Digital Colonialism

Digital colonisation’: A tiny island nation just launched a major effort to win back control of its top-level internet domain

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JACK KERRDEC 16, 2020, 11:22 AM

  • Niue, a tiny island nation in the Pacific, is launching proceedings with internet overseer ICANN to reclaim the .nu top-level domain.
  • The .nu domain has never been in the hands of the Niuean people, with control currently resting with the Internet Foundation of Sweden (IIS), the body in charge of that country’s .se space.
  • “This is the big one,” says Pär Brumark, the Swedish domains expert who is leading a delegation on behalf of Niue to claim its space.

A tiny island microstate has today launched proceedings that could have profound repercussions for who controls the internet.

The Government of Niue, a tiny island 2,400 kilometres northeast of New Zealand, has demanded a “redelegation” of its national webspace, .nu, from the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the supranational non-profit that coordinates top-level domains to ensure the stable operation of the internet.

It’s a battle that’s almost as old as Hotmail – and if fights over internet governance had weight divisions, then this would be a heavyweight card.

“This is the big one,” said Pär Brumark, the Swedish domains expert who is leading a delegation on behalf of the tiny Pacific island.

His pro-bono team of professors and legal academics from major Scandinavian universities have, he says, constructed the most detailed analysis of problems with ICANN rules and their allegedly poor implementation ever to be undertaken.

“We’ll lay it all out. It’s a proof of concept of how messed up the system is.”

Countries were each allocated a national webspace (or top-level domain) during the 1990s, in a relatively loose arrangement that was intended to ensure it was operated by that country’s internet community.

In Australia, for example, the nation’s top-level domain is run by the .au Domain Administration (auDA). It’s a member-based nonprofit based in Melbourne, and their custodianship of this significant national resource – which provides a trusted space for Australian e-commerce, and had a turnover of almost $14 million in the first six months of this year – is endorsed by the Commonwealth.

Another Pacific nation, Tuvalu, receives $5 million per year from the registry that runs its popular .tv top-level domain.

That’s roughly how it’s supposed to work – notwithstanding auDA’s own internal dramas over the years.

For microstates like Niue, however, it has been a totally different experience.

“No one even made a phone call to the Government of Niue when [the initial delegation] happened,” Brumark said. “And they’ve basically been ignored ever since.”

For reasons which are still unclear, but which likely stem from Niue’s isolation and small size, control of the .nu webspace was originally handed to a magazine editor from Massachusetts named Bill Semich.

He would soon boast that .nu was “the fastest growing top-level domain name on the Internet”, thanks largely to its popularity in northern European countries, where ‘nu’ translates as ‘now’.

While Niue signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Semich around that time, it quickly backtracked, claiming it did not understand what it was agreeing to or the financial benefit control of the webspace could confer.

Toke Talagi, the long-serving Premier of Niue who passed away earlier this year, deemed the situation a form of “neo-colonialism”, while Brumark has dubbed it “digital colonisation”.

But Semich has denied any legal or moral wrongdoing. He said that part of the profit he gained from controlling the .nu top-level domain was used to get the remote island connected to the internet, and his IUS-N Foundation said it continues to make significant contributions to maintain the island’s internet and telecommunication needs, as well as funding community projects.

But Niue tore up the original deal in 2000, and passed legislation calling for a formalised agreement, which did not eventuate.

In 2013, the Internet Foundation of Sweden (IIS), the body in charge of that country’s .se space, became the technical manager of .nu.

To Nieuans, this meant their national digital territory had essentially been placed under the control of another country.

“It is unprecedented in the history of the internet that the appointed national ccTLD (country-code top-level domain) manager of one nation … takes over a foreign, by national law protected, ccTLD management of another,” the Niueans write in their redelegation request, which will be formally submitted to ICANN around midday Niuean time.

It says the IIS has been operating the .nu space “in breach of its own founding charter and in absence of the Swedish-law-required permission from the applicable Swedish Governmental Authority.”

The case will also argue the current arrangement is a breach of the Niue’s Digital Communication Amendment Act – as well as the IIS’s founding charter and the Accountability Framework agreed to between ICANN and IUS-N.

“The business arrangement … constitutes a severe and present threat to the stability and the security of the local internet community as well as the global internet community.”

Niue is currently also pursuing a case in the Swedish legal system to claim ten of millions of dollars generated by the sale of .nu web addresses.

Redelegations – where control of a top-level domain is transferred to another, more appropriate body – have been actioned before by ICANN.

But this is “by far the most long-lasting ongoing case and it will be the most thorough redelegation investigation in history,” said Brumark

“We have needed 20 volunteers, including professors and academics, to make this happen. Niue could not afford to even investigate this issue, let alone run a redelegation. There are too many gatekeepers in ICANN that would try to keep them out.

“If I had known this would take thousands of hours and twenty lawyers, would I have gone into this? Probably not. But the people of Niue have become my close friends. And I want to get justice for them.”

If he loses, there is the option to go one step further and seek justice in the court system of California, where ICANN is based.

But Brumark said that won’t be necessary.

“No, because we will be successful. We have internal papers, we have everything.

“We are putting them in a situation where it would be extremely difficult to rule against Niue, because that would set a precedent that would complicate their policy system too much.

“It would be a stain on ICANN.”