East Timor was officially removed from the internet yesterday

So long '.tp'. But welcome Timor-Leste and '.tl'

The country of East Timor was officially removed from the internet this week, with the '.tp' registry and all domains under it deleted from the "root zone".

The unusual but not unprecedented decision to delete an entire arm of the internet comes following a long and painful independence struggle for the nation, and also highlights a controversial aspect of the internet's functioning.

It is understandable why the government of East Timor - now officially known as Timor-Leste - wanted to rescind the 'tp' that formally denoted their country - it stood for "Timor Português" meaning "Portuguese Timor", reflecting its time as a colony of Portugal.

The '.tp' registry was even run by an Irish company when it appeared online in 1997 because the East Timorese authorities were in exile following a takeover of their country by the Indonesian military.

When the country finally won its independence in 2002, it asked the International Standards Organization (ISO) to reclassify its 'TP' designation to "TL" for "Timor-Leste", which it duly did.

And that's how we end up at the internet and the controversial role that ICANN plays in deciding what countries look like online.

While "TL" was added to the official ISO 3166 list of two-letter country designations in 2002, it wasn't until 2005 that the top-level domain ".tl" was officially delegated. Soon after, new registrations under the old ".tp" registry were halted and the process began to move all ".tp" domains over to the new ".tl" - for which the first year of registration was given free - began in earnest.

That process took some time. Even three years later, there were twice as many ".tp" domains as ".tl" domains. It was only in 2013 that the numbers were about equal and the government started the process with ICANN to permanently remove ".tp" from the internet.

At its meeting on 12 February, the ICANN Board resolved to remove ".tp" altogether with 28 February the last day of its existence and so this Sunday it was expunged altogether. Dot-tp is no more.

Not so clear cut

While this process appears to have gone smoothly, that has not been the case with past delegations and re-delegations of so-called "country code" top-level domains, or ccTLDs.

Despite ICANN giving the approval to remove the registry and even providing the cut-off date, the reality is that it has no authority to do so and over the past decade has made a series of decisions so inconsistent and lacking in due process that one country code manager summed it up as saying ICANN "makes it up as it goes along".

There have been changes in countries and hence ccTLDs in the past. The two most significant of which have been: Russia moving from the USSR's ".su" following the break up of the Soviet Union and into ".ru"; and Yugoslavia's ".yu" turning into the two new registries ".me" for Montenegro and ".rs" for Serbia.

There is also an ongoing process to remove another piece of the internet: the Netherlands Antilles '.an' registry which was due to be "retired" on 31 October 2014 but following a request from the Netherlands' government just a few weeks before the deadline will now be removed on 31 July 2015.

But while ICANN uses the ISO 3166 list as its guide for deciding on internet extensions, it has created ad hoc processes over how and when they should be removed, added and/or handed over to another party: a situation that has lead to significant political tensions.

For example, ICANN now appears to have a general rule of thumb that it will give a country three years to move its internet presence to a new registry. But that three-year timeline was itself devised from an argument over the move of ".yu" to ".rs".

ICANN originally gave the Serbian registry operators just two years to move the approximately 40,000 domains under ".yu" over, and that two years started when the ".rs" registry went live. When it proved impossible to get all the thousands of domain owners shifted in time, the ".rs" registry operator went to the ICANN Board and asked for two more years to complete the move. ICANN responded by giving them only one year: a decision that still rankles years later.

ICANN is able to make those decisions because it is the operator of the "IANA contract" whose technical functions include the allocation of the top-level of the internet. That contract is awarded to ICANN by the United States government.

It does not take a genius to realize that having a US corporation under a US government contract tell different countries' governments how long they have to move their entire internet presence before they cut them off is not exactly popular.

In the case of ".su", the Russian Federation - which has long been a fervent critic over how this aspect of the internet is run - decided to bypass the process altogether.

Rather than deal with ICANN's inconsistent approach, and to avoid having to ask the ICANN Board for more time, it simply applied for a special status for 'SU' with the International Standards Organization (ISO).

And so "SU" joins 11 other two-letter codes as "exceptional reservations" in the ISO 3166 list. Others include "UN" (reserved by the United Nations), "EU" (reserved by the European Union) and "UK" (reserved by the United Kingdom, although its real code is "GB" for "Great Britain").

With its "exceptional reservation" status, ICANN is obliged to keep ".su" on the internet, and so it remains there despite the introduction of the "replacement" ccTLD of ".ru". There are around 120,000 ".su" domains still in existence.

Only getting bigger

This issue is only likely to get worse as well. Last year, the US government said it was going to transition the IANA contract away from itself, mostly because of the global political environment following the Edward Snowden revelations of mass online surveillance by parts of the US government.

The world's governments have been mostly very happy with that move but the problem comes in deciding how the US government's role should be taken over. ICANN naturally feels it should simply take it over; large parts of the internet community are less sure and want to make sure there remain significant controls and measures on the organization which has been stubbornly resistant to repeated efforts to make it more accountable over the past decade.

The second aspect that means the East Timor removal from the internet may be the penultimate time we see a ccTLD simply removed from the internet (we're guessing that '.an' will be expunged in July) is the popularity and reach of the modern internet.

In an interesting and comprehensive rundown [PDF] of the move from Yugoslavia's '.yu' to the Serbian '.rs', Slobodan Marković of the Serbian National Register of Internet Domain Names (RNIDS) produced a report highlighting why it was so difficult to move even 40,000 domains over to a new registry.

The most common reasons he gave highlight just how much the internet and domain names have become entwined into our daily lives. Those reasons included:

  • Maintenance of mailing lists with a large number of subscribers with e-mail addresses on .yu domains. It required a huge amount of manual work and direct communication with people to make the move happen.
  • Widespread use of .yu e-mail addresses as identifiers on both public and private websites. Think sign-on services, social networks, payment systems, password recovery, Apple iCloud, Netflix, Facebook.
  • .Yu URLs embedded in both software and hardware appliances, such as mobile phones, online banking, and a huge range of other applications. This required upgrades across the entire ecosystem to avoid disruption.
  • References to URLs with .yu domains in search engines. There was the need for massive and extensive re-indexing of content for those websites that moved away from a ".yu" domain. When the ".yu" registry was retired, all that SEO died instantly.
  • Millions of broken links that needs to be fixed or redirected.
  • Primary contacts for other domain names using .yu domains. If these are not changed to a new email address, then the removal of one registry can have a huge knock-on impact on other registries, leading the deletion of domains right across the internet ecosystem.

For all these reasons and more, ICANN's Board will likely need to remove itself from future decisions over how the IANA contract is applied, and seek out formal policies drawn up by the organizations that are supposed to decide such issues (in the case of ccTLDs, that is the country code supporting organization, or ccNSO).

In addition, the internet may need to start thinking long-term. What about when a country wants a new two-letter designation that existed at some point in the past? (For example, 'CS' used to be designated to Czechoslovakia and was then given to "Serbia and Montenegro" before the two decided to go their separate ways.) How long is the shadow of an internet registry? Will some parts of it continue to live on long after the domain names cease to exist in the name servers?

So adieu, ".tp". Or is it au revoir? ®

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