This is what is happening to Iraq's Internet domain
ICANN's head reveals all
Analysis With the handover of power in Iraq this week, from the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) to the Interim Iraqi Government, the issue of the country's Internet has again become a big issue.
Numerous media outlets have stumbled upon the fact that the .iq domain set aside for Iraq does not actually exist on the Internet and its ownership is in limbo. Not only that but the current owners are currently in a US federal jail for aiding a Hamas terrorist and exporting computers to Syria and Libya against the law.
The situation has been further intensified by Dr Siyamend Zaid Othman - the head of Iraq's new National Communications and Media Commission (ICMC), created on 20 April this year by the CPA's Paul Bremer - using his multitude of media connections (he is senior vice-president at United Press International) to stir things up.
"The .iq domain name would allow Iraqis to stake a virtual flag in the worldwide Internet community. It is an important tangible and symbolic milestone for this nation, as well as the freedom and hopes of the Iraqi people," he has been widely quoted as saying.
At the same time, it was also revealed that Paul Bremer had sent a letter to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) just days before the ICMC was created, requesting that the domain's ownership be handed over to it.
It is over two months later, and nothing has happened, prompting those with a heavy interest in seeing Iraq's Internet at least appear on the Net to use the handover of power to give the issue greater prominence. A variety of ill-informed commentators have waxed lyrical about what could happen, often using the re-delegation of Afghanistan in January 2003 as a post to pin their comments.
Afghanistan's handover was certainly interesting in that the previous owner, who hadn't been seen or heard of since the US started bombing Kabul, suddenly appeared, signed a piece of paper handing over ownership to the US-run interim authority, and then just as quickly disappeared again. Such fortune cannot befall the Iraq domain though as everyone knows exactly where the owner Bayan Elashi resides - federal jail, Dallas, Texas, USA - and he is not exactly likely to agree to hand the domain over.
But all that aside, the man in the street cannot be expected to understand why an entire country's Internet presence is left in the hands of suspected terrorist sympathisers - and does even appear on the Net - when a recognised Iraqi media commission has requested its ownership. But, as with everything in Iraq, the reality is far, far more complex.
ICANN, but you can't
The difficulty lies in the history of the Internet and who has the authority to decide who runs country code Internet domains, plus the procedure people have to go through to get a domain moved - or "redelegated" - to someone else.
In the grand old days of the Net, the "father of the Internet" Jon Postel basically decided who ran country's Internet domains. He wrote the basic protocol text on how the DNS was to be delegated, RFC-1591 (standing for Request for Comment). Using this text, the.iq domain was handed over to Bayan Elashi, a Palestinian-born computer expert living in the US, on 9 May 1997, the date on which the very last block of country codes were added to the Internet's Domain Name System (DNS).
A few months before Postel's premature death in October 1998, ICANN had been created by the US government to manage and co-ordinate the DNS. The idea was that ICANN would swiftly become autonomous and manage the rapidly expanding infrastructure. The task of who was chosen to run particular domains was however the responsibility of a different organisation - the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA).
With Postel's death came a power-grab by those in charge of ICANN over IANA. IANA, at its rawest level, is control of the Internet as it is the sole body entitled to make vast global changes in Internet ownership. That power-grab has been furiously opposed by the individuals and companies running the world's country domains, who fear that if ICANN has control over IANA, it will abuse its position to force them to concede on all points over how the Internet should be run.
With this fight going on, in May 1999, ICANN and IANA put out another set of guidelines over DNS delegations - including in what circumstances domains can be redelegated. This document - ICP-1 - in conjunction with RFC-1591, is what gives ICANN and IANA its redelegation authority.
The battle continues. ICANN is continuing to slowly subsume the IANA function to the extent that both organisations are now contacted by a single telephone number, and country-code representatives are continuing to insist that IANA is allowed to run as an autonomous body. Only last month, ICANN's new budget caused the head of the main body representing country-code top-level domains, Centr, to write a furious letter to ICANN that accused it of "unrealistic political and operational targets" and said the idea of ICANN taking over IANA was not "appropriate".
