Domain Wranglers

Reining in the Net's country code operators.

Melbourne, Australia — The U.S.-sanctioned Internet Domain Name Management body is still struggling to bring the worlds top-level domains under its fold.

About 250 operators handle the registration for the Nets country-code top-level domain names, known as ccTLDs, which are the domain names assigned to countries and territories around the world. Its a diverse and independent group that has been loosely operating under guidelines developed by the late Jon Postel, who until his death in 1998 managed the Domain Name System under a contract with the U.S. government.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which was tapped in 1998 by the U.S. government to take over management of the DNS, has been attempting to reach agreements with the operators of the ccTLDs for several months — but with limited success.

On the surface, the resolution of this issue may have little immediate impact for Internet users and businesses. But bringing the ccTLDs under its wing would strengthen ICANN, which has struggled to gain legitimacy as it sets key policies that affect the Internets underlying infrastructure. For ICANN, the agreements will further solidify its control over the DNS and ensure a steady source of revenue.

"I just think they want to get their grip on the whole Domain Name System," says Milton Mueller, an information studies professor at Syracuse University. "Now, some of the top- level domains out there really dont have any firm contractual relationship with ICANN. The whole system is not in place until they get sucked in."

After months of discussion and debate, ICANN and the ccTLD operators say they have made some progress, particularly after ICANNs meeting last month in Melbourne. However, many ccTLD administrators say they still have significant issues to settle, including resolving what role governments will play in managing ccTLD names; how much funding the ccTLDs will provide ICANN; and whether the ccTLDs should have a say in how ICANN is run.

Like many aspects of the DNS, the delegation of the ccTLDs has its origins in the efforts of Postel, one of the Internets founding engineers. To expand the Internets reach, Postel delegated country-code domains to people he knew around the globe willing to manage them — often other academics — and gave them guidance through a memo stressing that ccTLD managers are trustees of their delegated domains and have a "duty to serve the community."

But as the Internet has grown, so has the diversity of the operators of the ccTLDs. Some are run by government agencies, others by nonprofit organizations. A few are controlled by for-profit businesses, which are marketing ccTLDs globally; for example, The .tv Corp., a Los Angeles company, runs the ccTLD for Tuvalu, a tiny island nation in the South Pacific.

Andrew McLaughlin, ICANNs chief policy officer, says reaching more formal agreements with the ccTLD operators is important to its mission to ensure the stability of the DNS.

But those agreements afford other critical benefits as well. The U.S. Commerce Department has said ICANN must secure agreements with the ccTLDs before the agency considers transferring control of the Internets root server system to ICANN. In addition, ICANN is counting on the ccTLDs to fund about 30 percent of its $5 million budget for the current fiscal year.

For the ccTLD operators, an agreement would give them a greater guarantee of some recourse if there were a breakdown in DNS services. It would also provide them with official recognition as the designated managers of their country-code domains.

"It would at least set in stone what the rights and obligations of each party are. At the moment, its squishy," says James Ross, vice president for business affairs at The .tv Corp.

Still, some ccTLD managers question what benefits they would get from establishing a more formal relationship with ICANN — and many do not participate in the process at all.

"There are over 100 [country codes] with which we dont have any contact," says Peter Dengate Thrush, chairman of the Internet Society of New Zealand, which operates the dot-nz ccTLD.

At the same time, governments worldwide want to ensure they have a more formal say in how their countrys domain name is run. One of the thorniest issues facing ccTLDs is determining what relationship, if any, the domain-name operators should have with their local governments.

For many ccTLD operators, such as those in Europe, this is not a major issue. They are either governed by local laws or have developed other relationships with their governments. Several European operators say ICANN should not involve itself in these matters, because they see it as a sovereignty issue and express concern about the U.S. government maintaining too much influence over ICANN.

"There are perhaps some other ccTLDs that might see ICANN as having a role in defending the registry against an undemocratic government," says Nigel Roberts, operations manager for the domains of the Channel Islands, off the coast of Britain. "But ccTLDs like dot-uk and ourselves say that the whole top-heavy policy-making structure that ICANN has evolved into . . . is just not appropriate to deal with the ccTLDs, as ccTLDs are run in accordance with local culture and local customs."

But a fear exists — particularly in smaller countries or areas where the government previously has not been involved in the ccTLD — that businesses could be subject to the whims of a government that may unfairly redelegate control of the country-code domain to someone else.

"Governments should be viewed as part of the local Internet community, not as [the] ultimate authority over it," says Garth Miller, who chairs the policy panel at Dot CX, operator of dot-cx, the top-level domain for Christmas Island, an Australian territory.

Dot CX has been seeking official recognition as the new operator dot-cx. Both the local government and the original operators agreed to transfer control of the domain name to Dot CX, but the company has had difficulty persuading ICANN to update the database of ccTLD administrators to reflect the change until the Australian government signs off.

ICANNs McLaughlin says the policy, even under Postel, has been to not make such a change until all the relevant parties have agreed.

Government representatives say it is their job to ensure that ccTLDs are run in the interest of the local community. Some have been pushing for a "trilateral agreement" that would specify not only what services ICANN would provide the ccTLDs, but also what responsibilities a ccTLD operator has to the local community as well as what role the government would play should a problem develop with the ccTLD manager. Many ccTLD managers say they need to first establish a "bilateral agreement" with ICANN before they consider involving a third party.

One of the reasons governments want a more formal relationship with the ccTLD operators is because "we have a problem of some ccTLD managers who dont work in the best interest of the ccTLD," says Michael Leibrandt, a German representative on ICANNs Governmental Advisory Committee.

Still, most people involved with the issue say that such "problem" managers are a distinct minority. After ICANN initially appeared to put itself in the middle of the debate over what governments role should be in the process, ICANN officials now say they prefer to let the two parties work it out among themselves.

"Everyones interest is legitimate," McLaughlin says. "The question is to find a way to balance it that doesnt give anyone decisive authority — including us."

Another issue that the ccTLD operators are trying to settle concerns ICANNs call for the ccTLDs to help fund its operations.

In its budget ending June 30, 2001, ICANN asked the ccTLDs to contribute a total of $1.49 million, though it has collected less than $1 million so far. ICANN irked many of the ccTLDs last year when it sent out invoices detailing how much each ccTLD owed. The fees depended on the number of domain names registered in a ccTLD. For example, the dot-uk registry, one of the largest, was expected to contribute $249,715. By contrast, the tab for the little-used dot-us domain —which VeriSign administers as a service to the U.S. government —- totaled just $3,339.

Many ccTLD operators say they are willing to support ICANN, but only after they determine what services they will receive from ICANN. These services, ICANN says, include such tasks as adding name server changes to the Nets root server system and providing technical assistance.

Some ccTLD operators, particularly those in Europe, have opposed proposals to base funding on the number of domain names, describing it as a "domain name tax."

"The bigger countries will pay for more, but let us decide," says William Black, managing director at Nominet U.K., which manages the country code for the U.K.

ICANN officials have suggested a different formula, such as one that would place all domain name operators into different tiers, with the smallest ccTLDs paying very little and the largest paying the most.

But if they are going to chip in to ICANNs budget, some country-code managers say, they should have a greater voice in how ICANN operates. Some have called for the creation of a ccTLD support organization that would have representatives sitting on ICANNs board.

"The [ccTLDs] are supposed to contribute one-third of the [ICANN] budget," says Antony Van Couvering, president of the International Association of Top Level Domains, an association that represents the interests of some ccTLDs. But, he asks, "What are we paying for? We dont get any board seats. No one pays any attention to us."