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Europe annexes Caribbean islands

Caymans in the wrong location for ICANN

By Kieren McCarthy, 6 May 2005

You often hear it said that the Internet is redrawing the map of the world, but little did any of us know that was a literal truth.

Because - at least according to Internet overseer ICANN - 20,000 square miles of Caribbean water and land has been lifted intact, transported 5000 miles east and deposited in the heart of Europe.

Yes, by the power of IP, the Cayman Islands, usually resting comfortably between the Mexican coast and Cuba, is officially part of Europe, and has been since 2003, despite what the atlases say.

How come? Look no further than the Country-code Names Supporting Organisation (ccNSO), one of eight constituencies that make up the policy-making element of ICANN, and which maintains country-specific top-level domains.

The ccNSO recently drew fire from the chairman of Centr, an organisation representing a good proportion of the world's domain name registries. In a blunt letter to ICANN, he took issue with the organisation, dismissing its approach as "a misrepresentation of the realities at hand".

Centr accused ICANN of trying to be a quasi-regulator and said the sovereign Internet-using nations of the world would not accept a Californian private company giving them orders. This, in effect, is what the ccNSO was doing, and its bylaws needed to be changed before Centr would consider joining, the letter stated.

Just 15 per cent of the global country-code top-level domain community has signed up to the ccNSO, Centr argued, so if ICANN wants more legitimacy by winning the support of more of the remaining countries, it will have to change the way the ccNSO works.

But does it exist?

Naturally, we decided to look further into the issue. And most surprising of all was the fact that the ccNSO arguably doesn't actually exist as a legitimate body.

According to ICANN's own bylaws, for the ccNSO to hold elections and hence be able to take part in proceedings "there must be a minimum of 30 members with at least four from each of the five ICANN geographic regions". That rule was laid down in June 2003, and the plan then was to get the ccNSO up and running by October 2003.

Unfortunately, the rule proved a bit of a stickler because everyone in Europe refused to join. Persistently. And they still do. Conference calls between those who did join - mostly from Africa and Asia-Pacific - started 3 September 2003 and continued every week for six weeks, consistently dealing with the fact that no one in Europe would join the ccNSO, making it impossible for the organisation to exist under the terms of its own charter.

The Netherlands joined on 3 September 2003. Then the Czech Republic jumped on board on 23 December 2003. But that was it. None of the other 45 domains in Europe would sign up - despite the fact that Europe currently represents over 60 per cent of all country-code Internet domains.

By 8 September 2003, Africa, Asia-Pacific and Latin America all had their minimum of four domains. However, North America only had three, and neither Bermuda (.bm) nor Greenland (.gl), St Pierre and Miquelon (.pm), or the United States Minor Outlying Islands (.um) could be persuaded to become the fourth.

So when Puerto Rico, always previously known as a Caribbean island, joined on 5 December it suddenly found itself a part of North America by dint of the fact it is still owned by the US. A slightly faulty logic but one you can see the reasoning behind it.

However, this brand new rule was then suddenly extended to the Cayman Islands, a UK territory albeit with its own Legislative Assembly and Executive Council. The Islands joined up on 21 January 2004, following in the footsteps of neighbours Mexico and Cuba. But unlike those countries, which were assigned to Latin America, the Cayman Islands became an honorary part of Europe.

Even with such judicious fudging, the 47-member, sorry 48-member ccNSO was still one European short. It wasn't until 27 February 2004, when the 2.5 square-mile lump of rock called Gibraltar signed up to the ccNSO, that it had four European members. A day later, the ccNSO was declared a legitimate organisation, four months late and having twice redrawn the map of the world.

So what?

Despite the fact that a concerted refusal on behalf on hundreds of countries to join ICANN's representative body points to pretty extensive dissatisfaction, there is the small matter of the real world.

According to the most recent figures, 40 per cent of all domain names in existence - ie. 40 per cent of the Internet - are country-code domains. Some 26m of them. Germany is the second largest registry in existence following .com, with 8.6m .de domains. The UK, after .net, comes fourth with just over 4m .uk domains.

With the gradual introduction of internationalised domain names (IDNs), which allow for different languages in Internet domains, non-Western alphabet domains have taken off and will continue to do so at ever greater rates. Japan, China and Korea are ahead of the game but the Middle East will soon catch up. The rest of the world will define the next stage of the Internet after its roots in the US. And yet the organisation within ICANN to deal with this vital sector boasts only 17 per cent of the total possible membership and just 15 per cent of the number of domains.

The other five-sixths simply refuse to join until ICANN provides a process in keeping with their wider importance on the Internet. And that it why the ccNSO still doesn't have a fourth legitimate European member, 16 months after the Cayman Islands made their historic journey across the Atlantic.

Since the ccNSO's first official meeting on 20 July 2004, only three new ccTLDs have joined, two in Africa and one in Asia-Pacific.

So what changes do the others want?

Well, the changes that others are insisting upon before they join up to the ccNSO are very clear and simple if you approach it from the perspective that the ccTLD countries should have the right to determine their own approaches to how they run their own domains.

Unfortunately, this is the cause of the ongoing tension between the rest of the world and ICANN, where ICANN believes it should act and decide in everyone's best interests.

Centr, which is the largest representative body for ccTLDs, last month laid out what its members wanted. The ccNSO should be "a forum for information exchange and discussion of best practices, not for developing policies binding on participants", it argued.

It wants the bylaws rewritten so that:

  • ICANN does not have the power to set policies that affect ccTLDs without it going through ccNSO
  • Members can decide procedures, fees and policies themselves
  • ccNSO policies do not bind non-ccNSO members
  • ccNSO policies should only be rejected by ICANN Board in very exceptional circumstances
  • Policies can only decided of a quorum of 50 per cent of ccNSO members
  • The ICANN Board cannot change ccNSO policy without explicit permission of two-thirds of ccNSO members

The situation has reached deadlock. ICANN is left with a stranded support organisation that moves territories across the globe to legitimise itself, and the rest of the world is left without an overseer to thrash out the inevitable arguments that will come in the future.

The Internet remains a peculiar place. ®

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