In a recent posting, Internet luminary Karl Auerbach complained that ICANN had been asked at all about the Iraq domain name. "You should address your question to 'IANA' not ICANN - the two are separate, he wrote. "And you should then ask why and how the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (a branch of the US Dept of Commerce) obtained the legal authority to contract-out to have a private company do what amounts to the recognition and un-recognition of who are nation-states."
And so, ICANN is stuck in the middle of a formal request from the US government (the body it currently draws its authority from) to change the delegation on the one side, and a large section of the rest of the world (with whom it has to get on with) on the other side, liable to hit the roof if it assumes such authority.
The ironic thing is that nearly everyone agrees on the final outcome. The question is: how does ICANN get there?
Paul Twomey answers your questions
Dr Paul Twomey is the new head of ICANN and the man with the daunting job of moving the organisation away from the US government's ownership to autonomy within three years, while at the same time getting the rest of a very sceptical world to accept its overall authority on the Internet.
In response to press queries about Paul Bremer's letter to ICANN, Twomey put out a statement which read: "ICANN recently received a communication from the Coalition Provisional Authority requesting ICANN's assistance in the redelegation of .iq. ICANN consequently advised the Coalition Provisional Authority of ICANN's procedures for redelegation requests and gave them examples of recent successful redelegations. ICANN stands ready to assist the relevant authority on receipt of any such application. ICANN will process quickly any such application according to our standard criteria and processes."
It was all he could be expected to do in such a complicated situation, with strong passions on both sides and the spotlight of the world's press currently shining on Iraq. Fortunately, he spoke to us in greater detail to explain what will happen to the Iraq domain.
Despite the clear political pressure, he assured us it was not a matter of walking a tightrope: "This is not a tightrope - from our perspective it is a matter of standard procedure."
A simple overview of the procedures is on IANA's site here, but you need to go to ICP-1 to find the finer points. "In the event of a conflict over designation of a TLD manager," it reads, "the IANA tries to have conflicting parties reach agreement among themselves and generally takes no action unless all contending parties agree."
But: "On a few occasions, the parties involved in proposed delegations or transfers have not been able to reach an agreement and the IANA has been required to resolve the matter. This is usually a long drawn out process, leaving at least one party unhappy, so it is far better when the parties can reach an agreement among themselves."
On this occasion, however, getting Bayan Elashi to agree to hand over .iq to the adminstration put in place by the very people that are holding him in jail is going to be difficult. However, Dr Twomey says, this is not the end of the matter. "This is not an ideal situation, but there are various instances when a domain can be delegated without agreement."
ICP-1 again, points out what they are: "In cases where there is misconduct, or violation of the policies set forth in this document and RFC 1591, or persistent, recurring problems with the proper operation of a domain, the IANA reserves the right to revoke and to redelegate a Top Level Domain to another manager."
This has already happened a few times, Twomey tells us. But the problem he says is building up the zone file - the list of which domain names (such as baghdad.iq or government.iq) belong to who - if one person is unwilling to hand over the information.
"It is not just a change in contract. In a redelegation, the current person has the zone file and you have to negotiate with them to hand it over." Again, this hasn't always been the case either: "There have been a few hostile redelegations in which the zone file has been recontructed from different sources, and there was a Central Asia example where it was started from scratch."
However, the zone file is not such a big issue with Iraq. There were never more than a few hundred.iq domains - far likely less - and the entire domain has not been active since Elashi and his brothers were arrested by the FBI in December 2002. It may not be palatable but there is no doubt that the entire domain disappearing off the Internet for more than a year can be seen as "recurring problems with the proper operation of a domain".
But don't forget the community
So what is the difficulty in ICANN simple handing it over to Iraq's new ICMC? Well, a crucial part of ICP-1 is the sentence: "It is appropriate for interested parties to have a voice in the selection of the designated manager."
And by "interested parties" this has always meant the organised and capable Internet community in each country, which will inevitably be called upon to construct a country's Internet infrastructure. Without some form of agreement from them, a redelegation would fall flat on its face as the Internet is only simple on the outside. Also, without this clause, the Iraq domain would already be in the hands of various other chancers that have continually prodded ICANN to give them control of .iq for nearly two years.
Twomey admits that there "have been communications between bodies in Iraq" in the past. And there have also been several - rejected - attempts by people to be recognised as representatives of .iq in various international Net bodies.
