Safeguarding the Internet Commons

[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent.]

On January 5th, the Sydney Morning Herald published a story titled, “Dial X for Optus.” The feature recounted the story, by now well known in Vanuatu, of how Optus collaborated with certain Pacific Islands nations to make tens of millions of dollars in profit from the pornography industry.

The scheme,” wrote Vanda Carson, “allowed the telcos to bill customers premium rates for sexually explicit calls or X-rated downloads when they dialled the country codes” of many Pacific nations, Vanuatu included. “Optus was part of the partnership of telcos which acted as gatekeepers in the porn trade between the US and Europe and small Pacific islands.”

As if that wasn’t bad enough, Optus illegally appropriated 100 Vanuatu telephone numbers and kept all revenues generated by them.

None of that could happen today. With the creation of a functioning and effective Telecommunications Regulator, we now have proper oversight on how Vanuatu’s communications resources are used. The government of Vanuatu has made great strides in ensuring that all telephone operators manage their systems responsibly and efficiently.

Now we need to do the same for our Internet resources.

We don’t often stop to think about it, but telephone numbers, Internet addresses and domains names are all sovereign resources. The Australian body that handles the .au domain states things quite succinctly:

“Taking the view that the Internet Domain Name System is a public asset, and that the .au [domain] is under the sovereign control of the Commonwealth of Australia, auDA will administer the .au [domain] for the benefit of the Australian community.”

Here in Vanuatu, the Ministry of Infrastructure and Public Utilities is conducting a public consultation on these issues right now. At issue is how we in Vanuatu can ensure that the .vu domain is administered for the public good.

On one side of the issue, we need to make sure that businesses, organisations and individuals are all free to access and benefit from domain names that identify them with Vanuatu. On the other, we need to ensure that these resources maintain a healthy, positive reputation, one that’s consistent with Vanuatu’s image as a safe and friendly place.

The management of Internet domains has been something of an afterthought for many nations. In most cases, the technical challenge of making sure they worked properly and efficiently fell into the hands of a few well-intentioned, civic minded techies. In most cases, that worked well.

But there have been a few notable exceptions.

Jo Lim, policy director for the organisation that currently manages Australia’s domains, recounts the following history: Until the late 1990s, Australia’s domains were managed by Robert Elz, a Melbourne University computer scientist who managed it in a personal capacity and on a voluntary basis. Around 1996-7, people finally lost patience with this situation. They objected to Elz’s unilateral decision to delegate the management of the lucrative domain space to a company that was owned entirely by his employer. On top of that, non-profit organisations were not at all satisfied with the way he managed the domain.

A decision was made, finally, for stakeholders to organise themselves and take over management of the entire package. But getting geeks to work together is sometimes like herding cats. In the end they needed some encouragement from government. Lim writes:

“Minister for Communications and IT, Senator Richard Alston, gave the go ahead for the then National Office for the Information Economy (NOIE) to lend support to the industry in its efforts to establish a new organisation to manage .au. Note that industry self-regulation was the government’s stated preference, in line with concurrent reforms in the telecommunications industry. At first NOIE’s assistance was fairly low key, but after a couple of false starts it was considered necessary to become more hands-on. The government laid down a number of criteria that had to be met in order to ensure continued government support for industry self-regulation. NOIE also provided some funding and staff support to help the new organisation get established.”

Other countries weren’t so fortunate. In particular, the Chinese and Russian domain spaces have become hopelessly polluted by spammers, fraudsters and purveyors of viruses and other malicious software. Spam abuse from Chinese domains has become so terrible that some administrators of large-scale systems simply block all email originating from .cn (China’s domain name).

That’s an effective, but not very elegant solution. Ultimately, a billion people are being punished for the inaction of the people whose responsibility it is to look after the .cn domain.

We certainly do not want the same thing to happen here in Vanuatu.

It needs to be said that in recent years the .vu domain has been well managed by TVL. Indeed, as someone who works with the responsible staff on a frequent basis, I feel compelled to observe that the people responsible for the technical management of Vanuatu’s domain space are among the most efficient and professional of all of Telecom’s staff.

But here’s the thing: TVL has no formal mandate from the government to manage the .vu namespace. They took it on as a public service simply because nobody else was willing or able to do so at the time.

Now, with other Internet Service Providers ready to start rolling out their respective services, it’s time to start deliberating on how we want this sovereign resource to the treated. Most of the ground rules are pretty straightforward: We want everyone to be able to share equally; we want the process of sharing to be as simple and straightforward as possible. And we want to make sure that nobody abuses the resource.

Internet domain spaces like .vu are generally considered to be a Commons. The term comes from shared lands in England where villagers could graze their cattle. As long as everyone cooperates, all of their cattle thrive. But as soon as someone tries to get more benefit out of the resource than the others, the community at large suffers. Eventually, we arrive at a situation characterised by influential ecologist Garret Hardin in 1968 as the Tragedy of the Commons.

To date, Telecom Vanuatu has shown nothing but competence and responsibility in its management of the .vu domain. From a technical and ethical standpoint, their performance has been exemplary. But as we’ve seen from the Optus debacle, it only takes one short-sighted individual to sully the entire resource.

While we have every reason to believe that this kind of abuse will never happen again, it would be more comforting to be sure of it. There’s a difference between stating that something will not happen again and stating that it cannot happen again.

All that’s required to ensure this is a simple set of clear rules (the fewer the better) and the authority to enforce them. We already have the authority in the Office of the Regulator. Now the community at large needs to sit down with him and write the rules.