Dr Hosni Tayeb and the case of the disappearing Internet
Why Libya went awol
At the weekend, Libya suddenly disappeared from the Internet. For four days not a single .ly domain was available. Even now, only a tiny percentage of the estimated 12,500 domains, paid for at $500 a pop, are accessible.
It's not often that an entire country vanishes from view and the Internet community immediately set out to find out what was going. What has been discovered since then makes for even more curious reading. And it all centres on one Dr Hosni Tayeb, the "caretaker" of the domain but whose legitimacy is now under question by Centr, the international body that represents country-code top-level domains (ccTLDs).
On Wednesday 7 April, the primary nameserver for all .ly domains stopped responding. This was not a failure as many had first assumed but done in response to a battle between the company running and selling Libyan domains - Lydomains.com - and Dr Tayeb who had approached the company running the nameserver and insisted he had greater authority.
The nameserver is based in the UK and is run by UK company Magic Moments. Its client, Lydomains.com, is based in Macclesfield and represented by a Libyan, Kalil Luheshi. Lydomains has been the main sales point for all .ly domains for several years.
Following the dispute over ownership of .ly and an unanswered appeal to the Internet Assigned Names Authority (IANA), the Internet body that decides who runs ccTLDs, to make a decision, Magic Moments decided to duck out of the battle and stopped its server from answering requests for .ly domains.
On 9 April, the secondary server went offline and Libya disappeared from the Internet, according to the Internet Corporation For Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN - which unusually made a public statement on the matter after being inundated with queries.
The secondary nameserver is one of the largest in the world and was chosen as a stable second server in case anything went wrong. It was however simply slaved to the primary so when the primary server stopped serving requests, so did it.
It was the Easter weekend and only at midnight on the Tuesday did the secondary server start answering .ly requests again. It does not appear to contain all the .ly websites' DNS records though and a large number remain invisible.
Lydomains.com knew that Magic Moments was about to turn off its server and sent an email to its customers, blaming IANA for "unilateral action". "The ccTLD .ly has made repeated official requests to the above authority to relocate the Name Servers to an independent environment to ensure the continued operation of the .ly zone," the email read. "Unfortunately, these requests, so far, have been declined by IANA."
IANA is famously picky about nameserver changes. If a request isn't done in the right way, with the right authorisation, in the right format, it ignores the request.
However the situation is made more complicated by the fact that the ownership of the .ly domain is under dispute and a redelegation request has been ongoing since 2002. An IANA statement (coming from ICANN) said: "Due to the ongoing discussions on the re-delegation process, IANA has in fact made no changes to the .ly domain. ICANN is currently working with the parties involved to obtain an appropriate solution which benefits the end user."
An apple a day It was at this point that Dr Hosni Tayeb appeared. Dr Tayeb sent out an email on the morning of 14 April in which he explained that he was in charge of .ly and everything was fine. It came from a Tunisian email address.
"Dear all, Thank you very much for your concern about .ly cc TLD. People do care around!," it started. "Concerning the actual situation, we have assigned a new root service company that will deliver a better service to the code country of Libya . We have informed IANA to do the technical modification necessary. And we are waiting for IANA to do the necessary modification and very soon the www.nic.ly will be active and if you need any more information you can contact me and I will be glad to answer any question."
"Let me remind you guys that everything that is related to the management of .ly ccTLD is done through the www.nic.ly . Network Information Center of Libya. Sincerely yours, Dr Hosni Tayeb .ly ccTLD Caretaker."
But IANA is far from deciding who is in charge of the .ly domain and Dr Tayeb's www.nic.ly domain remains offline while Lydomains.com is still online, although its Whois doesn't work. IANA and ICANN's official line - as ever - is that it prefers people to come to agreement between themselves over who runs a top-level domain.
There are several examples where it hasn't done this - most notably Australia - but for the most part, ICANN tries to stay out of arguments. The problem is that Dr Hayeb and Mr Luheshi seem incapable of agreeing.
History of Libya's Internet
Dr Tayeb provided a potted history of Libya's Internet when he applied to the international group Centr for membership. Alshaeen for Information Technology was given control over the TLD in April 1997. Two years later, in September 1999, it went live. Dr Tayeb says he was a member of Alsaheen's board.
What makes the whole situation so complicated is that Alsaheen is still listed as the official owner of .ly but everyone - including ICANN - agrees that it no longer exists. A call to its offices' listed number provides a woman who answers "Hello" and then claims not to speak any English.
According to Dr Tayeb, he set up the Alfoursan International Company with a Tripoli headquarters in 2000. He is both president and CEO. On 24 February 2000, Alsaheen and Alfoursan became the same company, and control of the Libyan top-level domain moved to Alfoursan.