He stresses that including the local Internet community is "not a new model" and even points to several examples of redelegations that have come about through the combination of academic users and the business community working together and taking over the job of running the domain.
Asked therefore if ICANN believes it needs to hear from Bayan Elashi for a redelegation to take place, Twomey is crystal clear: "There is no need to be in discussion with him."
Is the Internet community behind Dr Siyamend Zaid Othman, head of the ICMC? Quite possibly not. Dr Othman represents a body put in place by the US adminstration - it was Bremer who appointed him. Othman is an Iraqi Kurd but has been out of Iraq for a long time, has become friendly with Western politicians, written in numerous high-profile US publications, and holds a post in a Western media agency. He is the idea candidate from the US government's point of view, but Iraqis may feel differently.
Far, far more significant than that though, as Twomey informs us, is that the redelegation request did not come from the new Iraqi interim government, but rather Bremer and the Coalition Provisional Authority - which no longer holds any authority in Iraq.
What about now? "We have received no application from the Iraqi Provisional government as from today," Twomey explained. In short, the reason why IANA/ICANN are not looking at redelegation yet is because no one with the required authority has asked them to.
Does the current provisional government have the authority, considering it was not democratically elected? Yes, he says. "There is a UN agreement that gives it clear sovereignty in international law, it is not for us to say one way or another."
And if/when a request from the IIA is received? "If we receive one, we would deal with it according to our outstanding processes."
And that again means the Iraqi Internet community will get a large say in what happens. Unfortunately, Twomey is not so keen on saying who he sees as being in the Iraqi Net community. "I wouldn't like to say, but it is a very sophisticated country with a strong technical community," is all he ventures.
Will a condition of any redelegation be that Iraq signs up to the controversial contract in which ICANN is recognised as the ultimate authority in Internet matters - something that has consistently occurred in the past, leading some to believe that ICANN has blackmailed countries to gain power?
"You are referring to controversial instances in the past," Twomey says. "There is a whole discussion and review of that approach. What we want is accountability frameworks, very different in intent and style to the old ICANN contract. So say you are going through a redelegation, there would be an agreement that lays out the responsibilities each has to each other."
And so when will it be done with? A redelegation of .iq is inevitable. But it is going to take a formal request from the recognised government and/or a request from the Iraqi Internet community for it to happen - preferable both agreeing that the same person should be in charge.
If the Iraqis want their domain back - which they almost certainly do - it is up to them to get together and all agree on one approach and then IANA/ICANN will make the necessary change. In a very troubled country, a bit of old-style Internet consensus could well be a beacon of light in pulling the new democracy together.
And what of Bayan Elashi?
Bayan Elashi and his brothers - Ghassan, Basman and Hazim - were arrested on 18 December 2002 on charges of dealing illegally with a senior Hamas operative, Mousa abu Marzook, and of illegally exporting computer equipment and technology to Libya and Syria - described by US officials as state sponsors of terrorism. A fifth brother, Ihsan Elashi, was already in prison for export violations at the time of the arrests.
They were held up as an example of the American authorities stamping down on domestic Islamic terrorism, with the Attorney General John Ashcroft himself making a statement on their arrest. Even the FBI director Robert Mueller spoke to reporters about the case, saying it had "relied upon an array of intelligence and law enforcement initiatives and tools that have characterized our post 9/11 efforts".
They have been charged with 46 counts, ranging from export violations to making false statements to money laundering to the most serious, dealing in the property of a specially designated terrorist. If convicted, they could be sentenced to maximum penalties of 10 years in prison on illegal export charges, 10 to 20 years for money laundering, 10 years for dealing in the property of a designated terrorist, and five years in prison for making false statements. Read the entire lawsuit here [pdf].
They appeared in court on 6 October 2003 and a trial started this month in Dallas, Texas. The current trial is only over the export violation charges (laid out in full here [pdf]) and the brothers' defence is that they were tricked by a Libyan businessman into selling computer equipment to Libya, when they thought it was only going to Malta. The government says it has evidence otherwise. The case should end in the next week.
The trial regarding the charge that they helped a known terrorist - Mousa Abu Marzook, the ex-head of Hamas' political bureau and their cousin's husband - will begin in September. ®