The article critically assesses the Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy (UDRP) as a potential model for solving the immense legal challenges presented by transborder activity. Inaugurated in late 1999 by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the UDRP creates a fast, inexpensive online mechanism for trademark owners to recapture domain names held by persons who, in bad faith, register and use domain names that are confusingly similar to those marks. At present, the UDRP applies only to a narrow segment of disputes between trademark owners and domain name registrants. But the UDRP has been heralded by some as the model for a new non-national approach to lawmaking and dispute settlement applicable to a broader set of legal issues that transcend national borders.
In this article, we describe the conditions that led to the UDRP's formation and consider whether the UDRP can and should be replicated elsewhere. The process by which the UDRP was created, and the way in which it is structured, departs significantly from preexisting approaches to international lawmaking and dispute settlement. The UDRP is the product not of national legislation nor an international treaty, but rather of a web of contractual obligations imposed by a private, non-profit corporation with a monopoly over a valuable resource. Through its agreements with the U.S. Department of Commerce, ICANN serves as the gatekeeper for anyone seeking to acquire the most commercially valuable internet addresses. Exclusive control of access to the root server enables ICANN to dictate the terms and conditions for domain name ownership. This technological control also facilitates enforcement of UDRP panel decisions compelling domain name registrars to cancel ownership of contested domain names or transfer them from registrants to trademark owners.
The UDRP deviates from preexisting lawmaking and dispute settlement paradigms in other ways that make its advantages considerable (and which may make it attractive for replication). For example, the UDRP is a hybrid dispute settlement system. It contains an amalgam of elements from three distinct decision making paradigms - judicial, arbitral and ministerial - and it draws inspiration from international, supranational, and national legal systems. The UDRP thus reveals how dispute settlement structures can be tailored to the needs of new technologies and new types of legal conflicts. The UDRP is also non-national. Neither its substantive content nor its prescriptive force necessarily depends upon the laws, institutions, and enforcement mechanisms of any single nation-state or treaty regime. It thus suggests ways to bypass the often slow and cumbersome mechanisms of national and international lawmaking and to fulfil the demand for effective dispute settlement mechanisms that, like so much current social activity, transcend national borders.
Even assuming the UDRP can be applied to other situations where the conditions of monopolistic technological control do not subsist, however, we do not believe that it should be uncritically extended to other contexts without first questioning how non-national systems ought to be structured. In particular, while we applaud the effort to construct a non-national model that draws upon but is not constrained by existing paradigms, the current iteration of that model fails to incorporate appropriate checking mechanisms to control the scope and pace of lawmaking and the limited powers granted to dispute settlement decisionmakers. Moreover, the tensions between national and non-national values may be more difficult to reconcile in other settings; cybersquatting, in contrast, was universally condemned, and thus competing national values were less frequently implicated. We seek to identify these and other variables that should guide the authors of new checking mechanisms for new non-national structures.