As ICANN staff, it is hard to avoid the news when your organisation is the subject of a hearing held by the United States Congress. This week we saw another such hearing, where the House Judiciary committee discussed the future deployment of new top-level domains.
A number of people testified, including my colleague Doug Brent, but it is the testimony of Steve DelBianco I found particularly intriguing. His testimony revolved around the notion the country-code top-level domains are “controlled by governments”, and future IDN fast track ccTLD allocations will be “reserved only for governments”.
I think many in the ccTLD community will be puzzled by these repeated assertions in his testimony.
Let’s set the stage a little. Country-code top-level domains have existed since the mid-1980s — they are the domains that currently end with two-letter extensions like .FI for Finland, and .DE for Germany. Each country has one available for their use, taken from the ISO 3166-1 standard, but at present they are all written in the letters used for English, known as Latin characters. One of ICANN’s key current initiatives is to work on allowing country-codes to be deployed in different scripts, such as those used for Chinese, Russian and Arabic languages. It is not terribly convenient for those who type in these languages to have to switch their computer to using Latin characters just to put the two-letter endings on their domains, and this will address that.
Recognising that coming up with a complete solution for these internationalised country codes will take some time, the community is working on a “fast track” programme which allows countries that have a demonstrated immediate need to get early access to using these domains. Applications will need to show that the strings they would like to use (like .рф, .日本国 or .ελ) are not contentious, in addition to meeting all the existing eligibility criteria we use for assigning the Latin-based country codes.
So what are the criteria we use today?
The criteria we use in large part revolve around the consensus of “local Internet community” — a sometimes nebulous concept, to be sure, but in essence recognising it is the Internet community as a whole in the country that should decide how their domain is run, not just the Government.
IANA Staff wrote in 1994 that we assign country code top-level domains to trustees that “carry out the necessary responsibilities, and have the ability to do an equitable, just, honest, and competent job”, and have a “duty to serve the community”. “Significantly interested parties in the domain should agree that the designated manager is the appropriate party.”
With respect to national governments, in 1997 we noted that “an additional factor has become very important since : the desires of the government of the country. The IANA takes the desires of the government of the country very seriously, and will take them as a major consideration in any transition discussion.” Subsequent to that, the ICANN Governmental Advisory Committee has also made statements regarding this principle.
Clearly national governments have an important role in country-code top-level domains, but that does not translate to controlling them. It is the local Internet community that we look to to provide guidance on how their domains should be run. We expect governments are an important actor in the local Internet community, and that they are involved in the discussion and decision making. But there is a key difference between that, and them exclusively controlling the domain, or having them reserved for the government’s use. If the top-level domain for a particular country is assigned to its government to operate directly, it is because the local Internet community consensus there has decided that is what is appropriate, versus some other alternative.
A basic description of the evaluation criteria we use are provided in the public summary delegation reports we publish on the IANA website (see here for a recent example). ICANN staff have also been working in recent months on improving the public delegation documentation, in anticipation of the launch of the fast track programme. This documentation will better elaborate our existing processes. It is our hope that this will assist prospective applicants for these domains better understand the evaluation criteria when they submit their applications.
We know that Internet communities in a number of countries are already discussing how best to run a potential fast track internationalised domain, so that they can be ready to present their consensus should the programme be launched. Until then, all countries of the world have their two-letter ASCII code and ICANN continues to receive requests to maintain and transfer these domains in accordance with the community’s wishes.