In Geneva recently, the world’s governments got together in the first ever meeting dedicated to discussing the effect of the Internet on the world.
It very nearly fell apart after a huge split over who should be running the Net - the semi-autonomous private Californian company still beholden to the US government, ICANN, or the international standards body responsible for telecommunications across the globe, ITU.
The arguments were complex and the issue cleverly put on the backburner. But if there is one point that the committee set up to debate the issue and report back next year ought to focus on it is the issue of the redelegation of country code top-level domains.
This issue - where the overall control of all the domains for a particular country (like .uk for Great Britain or .de for Germany) is given to a completely different entity - is really a microcosm of what is happening across the entire Internet and raises points that simply cannot be ignored. And as luck would have it, another one has just popped up.
Control over the entire .ht domain, representing the Caribbean island of Haiti, is to be given to the government-supported consortium FDS/RDDH. The existing owner, Hintelfocus, is said to be happy with this arrangement. And so it shall be done.
On the surface, there is nothing wrong with this. In the early days of the Internet, few people had the know-how to run a country's registry so control of them was handed out by Jon Postel personally to individuals he felt could be trusted to do a good job. It was inevitable that as the Net grew, these individuals would be replaced by big companies and that the country's government would take a great interest in who was running its domain names.
In fact, it is reasonable to assume that a government would have final say over who ran its domain names. They do represent the country and the government are the people that run the country. ICANN agrees. "In general." This is what the private company based in California reckons about the world having control of its own domains: "In general, [we] recognize that each government has the ultimate responsibility within its territory for its national public-policy objectives, but also that ICANN has the responsibility for ensuring that the Internet domain name system continues to provide an effective and interoperable global naming system."
The longer or shorter of it is that countries have been held to ransom by ICANN over their own domain names until they agree to ICANN's terms. And those terms are always that the government swears loyalty to ICANN. And signs a contract to that effect.
The Haiti government indicated back in May 2002 that it wanted FDS/RDDH to take over its .ht domain. Yet it has taken nearly two years for this to happen. The redelegation of the .af domain for Afghanistan took just three weeks. Three weeks after the US had invaded and taken over the country.
Why the discrepancy? Almost certainly because the Haiti government refused to agree to ICANN's terms. But once it realised that ICANN can stall any redelegation forever and that ICANN was almost certainly going to survive as Internet overseer, it had no choice but to acquiesce.
That's just conspiracy stuff you say. If only it were.
There have been 17 redelegations of ccTLDs over time. Two don't count. Zaire's .zr domain was not so much redelegated as a removed in June 2001 when the country renamed itself the Democratic Republic of the Congo and it changed its domain to .cd. And .ps was freshly created for the Occupied Palestinian Territory in March 2000.
As for the rest, with the singular exception of Canada (which in Internet terms maintains the strange relationship with the US that the two countries do), every one has done something extraordinary - signed a contractual agreement with ICANN, written by ICANN, in which the country recognises ICANN as the ultimate authority in domain name issues.
This is the same contract that many other countries have pointedly refused to ever sign and even threatened to bypass ICANN altogether (setting up an alternative Internet) if it continued to pressure them by delaying and blocking vital administrative changes to the Internet's code foundation, the DNS.
Yet in the IANA report in the Cayman islands redelegation of .ky, you will find the sentence: “In June 2003, ICTA expressed its desire to execute the appropriate ccTLD Sponsorship Agreement with ICANN, and on 2 June 2003 the ICANN Board authorized the entry of such an agreement with ICTA.”
In Tajikstan’s IANA redelegation report the same month, you will find: "In June 2003, ITC expressed its desire to execute the appropriate ccTLD Sponsorship Agreement with ICANN, and on 2 June 2003 the ICANN Board authorized the entry of such an agreement with ITC."
In Uzbekistan’s IANA report, you will find: "In November 2002, Uzinfocom expressed its desire to execute the appropriate ccTLD Sponsorship Agreement with ICANN, and on 2 December 2002 the ICANN Board authorized the entry of such an agreement with Uzinfocom."
In Palau’s IANA report, you will find: "In June 2003, MIDCORP expressed its desire to execute the appropriate ccTLD Sponsorship Agreement with ICANN, and on 2 June 2003 the ICANN Board authorized the entry of such an agreement with MIDCORP."
Do you see a pattern emerging? In fact, many of the "reports" are virtual carbon copies of one another with just the names and dates changed.
There a few redelegations that stand out. Afghanistan’s for example. The .af domain was handed over almost as soon as US forces had taken over the country to a company run by the US-created government. Incredibly, the former owner appeared from nowhere having been missing for months, signed a piece of paper saying he agreed to the transfer and promptly vanished from the face of the earth again.
The Australian redelegation was highly controversial but of huge importance to ICANN since most of the big Internet countries - Britain, France, Germany - had point-blank refused to play along with ICANN. It is perhaps no coincidence that this valuable ally is the homeland of the new ICANN head Paul Twomey. You can read how the rules were broken, the existing owner completely ignored and an entire country's Internet governance handed over to a company that had done a secret deal with ICANN here.
Burundi, Japan, Kenya, Laos, Malawi, Pitcairn Island, Sudan and Taiwan make up the remainder. Each has signed ICANN's contract.
The deal to the governments of the world is: If you want control of your own Internet domains, you have to pledge your ever-lasting loyalty. Kiss the emperor's ring and he will give you control over your own lands. Is it any wonder that all those countries refusing to sign away their sovereignty to nothing but a private US company want to see ICANN removed from the throne?
In ICANN's recently rewritten biography of itself, it has removed some of the more eyebrow-raising comments about its decisions being made from the bottom up but nevertheless contains this statement: "All decisions of substance are preceded by prior notice and a full opportunity for public comment."
It is safe to say that with the exception of Australia and Japan - where a second report was needed due to the occasional problems ICANN's Board has in handing over a chunk of the Internet to someone it has secretly struck a deal with - none of the redelegations has had anything approaching "prior notice" and certainly no "full opportunity for public comment".
Would you agree that handing over an entire country's domains to someone was a "decision of substance"? If so, how does the fact that no one outside the actual discussions knew of Haiti's upcoming redelegation until the report announcing IANA's decision was released yesterday, 13 January 2004, square with ICANN's official policy?
This is something that everyone, including ICANN, but especially the United Nations' committee into Internet governance, should reflect long and hard.
Don't take our word for it. Here are two links to in-depth studies of this issue.