Who owns the gTLD's?

With news out of the US that the US Government will not end their worldwide blockade of the rojadirecta.org domain, Canadians are left asking who is standing up for their sovereign rights to communicate online.

In late February of this year the domain seizure issue was in the forefront of the media, domains were being seized, and 40,000+  innocent websites were taken off the Internet in a case of serious collateral damage leaving only notices to their visitors that the sites had been taken offline for copyright or child protection reasons. Some of the domains have been restored, but others like rojadirecta.org remain involved in bitter legal disputes which are redefining important precedents like 'prior restraint' and free speech in the United States. There are many good sources of information on the US proceedings, however, I want to talk about the Canadian impact.

In February, at a meeting of Ideas Victoria (where local critical thinkers get together to discuss issues of digital politics, policy and net freedom) it was decided that we would take action to draw attention to this contentious issue. This resulted in the seeding of a digital policy canada working group, and the creation of the "Statement On Canadian Internet Sovereignty" [pdf] which ended up gaining the support of major Canadian stakeholders and significant members of the Internet legal, development and educational communities. With signatures from Canada research chairs to policy lawyers and civil activists, the statement calls on CIRA and the CRTC to create a plan to address the sovereignty issue by Dec 31, 2011.

So far, while there has clearly been an impact from the letter, neither CIRA nor the CRTC have officially responded. The deadline of Dec 31, 2011 was intended to be an implementation deadline for tools to address the problem -- so far, there is no indication that these organisations are preparing any such tools for year-end deployment.

The question largely boils down to who is responsible for Canadian sovereignty online and more pointedly, who owns the gTLD's (like com/net/org/etc). The US clearly would like to be considered the legal owner of these domains, but the reality is that these endings are GENERIC and are from a Canadian perspective regarded as an International Common Property Resource. That the US is asserting its perceived authority over these domains should shake anyone involved in Internet architecture to their very core -- for the US also perceives themselves to own the 'root zone' through IANA and the Department of Commerce. That is, they have the same legal authority over every domain name as they have over com/net/org. Let me make this crystal clear to those who don't understand how DNS works.

Each domain on the internet is resolved to an IP using the DNS. You can think of a domain: www.example.org as www.example.org.root. The .root part is hidden from every day use but forms the basis for the domain name system. Domains are resolved hierarchically -- that is, your computer asks root where org is, asks org where example is and asks example where www is, to finally find a record for www.example.org. The US actions and court documents claim ownership at com/net/org/etc but conveniently pretend like the root is some external jurisdiction - in fact, today's court ruling on the rojadirecta.org domain, reaffirms this misconception -- that the US does not 'own the internet'. In-fact, the US does claim ownership of the root, but delegates that 'ownership' to IANA which then further delegates it to ICANN. The rest of the world just nods and says 'thats nice that you think you own that' pats the US on the head like a puppy dog, and moves along knowing full well if the US ever tried to assert any authority they can, and will simply switch to an alternative dns root. The root, you see is fiat, and has no more inherent value than the people who are interested in using it.

Enter US domain seizures. The US starts taking over some gTLD's and blockading Canadians from accessing foreign websites. The communication is between Canada and Spain, but the US is blockading the site. So what do we do? Do we let the US block our legal, lawful access to foreign websites based on their law? This seems to be the policy decision coming back from CIRA and the CRTC -- do nothing and hope the problem doesn't get markedly worse. But doing nothing is a decision. Like staying out of a war or watching civil rights injustices, a decision to do nothing here validates US ownership of the Internet.

One question that keeps coming up is if the US hasn't seized a dot-ca, why should Canada act? Well, the sad truth is that the US could seize a dot-ca easily, and could do it upstream from the dot-ca delegation. CIRA would have no power to restore the domain. The same legal process that got the .tv seizure warrant can be used against a dot-ca. Simply put, there's nothing stopping the US from ordering the addition of a second level dot-ca domain to the root registries in their control. Our only remedy at that point is to switch the country to an alternative root -- something that is exceedingly difficult to execute and has numerous technical consequences.

So what should CIRA and the CRTC do? Study the damned issue. I've got ideas for how we can address the problem, from diplomatic notes to creating an alternative public resolver, but I'm not advocating that one solution is the best -- rather, I'm suggesting that this issue needs to be publicly studied, and if the study is controversial then the CIRA membership votes and CRTC public hearings are needed on how to proceed. No doubt, this process will be painful, but the alternative is no better. The US, in seizing these domains has compelled us to act, for to not act is to cede these territories to US control. I don't believe most Canadians want our internet destiny to be US governed -- rather, I believe most Canadians would agree that we must plot our own course on digital issues; issues ranging from copyright and the DMCA, to child protection, hate speech, censorship, online spying and cybersecurity.

The US has declared CyberSpace an operational domain, and so too must we. We must fight for our sovereignty or risk losing it.

In that vein, I have been considering running for CIRA board for a number of years, but I've generally felt that the board members and organization were handling things well and declined to run in favour of working on other sides of the digital policy debate. For sure, the dot-ca registry is very well managed, but its the other areas of CIRA's responsibility that are falling at the way side in the efforts to promote dot-ca growth. From DNSSEC to IPv6, Net Neutrality, E164 and now digital sovereignty, CIRA isn't leading. Sure, they're not the only responsible organisation in Canada, and we have a hostile telecommunications sector and a questionable CRTC regulatory body, but CIRA must strive to lead. So I've decided to run for the CIRA board this year and have been nominated by Steve Anderson of OpenMedia. You can read more about that at https://www.kevinforcira.ca

When elected, I'll do my level best to open up CIRA, to bring these net freedom issues to the forefront of the organization and to make Canada lead the world again in progressive technology policy. More importantly, I'll stand up for Canadian Internet Sovereignty and start building the tools we need to protect our interests. So vote for me in September, and lets start fixing this problem.