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Online e-government grinds to a halt

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The dream of e-government has hit a brick wall because, incredibly, Parliament's Internet domain - www.parliament.uk - doesn't actually exist.

The anomaly has come to light after Parliament's Publications and Archive arm attempted to make way for e-purchases. You are able to view recent Parliament reports online for free but if you wish to purchase a printed version of a report or copies of old legislation, you have to send a cheque to Parliament.

The publications arm applied for an SSL certificate from leading supplier Thwate to provide a route for secure online transactions.

Unfortunately, Thwate has insisted that it be provided with proof that Parliament actually owns parliament.uk. And no one is able to give it. UK domain registrar Nominet runs most .uk domains but not parliament.uk, which was registered before Nominet existed.

Equally, UKERNA - which was the precursor to Nominet and still runs the government and academic domains .gov.uk and .ac.uk - confirmed that it didn't look after parliament.uk. In fact, no one runs parliament.uk and it doesn't officially exist.

The extensive domain, which contains all official information regarding MPs, the House of Commons, House of Lords, UK legislation and just about everything else about the running of the United Kingdom, lives in the shadowlands of the Internet.

The domain itself is one of a very rare breed registered before 1 August 1996, before Nominet existed and when plain .uk addresses were still available. In fact, just 13 .uk Internet domains now officially exist, of which only six are still accessible (libraries and nuclear fusion research labs).

Then there are the second-level domain names like .co.uk, .govt.uk. There are 11 of these. Six are run by Nominet, two by UKERNA, nhs.uk by the National Health Service, .police.uk by the police and .mod.uk by the Ministry of Defence.

Parliament.uk exists in no man's land.

Surely this can be easily sorted out though? Well, no. Nominet has no control over the domain and a court case last year actually decided that there was no contract between Nominet and the registrants of domain names registered by the "Naming Committee" - the loose assortment of tech-heads that existed prior to Nominet.

It also has nothing to do with IANA or ICANN - the people behind the global domain names like .com and .org - because the UK domain system is strictly autonomous to it.

The .uk names that do still exist don't pay anything for their domains and have permanent control over them. However, they can't transfer them and no one can buy them. Nominet would like them to register with it but it has no powers to make them and if they do, they would have to pay regular renewal fees.

Nominet is also about as likely to want to charge Parliament for its domain as it is the MoD or itself for its nic.uk domains.

So what can Parliament do about its predicament? It is extremely unlikely that it will want to hand over the running of the domain to anyone else, but then there is no strict way of proving its owns the domain either.

A Nominet spokeswoman told us Nominet is "in contact" with Parliament and will confirm to anyone that asks that Parliament owns parliament.uk but has no plans to do anything about the odd situation.

Parliament will no doubt take months to get back to our queries and presumably just as long to assure Thawte that it is who it says it is. In the meantime, online sales of government publications are on the back burner. ®

* Special thanks to Chris Holland of CHC Internet for his help in explaining the UK domain system.

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