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Internet fool’s gold sparks Nigerian fiasco

The politics and money surrounding .ng

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"It seems clear to us now than ever before, that what Mrs Odusote is interested in is to continue to hold the government of Nigeria, and the teeming members of Nigeria's Internet Community, to ransom on personal, selfish and largely unjustifiable grounds, without any regards whatsoever to the patriotic interest of Nigeria."

What ICANN head Paul Twomey made of that on 10 December 2003 when the letter from Nigeria’s minister of science and technology, Professor Turner Isoun, landed on his desk, we shall never know. But it was clear to everyone that something had gone horribly wrong in the running of Nigeria’s Internet.

Mrs Odusote is the official point of contact between the Internet overseeing organisation ICANN and the domain names set aside for Nigeria, run under the two-letter suffix "ng".

It is up to ICANN to decide who (individual or organisation) is allowed to run country domains. But if it had had anything to do with it, no one would know a jot about the enormous battle going on for control of Nigeria’s Internet. Not a single reference to the struggle can be found on ICANN’s website (save two press reports that have slipped through the net), no member has ever mentioned the fact, and none of the official letters sent by interested parties have been put in the public domain. This despite the organisation’s stated policy that: "All decisions of substance are preceded by prior notice and a full opportunity for public comment."

However, Nigeria’s tendency toward public criticism and condemnation has caused the whole horrible mess to explode on the wider stage. Prof Isoun’s letter was born out of frustration from what he perceived as the stalling tactics of Mrs Odusote for her own personal gain.

A few months earlier, the Nigerian Internet Group (NIG), through its political connections, had been awarded the rights to run the domain by the Nigeria Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA). ICANN was informed of the decision. However, Mrs Odusote - and much of the Internet community including universities, ISPs and Internet old-hands - were concerned about NIG’s ability to run the show and the fact it was dominated by government officials.

It was an attempted coup and the reason - although everyone has been careful not to say it publicly - was money.

Ten times ten million is...

The head of NITDA’s corporate affairs, Mr Inye Kem-Abonta pointed out in a press conference that it was "alarmingly dismal" that only 576 Nigerian domains had been sold since 1995. There are 120 million Nigerians, he exclaimed, and other countries have had up to one million registrations in one year.

Nigerian domain names are delightfully old-fashioned in that they are run as in the early days of the Internet - by individuals and for free. Mrs Odusote is the administrative contact for the domain, and Net veteran Randy Bush, who lives in the US, is the technical contact. They are not paid and there is no fee to register a domain - all you need to do is fill in a registration form and prove you are a Nigerian national by providing a contactable address in the country.

The trouble was that the false hopes of Internet potential that infected Western society in the 1990s had reappeared. If you start charging, say, £10 for a domain and you sell one million domains then you make... huge wads of cash in next to no time, figured the Nigerians. Blinded by the glistening fool’s gold and helped by Nigerian officials’ traditional flexibility in monetary matters, the NIG viewed the delay by Mrs Odusote as purely selfish.

Nigeria’s Internet community realised too late in the day what was happening, but quickly formed the Nigerian Computer Society (NCS) - made up of the Computer Association of Nigeria (COAN), Information Technology (Industry) Association of Nigeria (ITAN), Internet Service Providers Association of Nigeria (ISPAN), Institute of Software Practitioners of Nigeria (ISPAN)/Software Developers Group (SDG) and others - to put forward their views.

Backlash

The NCS wrote to ICANN in response to Prof Isoun’s letter, claiming he had been misled by the NITDA, and went on to list a series of concerns with the NITDA and NIG. We know this because it was also sent to Nigeria’s president (who is keen to stamp out government corruption) and leaked to the press.

It alleged close links between NITDA and NIG that made objective advice difficult; a lack of genuine consensus; an absence of transparency and accountability; and that stakeholder meetings were staged. It asked the Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria to review the decision to hand the domain over to NIG.

This, unsurprisingly, did not endear the NITDA to NCS and while ICANN stood back, the fireworks flew.

The NIG tried to bypass presidential consideration by publicly calling the NCS’ letter “an outrageous insult on the Presidency of the Federal Republic of Nigeria" and demanding an apology. It added: "We urge the NCS to immediately withdraw its petition to ICANN because it is an act of gross disrespect to the Federal Government of Nigeria.” The NCS didn’t, and NITDA’s Kem-Abonta tried a new tack: “Forced re-delegation is only now a matter of time," he told reporters.

Watching all this, bemused, was the ng technical contact Randy Bush. Randy, who describes himself as “an old Internet dog” has been running the Nigerian Internet for years, for free, from his home in Washington State, USA.

Randy is delighted with the idea of the domain being redelegated to a professional organisation, he told us, not least because it will put him out of an unpaid job that has caused him nothing but headaches and early-morning phone calls from angry Nigerians.

Randy was temporarily pulled into the argument after he wrote a letter expressing his views. Running the domain was “not intellectually interesting in the least,” he wrote, and explained the apparent lack of success of ng domains by noting that 95 per cent of registration forms were incorrectly filled in. He also make his concern known that Nigeria did not widely discuss the one thing Nigeria has become famous for on the Internet - email scams.

Inevitably, there was some backlash to this, with references to foreigners running Nigeria’s Internet domains. "Nigeria does not hold a monopoly of scam on the Internet," retaliated NIG’s president, Dr. Emmanuel Ekuwem, at another press conference.

One man and his log

But Mr Bush’s concerns are for the African country’s Internet infrastructure. “What can a nerd do to help the world?” he asks us. His answer is to help provide and transfer the technology developed in the West for the benefit of all.

He is unapologetic about rejecting so many registration forms though. “I’m a stickler for correctness. That’s my job. And that means the servers must be working, on a different Net backbone, and the person has to be in the country and has to be contactable.” He puts the applicant’s inability to do this down to cultural differences: “They don’t want some Honky telling them they must put their domain on a different server - I even tell them where to find a free server - to them it is just me making things difficult for them, but without that, one day they will find their domain isn’t there.”

There are a lot of clever people in Nigeria, Randy explains, but very, very few engineers with the right skills. “Domains are tough - they can be a little complex. The smartest guy in Nigeria works for one ISP and he’s trying to build a business. He helps others out but he is trying to get on with running his business.”

All it takes, Randy says, is a full-time engineer, an office with a fax and phone, a help person to explain to people what they need to do and why, and someone to balance the books.

Randy told the Nigerian government this and its angry response was telling. It refused point blank to accept that such a small team could start the Nigerian Internet ball rolling effectively. It would clearly need a huge team because hundreds of thousands of domains would be sold in a matter of months.

Randy sums it up succinctly: “It’s the smell. I would say that due to its culture, Nigerians are even more of a sucker for the get-rich-quick scheme than we Americans.”

The ironic thing is that domain redelegations to date have almost all been controversial for a different reason - that the government or commercial organisation has won control by striking a secret deal with ICANN, signing a contract pledging undying loyalty to it in the process.

With ICANN requesting a consensus before it acts in Nigeria, the situation has reached an impasse. But, if Mr Bush is to be believed, the extraordinary battle may soon be coming to a close. “As I understand it, in the next day or so, we [the NCS] will say that the domain should be transferred to the NIG but that it has to become more representative.”

And so the seemingly old-fashioned frenzy for Internet riches will, with luck, be solved by the even more old-fashioned Internet culture of consensus. It’s good to see the Net can still spark such passions though. ®

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