Dr Tayeb says this change was communicated to and accepted by IANA. However, the IANA record still holds Alsaheen as the owner and recognises Dr Tayeb as only the "caretaker" of the domain. All .ly domains from that point until a week ago were sold through Lydomains.com.
Dr Tayeb claims that he has proof that Alsaheen signed over the domain to Alfoursan and has endeavoured to get the record changed to his company through an IANA redelegation. It is believed - although IANA will not state - that Mr Luheshi disputed the redelegation and so the domain is left in limbo with no one officially owning it.
But Mr Luheshi did have a commercial relationship with the company running the nameserver that the .ly domain was pointed at and so had effective control over the domain. So Dr Tayeb approached Magic Moments to insist it work with him rather than Mr Luheshi.
If Dr Tayeb does have evidence that his company owns the domain and with the domain now effectively in stasis, it should prompt IANA into stepping in to decide the ownership issue. However, things are further complicated by Dr Tayeb's behaviour.
Despite promising to answer any email questions, he has so far failed to respond to any requests for more information. The two contact telephone numbers he has given in Libya do not work. And as his associate and translator Sami Turki made clear in a February meeting of Centr in Austria [pdf] - where Dr Tayeb was seeking membership of the organisation - that Dr Tayeb spends most of time at his home in neighbouring Tunisia: hence the Tunisian email address.
Also at that meeting, the representative for Switzerland, Marcel Schneider, asked what the relationship between Dr Tayeb's domain registrar, NIC L, and the Libyan government. He was told the registry was half-owned by the education ministry.
The representative for Norway, Hilde Thumen said Centr should get hold of the contract Dr Tayeb claimed he had between Alsaheen and Alfoursan. And the minutes record that others asked for proof of the Libyan government's stake in NIC LY.
However, further doubts were raised at the meeting when Gabriella Schittek, the person in charge of Centr membership, related a conversation she had had with ICANN's lawyer, Teresa Swinehart. Swinehart explained that ICANN was already talking to a different body about running the .ly domains, Ms Schittek said. The inference we draw from this conversation was soon Dr Tayeb would be irrelevant and so granting him membership on the basis of him being in charge of the domain would be incorrect. We believe the different body referred to by Swinehart, to be Mr Luheshi and Lydomains.com.
For these reasons, Dr Tayeb was granted the position of "Observer" but not given full-membership. That position was also subject to Dr Tayeb producing evidence of his claims.
Ms Schittek told us that Dr Tayeb had produced documents to support his claims but they were only in Arabic. Centr, she explained, was considering his position in the light of recent events. She also told us that Dr Tayeb has been refused membership in February 2002, at Centr's French meeting, again because ICANN acknowledged him only as a caretaker to the domain.
Rocking all over the world
Doubts over his legitimacy have not prevented Dr Tayeb from becoming recognised elsewhere in the Internet communit. He and Sami Turki are both leading forces in the Arabic Internet Names Consortium (AINC), which seeks to represent Arabia states in the wider Internet world.
Both are on the Board of Directors and head two of the most powerful committees. Dr Tayeb is chairman of the Arab League & UN Committee, and Mr Turki is chairman of Financial & Membership Committee, with Dr Tayeb as a member. Dr Tayeb is also a member of the ccTLD Committee.
Both Dr Tayeb and Sami Turki has attended several ICANN meetings across the globe as .ly representatives. In Accra in March 2002, Shanghai in October 2002, Rio de Janeiro in March 2003 and Carthage in 2003, they were listed an official delegates and mixed happily with the leading figures of the Internet.
ICANN - you can't
So where do we stand? It's impossible to tell. Dr Tayeb appears to have a legitimate claim to the Libyan domain but the organisation in charge - IANA - is known to be talking to another party. However, IANA refused to change the .ly nameservers for that company because of the Catch-22 situation that it is not registered as the official owner - the official owner being a company that no longer exists.
Mr Luheshi is refusing to answer questions left on his phone and sent through email. Dr Tayeb has equally not responded to emails and his phone contact numbers do not work. Meanwhile, ICANN and IANA refuse to disclose any details of the redelegation or even if they are willing to step in to end the impasse.
In short, it is a complete mess and should raise some very serious questions over how authority in the Internet's infrastructure is decided. It is also, again, a damning indictment against ICANN culture of secrecy which has meant that no one - not even those that are claiming ownership of the domain - know what is going on.
Should a squabble between owners lead to an entire country's Internet presence disappearing? Clearly not. And once the problem has finally been resolved, ICANN would do well to make space at its next meeting to discuss what lessons can be learnt from this whole sorry saga. ®