[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent.]
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been working on contract to assist the Interim Telecommunications Regulator in conducting a consultation seeking public input on how best to manage Vanuatu’s .vu domain in a pluralistic, healthy commercial ISP market.
A fair amount of technical information necessarily goes into such discussions, and you can read more about that on the Regulator’s website.
The issue of managing Vanuatu’s national domain affects us all. It’s not sufficient for a bunch of geeks to get together and decide everything; we need to make sure everyone in Vanuatu has a clear idea what’s happening.
(As I sift through my old entries on this topic, I find it interesting to see how my thinking has changed. It’s kind of nice to see the salutary effects of time, research and criticism from my colleagues.)
Although it manifests itself differently from one island to another, the importance of one’s name is integral to finding one’s place in local kastom. Indeed, the highest honour an expat can earn in Vanuatu is to be given a name. A naming ceremony implies the attainment of (usually honourary) chiefly rank. One’s name, in short, is the ultimate expression of one’s place, standing and role in the community. It conveys the very essence of its bearer.
Since we put such stock in names, we should consider carefully how they’re used on the Internet as well.
When you type an address into your web browser, you’re using what’s called a domain name. A domain name is chopped up into parts, separated by dots. Each section of the domain name has a certain significance. For example, ‘www.google.com’ has three parts. The ‘www’ stands for ‘World Wide Web’, and means that this is a website. ‘Google’ is of course the name of the entity that operates the site. The ‘.com’ part at the end refers to Google’s status as a commercial entity.
The last part of a domain name is known as the Top-Level Domain, or TLD. They’ve been used and abused well beyond their intended purposes, but TLDs are intended to say a little bit about a given site’s identity. Let me give another example: The Vanuatu IT Users Society’s domain is vitus.org.vu. The first part, ‘vitus’ is obvious enough. The second part says that we’re a non-profit organisation. The last part, ‘.vu’, says we are based in Vanuatu.
Every country has its own two-letter TLD assigned to it. This namespace, as it’s known, is administered by a designated body. The way in which this is done varies widely from country to country, according to their particular needs.
Experience has taught us that, because the job of managing a domain is largely technical, the day-to-day issues are best addressed by people who specialise in this kind of work. A majority of nations rely on neutral third parties to administer their Internet domains. In some cases, academic institutions are the ones best able to bring the necessary technical knowledge to bear. Fiji’s .fj domain, for example, is managed by the University of the South Pacific.
Some nations have leveraged the uniqueness of their name to make money from it. Tiny Tuvalu famously sold the right to market its domain namespace for a promised US $50 million. Speculators hoped that the .tv domain would prove irresistible to television networks, stations and shows the world over.
The anticipated gold rush never happened, due in equal part to slipshod management by the initial investors and a far lower level of interest than anticipated. In the end, administration of the domain was signed over to Verisign, the US company that administers the .com domain space, among others. Tuvalu earns a modest dividend from it every year.
In many countries, we see purpose-built non-profit organisations taking on the burden of managing the national domain. Australia and New Zealand have both followed this approach. In Australia’s case, an organisation named auDA was created to address difficulties experienced by domain users when it was administered on a voluntary basis by an academic based in Melbourne University. The result was an organisation designed to provide a simple, lightweight framework for commercial entities to provide domain registration services for their Internet customers.
There exists a natural tendency to see a country domain administrator as the protector of the nation’s good name. That’s true, to a degree. We all want to be confident that the name isn’t going to be associated with spammers and other unethical Internet operators.
We want to make sure that there’s a degree of ‘truth in advertising’ – that is, we don’t necessarily want some random website operator to create the impression that they’re something they’re not. To that end, certain domain names are reserved for specific uses. The most obvious example is the .gov.vu namespace, which can be used only by legitimate government agencies.
We also want to have some assurance that sites using Vanuatu’s .vu domain adhere to the laws of Vanuatu. This means, among other things, that they have to respect those parts of the Criminal Code respecting indecent material. They might also be called on to avoid giving undue credibility to seditious speech or other criminal activity online.
But there’s a limit to what a domain administrator can do. They can withhold the right to use a domain, but they can’t force someone to turn off a particular service.
The role of a ccTLD administrator is not to arbitrate public morals. While simple rules can be set concerning appropriate use of the domain, they need to be kept to a minimum. The approach we need to take is a minimalist one. There are some terms, for example, that do little or nothing to enhance the public dialogue. Swear words, for example.
But that does not mean that a domain administrator should have any direct role in defining what topics can or should be discussed in the public sphere.
A ccTLD administrator is neither pastor, policeman nor politician. It does not exist to make rules about public morality, nor should it be given powers beyond the minimal set necessary to ensure the smooth operation of its part of the Internet Domain Name Service (DNS).
Vanuatu has laws, and everyone has to respect them. A national domain administrator has a responsibility to uphold those laws, and to the extent that it’s reasonable to do so, it should ensure that those laws are upheld by its stakeholders and clients.
A domain administrator’s role is primarily technical. Most of what they do is make the registration of domains by multiple parties practical, simple and conducive to the conduct of a public exchange of information, for whatever purpose.
The model we proposed last week relies heavily on a process of dialogue, consensus and cooperation. Given that Vanuatu has a 3000 year old tradition of managing community business using exactly these tools, we’re quite confident that it will be possible to create a lightweight administrative body that provides a virtual venue similar in form and function to the village nakamal, or meeting house.
We want stakeholders and the public in general to have a place they can take their questions, concerns and – when necessary – their complaints. They should be discussed fairly and openly, in the spirit of cooperation. While the option remains to arbitrate if absolutely necessary, we’re confident that this will be a last resort, rarely if ever called upon.
Internet governance is predicated on cooperation and consensus, and given Vanuatu’s long history of doing the same, we have every reason to expect that our proposed domain administrator will be able to this well-understood and universally respected tradition.