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COMMUNICATION: Africa Demands Rights to ‘.Africa’ Internet Suffix

Nana Rosine Ngangoue

COTONOU, Nov 15 2000 (IPS) - African Internet professionals and users alike are loudly decrying attempts by a multinational corporation to obtain rights to the Internet top-level domain name (TLD) ‘.africa’.

Rathbawn Computers, Ltd., with branches both in the United States and Australia, may soon receive permission from the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to operate the ‘.africa’ TLD.

At their annual meeting currently being held in Marina del Rey, California, ICANN will rule on 47 applications to operate new TLDs, including that of Rathbawn. Only 10 new top level domains out of the 47 applied will be approved.

The application cost to operate a new TLD is 50,000 dollars. Such a sum may seem a fortune for certain companies in the developing world, especially those in Africa.

ICANN is an international non-profit organisation formed in 1998 to manage and monitor the Internet’s technical operations, which previously had been controlled by the United States government.

ICANN has assumed responsibility for co-ordinating the domain name system (DNS), assigning Internet protocol (IP) addresses, determining protocol parameters, and managing the root server system.

As such, it is the sole organisation authorised to accredit individuals, countries, and companies all over the world who wish to operate or sponsor TLDs or sell domain name addresses.

The seven currently existing top level domain names are ‘.com’, ‘.net’, ‘.org’, ‘.gov’, ‘.mil’, ‘.int’, and ‘.edu’.

There are also 243 domain name country codes, such as ‘.us’ for the United States or ‘.bj’ for Benin.

The ‘.africa’ TLD issue has stirred great controversy among African Internet users.

“The question is whether someone not from a particular country should allowed to be the operator of that country’s domain name. For example, should an African be allowed to own ‘.fr’, France’s domain name?” asked Pierre Dandjinou, the African co-ordinator of the UN’s Sustainable Development Networking Programme (SDNP).

Makane Faye, the main regional councillor on the politics of information technology and communications for the Economic Commission for Africa has no doubts.

“It’s not right to give the ‘.africa’ TLD to a non-African. We want ‘.africa’ to be managed by a respected African institution which will be cognisant of the Internet’s special problems in Africa,” declared Faye, during a phone interview with IPS.

Some observers say that appropriation of the ‘.africa’ suffix by a multinational corporation is nothing less than a financial question. It will have economic consequences for Africans who want to use this TLD for their web address.

The rights to domain names accredited by ICANN can be a great financial venture. For example, a web address ending with the domain name ‘.com’, costs 70 dollars every two years.

Faye states that Africa is going to mobilise to prevent awarding of the ‘.africa’ suffix to a non-African firm. According to him, Internet professionals from Africa plan to protest at ICANN’s annual meeting.

Faye indicated that they might even go to the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) to let them decide if the TLD can be awarded to a non-African firm. WIPO has been willing to hear cases regarding the protection of domain names since the beginning of this year.

“WIPO can strip the company of its TLD if the arguments we present are sound,” Faye explains. “We want everything that rightfully belongs to us and we want to operate it ourselves,” he added.

The problem is all the more complex, given that legally, there is no requirement that a domain name can only be used in a limited geographic sense, except if the name is already protected. No African institution has ever sought to protect the ‘.africa’ TLD through the WIPO

“It’s not the case that Africa has already given its name to a domain, and that the Dutch or the Americans are trying to take it from us. Nature abhors vacuums. Let’s do something instead of just talking about it”, says Karim Okanla, a journalist.

For Dandjinou, the best option would be to have more African representation in ICANN, which to date has only one African member, the Ghanaian Nii Quaynor, who is a member of the 19-member board of directors.

“Alone, he has no clout because at that level, it’s a question of lobbying and money. Make no mistake about that,” said Dandjinou.

Other Africans also belong to ICANN but as members at-large. There again, their voices carry little weight, because ICANN requires one to sign up “on line”. Given that right now only the privileged few in Africa have Internet access, there are proportionally few African members.

Only 300 of the 76,000 people who have signed up on line are from Africa. Furthermore, only one percent of those with the ability to go on line throughout the world live in Africa.

“It’s perhaps time to get more Africans interested in ICANN and to get support from our public officials,” stated Dandjinou.

Participants in the second African Development Forum (ADF) held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia last year emphasised that African participation in ICANN and in Internet governance is crucial.

“Africa is right now mostly under-represented on the various ICANN committees, and doesn’t have much say in its decisions. Africa’s main goal should be to improve its representation on ICANN as well as in the Internet Society (ISOC),” said a document written by the Economic Commission for Africa published at the conclusion of the ADF.

The document adds that African governments do not yet occupy their rightful places on ICANN’s Government Advisory Committee (GAC).

Some African professionals are calling for the setting up of an African body to distribute domain names, assign IP addresses, and resolve conflicts connected to Internet problems.

A rough draft of such a structure, called the Africa Network Information Centre (AfriNIC) has already begun to be sketched out. A committee has been set up, but a location has yet to be decided upon, nor does it have the money to open an office.

AfriNIC’s goal would be to allocate and register Internet resources within Africa, assist the African community in developing procedures, mechanisms, and standards to efficiently share Internet resources, and to develop public policies on the Internet in Africa.

According to experts, such an organisation could eventually claim three seats on the ICANN’s names and domains committee and give Africa some voice in the governance of the Internet.

 
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