A small island state started pushing to take control of its internet space on Wednesday, in a bid that could lead to serious consequences for how webspace ownership is organised.
Niue, a microstate about 2,400 kilometres north-east from New Zealand, has demanded that the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) grant a “redelegation” of its national webspace, ".nu".
According to Business insider, the request was formally submitted to ICANN around midday Niuean time.
The demand from the government of the country - with a population of just 1,624 - against the supranational non-profit organisation that co-ordinates top-level domains to ensure the internet operates acceptably, is a modern David and Goliath situation.
“This is the big one,” said Pär Brumark, the Swedish domains expert who is representing the tiny Pacific island and advises its government, Business Insider reports.
According to Brumark, the team of professors and legal academics he assembled from major Scandinavian universities have put together a comprehensive analysis of ICANN rules and their allegedly poor administration.
“We’ll lay it all out. It’s a proof of concept of how f**ked up the system is," he said.
How Domain Names Work
In the Nineties, each country was allotted a national webspace (or top-level domain), intended to be managed by the assigned nation's internet community.
Microstates such as Niue, have been seemingly treated unfairly compared with other regional players, who have domestic control over their own top-domains.
Fellow Pacific nation, Tuvalu, for example, receives an annual installment of $5 million from the registry that manages its ".tv" domain.
Likewise, Australia's domain is run by the .au Domain Administration (auDA) - a Melbourne-based non-profit organisation. With support from the Commonwealth, the body is given supervision of the key national asset, providing space for Australian e-commerce, and witnessed a turnover of nearly $14 million in the first six months of 2020.
However, according to Brumark, no one "even made a phone call to the Government of Niue when [the initial delegation] happened".
“And they’ve basically been ignored ever since," he added.
For some unknown reason, management of the .nu webspace was initially given to a Massachusetts magazine editor named Bill Semich.
Despite Niue signing a Memorandum of Understanding with Semich around the same time, it later regretted the decision and claimed not to be fully aware of the financial benefit that national control over its own webspace could provide.
Semich later praised .nu as “the fastest-growing top-level domain name on the internet”, because of popularity in northern European countries, where "nu" translates to "now".
Toke Talagi, the former veteran Premier of Niue who died this year, described the situation as a form of “neo-colonialism” and Brumark calls it “digital colonisation”.
Semich, however, denies he did anything legally or morally wrong. Claiming that the profit from controlling the .nu domain has provided the remote island with internet connectivity.
His IUS-N Foundation also says that it continues to contribute to the maintenance of the island’s telecommunication infrastructure, as well as supporting other community projects.
In 2000, Niue scrapped the original agreement and passed legislation that called for a new formalised deal, which has yet to materialise.
Technical management of .nu fell under the Internet Foundation of Sweden (IIS), the organisation that also runs the Swedish .se domain, in 2013. For Niueans, this was, in effect, ceding control of a national resource to another country.
“It is unprecedented in the history of the internet that the appointed national country-code top-level domain (ccTLD) manager of one nation … takes over a foreign, by national-law protected, ccTLD management of another," the Niuean redelegation request claimed
It argues that IIS is operating the .nu space “in breach of its own founding charter and in absence of the Swedish-law-required permission from the applicable Swedish Governmental Authority".
The request will also contest that Niue’s Digital Communication Amendment Act, the IIS’s founding charter, and the Accountability Framework agreed to between ICANN and IUS-N, are currently in breach because of the present arrangement.
“The business arrangement… constitutes a severe and present threat to the stability and the security of the local internet community as well as the global internet community," the appeal claims.
A Two-Pronged Attack?
Niue lost the legal battle it launched in 2018 to take back control of its internet domain in a bid to claim ten of millions of dollars racked up by .nu web names.
Brumark said that although ICANN redelegations have taken place before, this is “by far the longest-lasting ongoing case and it will be the most thorough redelegation investigation in history".
“We have needed 20 volunteers, including professors and academics, to make this happen. Niue could not afford even to investigate this issue, let alone run a redelegation. There are too many gatekeepers in ICANN that would try to keep them out," he said.
“If I had known this would take thousands of hours and twenty lawyers, would I have gone into this? Probably not. But the people of Niue have become my close friends. And I want to get justice for them."
Brumark is certain of success, claiming that internal papers will ensure that the Niueans are ultimately triumphant.
“We are putting them in a situation where it would be extremely difficult to rule against Niue because that would set a precedent that would complicate their policy system too much.
“It would be a stain on ICANN", he said.
Losing the case could see Brumark take the challenge to the Californian court system, where ICANN is based.
After the lawsuit was initially filed, the IIS denied any lawbreaking, claiming that since most active .nu domain names are registered in Sweden, it's an essential part of the Scandinavian country's national infrastructure.
According to a company statement, the IIS is focused on maintaining and administering .nu in a "robust and stable way".
"Owners of 400,000 domains, of which 150,000 are located in Sweden, rely on this," the statement read.
According to Brumark, Niue is estimated to have lost around $US150 million over the past 18 years because of never having had control over its national domain name.