Saturday, September 10, 2011

"Web Colonialism": Africa's Domain Name Problem

For a long time, the country code Top level Domain names(cTLDs) for various African countries were in private hands, mostly individuals and organizations based outside Africa. The technical registry operations were and some still are hosted and administered outside the African continent. It was something akin to "internet colonialism", the colonization of Africa's internet resources.

For the last few years however, African internet communities have waged a tough battle to re-delegate these ccTLD operations back to organizations or governments in those countries. Africa has been literally fighting for the independence of its domain names.

This state of affairs arose early on because many African nations did not have the capacity to manage their ccTLD resources due to lack of infrastructure, structures, policies, investments and skills. Many other nations were also in conflict situations and the development of internet resources was relegated to the backseat. As a result, ICANN delegated these ccTLDs to any entity, African or foreign that had expressed an interest in managing those domain names and was deemed as representing local interests. More often, the technical contacts of the registries were mostly based outside the African continent.

 In some cases, these entities charged exorbitant fees since they were managed on a for-profit model.

However, with the growth of local ISPs and an increasing number of African ICT professionals in the recent years, a need was recognized to bring these valuable internet resources under local control thus setting in motion the series of deregulation battles that we have seen over the years. African internet professionals have been literally pushing back against these past trends, although, as many have realized, it's not an easy battle. But what is important is that in Africa, there is a new realization in the great value of African ccTLD domains.

Take Rwanda and the Congo Republic, for example. These two nations' ccTLDs .RW and .CG are managed by a Belgian company called DNSAfrica, based in France. It's important to note that Belgium was the former colonial power of Rwanda and the Congo Republic was a French colony. Rwanda has been battling for six years for the redelegation of .RW with little success. The same as Congo.

It however took less than a year for Somalia's .SO to be redelegated to the Ministry of Telecommunications after the Ministry signed an agreement with Japan's GMO Registry to manage the nation's ccTLD  domains. As a Somali engineer once quipped, "How did the Somali delegation satisffy ICANN conditions for redelegation" where Rwanda and others have failed for 6 years? SO has proved popular, it's one of those domains that domainers call "nifty" because "so" is a popular English word and will no doubt generate lots of income for registrars and ICANN. However, there have been vehement opposition to TFG's assigning of ".SO" registry operations to GMO Registry which has not restricted the namespace, and there has been complaints from professionals from the conservative Islamic nation that their namespace is being managed contrary to their national values by allowing registration of porn or sex domains. Complaints which have proved true as many .so domains now host porn or adult websites.:  plus thousands more.

It took Mauritius 10 years to bring .mu back to government control from Internet Direct Limited. IANA delegated .mu to Internet Direct in 1995 but it took 10 years for the firm to finally agree on an MOU with the government to allow for the redelegation of .mu in 2009.

In Kenya, the .ke ccTLD Domain was originally delegated to Dr Shem Ochuodho, who is currently involved in setting up South Sudan's .SS ccTLD Domain, as an administrative contact and PSG's Randy Bush as Technical Contact until such a time when the Kenyan internet community could take or the operations which happened in 2003 after a consensus based re-delegation process which culminated in the formation of KENIC. The Kenyan re-delegation was smooth because those parties had the best interests of the development of the Kenyan registry at heart. Malawi too fought  battle with a British-South African Businessman,  for the redelegation of the .MW ccTLD Domain which is currently being managed by Malawi Sustainable Development Authority, a local non-profit organization.

While these redelegation battles are proving quite slow and painful, it's of vital importance that African internet communities stick to the knitting to ensure all African ccTLDs are in African hands. There are many advantages in having a vibrant locally controlled ccTLD including having the country's national identity under its control, facilitating e-commerce within the country's borders, enhancement of e-governance and better management of security issues; locally managed ccTLDs also enhance development of local human capacity in these African countries  thus making African nations future players in the cyberspace.

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