Who really owns Gondwanaland’s domain?

The fictitious country was used to explore who really owns a country's domain name

Exactly who owns a country’s internet domain? This was the question put to delegates attending the ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) conference in Wellington last week.

A panel of government and internet community delegates heard a number of scenarios dealing with government involvement with the internet.

Gondwanaland, a fictitious country, and its domain, was used as a basis for discussing the issues around who “owns” a country’s domain.

The first scenario supposed that Gondwanaland domain’s manager passed control of the domain on to his or her cousin. Should they be allowed to do so? If not, who should be consulted?

The government should be consulted, said Frank March, from New Zealand’s Ministry of Economic Development and InternetNZ, if only as a representative of the people. With the internet so heavily used today, you have to ask: “Is .nz owned by the New Zealand community [or] is it public property?”

Before allowing the domain to be handed over, ICANN should at least check some form of public consultation had taken place, says March.

Malaysia’s Communications Commission delegate, Sharil Tarmizi, has a different view.

“It’s not a matter of whether government should be consulted, but whether government approval for the change should be sought,” he says. The internet is a “national resource”.

But, suppose the domain was handed over without government approval, and the government subsequently says the new owner should not have it. What then? New Zealand Domain Name Commissioner, Debbie Monahan, believes effectiveness in the job should be the criterion here.

“The government has no right to take it away from me if I’m doing my job,” she says. But, Tarmizi countered that even if this was so, “there has to be some sense of accountability [to government].”

The situation of .go domain holders who do not live in Gondwanaland further complicates matters. They are not beholden to the government, but they still have an interest in the domain, says Monahan.

Suppose then that the government concerned approaches ICANN to get the domain moved to another party? What then?

ICANN’s Government Advisory Committee says the matter should be dealt with in accordance with the national law of the country concerned, says Cheryl Langdon Orr, the delegate from the Internet Society’s Australian chapter. ICANN would not consider itself empowered to make such a move if ownership was legal. However, the government concerned could step in and make a new law if it wished.

Another scenario supposed that a military coup took place in Gondwanaland and that the ruling general then appointed his cousin “Supreme Head of IT” and the owner of the .go domain. How should ICANN react to this?

ICANN should stall and consult the pre-coup holder of the domain to assess public support for the change, says Canadian domain manager Bernie Turcotte.

New Zealand’s ICANN board member Peter Dengate Thrush pointed out that delegates were neglecting the legal analysis of domain problems.

“A country-code, top-level domain is owned by the community, and ownership is a legal concept,” he says. The fact of possession has legal weight and should work against any irregular transfer of ownership.

Further scenarios suggested were even wilder. One involved the original owner having a gun pointed at his head, begging ICANN to allow the domain to be transferred to save his life. The consensus was that the transfer should go ahead, but that a return to the original owner should be considered later.

As a last resort, ICANN can take a domain back and do its own re-delegation. But the panel consensus was this should only happen if the rules laid out in RFC 1591 were breached.

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