France is terribly worried about what you might do with a website ending in “.wine”

Would a champagne by any other domain name taste as good?
Would a champagne by any other domain name taste as good?
Image: Reuters/Benoit Tessier
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France is upping the rhetoric in the fight over plans to issue “.wine” and “.vin” web domains. The web-naming governing body, ICANN, decided to issue the two new suffixes earlier this year but France is worried is that the domains are to be issued without any geographical protections.

The European Union regulates the labeling of certain regional foods and drinks. So, for example, sparkling wine produced in England cannot be sold as champagne or cava anywhere in Europe. France goes further and labels everything from vin de table (budget wine produced anywhere in France) to appellation d’origine controlée, which comes from one specific vineyard. But the new ICANN suffixes would allow someone to buy the web address “,” for instance, and sell anything on it, without any recourse to the winemakers in Burgundy. French vignerons have already called for a boycott (link in French).

The French are now threatening to derail the ongoing US-EU trade talks, which aim to create the world’s biggest free-trade zone, over the issue. Three French government ministers, reports the Financial Times today, have written (paywall) to the European Commission to say “these decisions could imperil the current talks on the transatlantic [trade] partnership by forcing the imposition of a model by the means of technical discussions on internet naming.”

Underlying France’s objections is not just concern over wine, but a deeper dissatisfaction with ICANN and internet governance in general. ICANN, a California-based non-profit founded in 1998, makes most of its money by issuing domain-name suffixes, and is in the process of a massive expansion, issuing hundreds of new “top-level domains” like “.beer” and “.book” as well as domains in non-Latin scripts. The US Commerce Department, which has overseen ICANN up to now, is in the process of relinquishing control, leaving ICANN independent. That has some American lawmakers worried that ICANN will no longer be accountable, but for some foreign governments, that was always a problem.

“France calls for the accelerated reform of ICANN in order to ensure that greater consideration is given to the recommendations of states concerning Internet governance, in order to develop a model of governance that is more transparent and inclusive,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in March. In April, the ministry said ICANN’s decision to issue domain names without any provision for protecting geographic origin went against EU policy, and issued a request for reconsideration (pdf, French).

France’s Minister for Digital Affairs, Axelle Lemaire, told the FT that ICANN is “totally opaque, there is no transparency at all in the process.” She wants to turn it essentially into another United Nations-type body where there is a charter and a general assembly based on a “one country, one vote” principle for the management of the internet.

You can watch this week’s meeting of ICANN in London live to find out how well this proposal is received.