go out and sell your top categories,,,,, we're keeping them. And they'll become an index to the community globally.

You already own Why not just create, and so on, without applying for a new top-level domain?
It's not the same--you're subject to whatever .com is subject to. (Instead we'll be) in the island of .gay, which will have its own policies and be able to police people who are abusive. There's a big difference between being a site versus a place where multiple sites can exist.

Earlier you said, "We're going to have to have a filtering process in advance that puts us in place to authorize that Web site." You have antigay groups out there. How would you filter them or their remarks in practice?
We're working on that. We want to limit filtering. But we want to be sure we're filtering appropriately.

It's not going to slow down your ability to lock down a name you choose. You can go to your registrar, lock down But then you'll be put through a screening process that will ask what is for. Much of this can probably be automated.

Will someone be able to post content that's legal but offensive? Where do you draw the line?
This is part of the process that we're developing. That's the exact certain type of person we need to find a way to have localized on the site.

Like if I have to check a box saying I'm over 18, maybe you have to check a box saying that I'm recognizing that this content is potentially unfriendly to the gay community. Yes, the ex-gay community will want to be on the site. The Mormon Church will want to be on the site.

Let's say I wanted to register Would I be allowed to?
There are two things to that. We're putting together a policy group. This isn't just going to be me saying in this interview how it's going to happen. We can work with some of the best organizations--GLAAD, Lambda Legal. They can help us find a way to filter these people. And help us when they're going to turn around and sue us. I think we have to assume that's going to happen.

Second, as a community we really object to filtering in general. But how do we avoid subjecting people to the same type of mental abuse they've been subjected to in the general market?

There's another group, the .GAY Alliance, that also may be bidding for the rights to run .gay. Have you been in touch with them?
They haven't been active in the site for over a year, so I don't know what they're doing right now. I'm open to any conversation with anyone who has a genuine understanding of this and the community. If they're interested, I'll make a call.

Doesn't it make sense to make that call now? Otherwise you might be bidding against each other, with the only beneficiary being ICANN.
It certainly does. If it's someone who's working together to benefit the community, I'll definitely talk to them. I think that's the spirit of what ICANN tried to do.

If you're running this as a community service, how do you expect to make enough money to cover your $185,000 application fee, plus ongoing costs?
It's really going to be a hybrid not for profit and for profit--that's really the vision. There is a business plan in place. There is, I believe, a way to have a happy middle of the road. Our goal is to reach out to the initial community that's out, including the gay and lesbian business community.

Can you give some examples? You're thinking of companies that are gay-friendly?
We're being endorsed by the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association, Damron Guides. I think we're going to launch with that. We're going to be charging a premium because our single goal in this space is to fill it with people--and not domain grabbers who would make it a big parking lot.

How much will you charge per domain name?
This stuff is still being considered. But I don't think it's unreasonable to look at $50 to $100 per domain name per year.

This is a solid business model that's pretty simple and straightforward. We know that if we're being responsible, we should be able to give a lot of that back to the community. If we had to pay a nutty amount of money to own .gay and pay that debt off, it would be much more difficult to make a profit... Our endorsements are not only endorsements but also get us out to parts of the community. Our endorsements are also a huge marketing tool for ICANN.

Why do you think the Obama administration told me that it neither supports nor opposes .gay?
I don't think they have any idea what they're dealing with. What's been pervasive is that unless you're attending ICANN meetings or you're really a hard-core fan of technology, you don't know what this is about.

The reason we don't hear that much more about larger organizations filing for their own top-level domain is that the legal department sees it as a threat and the marketing department doesn't know it's an opportunity.

What do you think of the Obama administration's recommendation, through the Commerce Department's NTIA, that governments be able to lodge a veto of proposed new top-level domains "for any reason?"
It's problematic, and it's discrimination on a terrible level. It's not even appropriate for countries (to have the ability to veto) because of freedom of expression. Anything beyond (restricting speech that) incites violence is discrimination.

How about funny or provocative domain names? Will you allow
I think funny domains are a great idea.

What do you think of the argument that some of the most antigay countries, including some that have death penalties for same-sex sexual activity, might not object to .gay because it'll be easier for them to block?
I don't think they're going to welcome it. Whether they should be quite as afraid of it as they are boggles my mind. It makes it easier for them to block. It also makes them stand up and identify that they're discriminating against the gay community in a very physical way.

Our goal would be to get that conversation going. There are places where that kind of conversation isn't going to go anywhere. There will be a number of people who choose to block us. But if we can mobilize the rest of the global gay community instead of just New York, London, San Francisco, Berlin--that's a bigger place to come from. And if we're coming from there with real numbers and real economic power, then maybe we'll have a better dialogue.