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Vying for control of country-specific domains

Representatives from approximately 30 nations are pushing a plan that would give them more authority over the use of country code domain names, such as ".us" and ".uk."

    SANTIAGO, Chile--In what would mark a dramatic shift in Internet governance, representatives from approximately 30 nations are pushing a plan that would give them more authority over the use of country code domain names, such as ".us" and ".uk."

    The Government Advisory Committee of the White House-backed Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is calling on the nonprofit body to adopt a policy that would make the management of country code top-level domain names "subject to the ultimate authority of the relevant public authority or government."

    The debate over country code domains stands to affect the Internet at large. If ICANN adopts the governments' recommendations, the decision would impact Net users and businesses around the world because the use of country code domains--which make up the fastest-growing group of Net names--could be unilaterally controlled by nations.

    Policy is being debated at a two-day meeting here that will address a number of issues surrounding the governance of domain names, which are the real estate upon which online commerce and communications rest.

    There are 243 country code top-level domain names, with almost 4 million name registrations. Under the current operation rules, drafted by the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, country code top-level domain operators don't have to be residents of a nation to run a country code and in many cases are not government entities. In Australia, for instance, the government already manages the ".au" domain and only hands it out to companies, whereas in Ireland, ".ie" is run by a university.

    Supporters say the model leaves room for various business ventures and forums for online expression to exist. For example, the United States today extended until October the public comment period for input on how to expand administration of the ".us" domain.

    "The Net is a major economic infrastructure and governments recognize that, so they are going to exercise interest in the operation of [country code top-level domains]--it's just a reality," the committee's chair, Paul Twomey, said in an interview with CNET News.com. Twomey is Australia's special adviser for the information economy and technology; Australian legislators have been particularly stringent about regulating the Net.

    The committee's memorandum on the country code policy was carefully worded to not include ".com," ".org," or ".net," but the adoption of the governments' stance would change the current oversight of country code top-level domains. And with representatives from the world's superpowers backing the policy, it could mark the first step in the development of international standards governing the Net.

    ICANN was recognized by the U.S. government in November to manage the Net's core technical functions and to foster competition to Network Solutions (NSI), which turned a six-year government contract into a billion-dollar business primarily through its more than 5 million ".com," ".org," and ".net" registrations.

    During its fourth public meeting at the University of Chile, ICANN is mulling several rules that would affect Net name owners, such as a dispute resolution policy to settle fights over the use of domain names outside of court. But ICANN has already gained ground with its policies through accreditation agreements with more than 50 commercial domain name registries that will ultimately go head-to-head with NSI.

    Most of the decisions that will come out of ICANN's interim board this week will put in place a structure for businesses and regular Net users to have a say in how the Net's address system is run and to allow for the election of ICANN board members. But behind the scenes, the authority over country codes is sparking much debate.

    Potential for abuse?
    "We don't want to be on the receiving end of this," said Jim Higgins, chairman of the Internet Society of New Zealand, which runs the ".nz" domain.

    "What the advisory committee is really saying is that a country can take your registry away even if you're operating it properly," he added. "It's totally against the principles of the Net, and it's really dangerous."

    Although the government advisory committee made a similar recommendation in May, observers say the nations are turning up the heat on ICANN to adopt the plan. Meanwhile, numerous country code top-level domain operators also have made it clear in meetings here that ICANN has no authority over them.

    "I believe that the government should have some input, but to have full authority could be destructive," said Quaynor Nii, who represents the country code top-level domain registry in Ghana, ".gn."

    "In some of the emerging countries, where things are new and change, this authority could be easily abused," he added. "The advisory committee should come up with a procedure to ensure there is no disruption--not even by [the] government or ICANN."

    Forging relationships
    While the government advisory committee tries to push forward its controversial policy, ICANN is working to gain support from the country code registries. A tight relationship with country code top-level domain operators would no doubt serve as a segue to the adoption of ICANN policies down the line, including the possibility that governments will gain established authority of the domains.

    At a meeting here Monday, some country code top-level domain operators offered to contribute to ICANN, which has been cash strapped despite three major corporate loans it received this month. But in return for their money, the country code top-level domain registries are looking for assurance that ICANN will not try to impose sweeping policies on them. The body already has operating agreements with more than 50 new registrars, such as America Online.

    "We don't have any difficulty in saying that we have a monopoly like Network Solutions, and when it comes to ICANN, we're next," said Peter Dengate-Thrush, counsel to the Internet Society of New Zealand, who attended ICANN's government advisory committee meeting.

    "The fight will start if ICANN tries to impose dispute resolution policies on the [country code top-level domain] operators, or tries to require that [country code top-level domain operators] escrow their customer records with ICANN, or that we share our registration system--the way they are doing in the commercial sector," he added.

    NSI itself has yet to sign an operating agreement with ICANN for similar reasons. Chiefly, it refuses to submit to a provision that could allow ICANN to yank its accreditation within 15 days--possibly stalling business--if it was determined that NSI had violated the agreement.

    Members of the government advisory committee insist that the policy would ensure that country code top-level domains aren't abused and that it would benefit the country. Moreover, ICANN insists that it will not consider the policy this week. It could take up the matter at its Los Angeles meeting in November.

    "It's not on the formal agenda, because it hasn't been posted on our Web site long enough to get public comment," said Esther Dyson, chair of the ICANN interim board.

    Still, the plan seems ripe for acceptance. Becky Burr of the U.S. Commerce Department, who has overseen the agreement with ICANN and sits on the government advisory committee, said national sovereignty over country code top-level domains was laid out by a Clinton administration white paper that sparked the creation of ICANN and explained how to dismantle NSI's grip on the commercial domain name registration space.

    "The white paper said that governments should have the authority to set policy for [country code top-level domains]," Burr said. "It would only apply when a [country code top-level domain] registry doesn't have the support of a local community or government--then they should be able to step in."

    Although ICANN says country code top-level domains are on the back burner at this meeting, the operators are bracing themselves for negotiations with ICANN. Some are trying to diffuse the government advisory committee's recommendations.

    "We prefer that the committee and ICANN don't draft things and then pass them down," said Fay Howard, general manager of the Council of European National Top-level Domain Registries. "We need to be consulted more."