The Domain Name System is divided up into a number of Top-Level Domains (TLDs), including generic domains like .com, .org, and .edu, and Country Code Top-Level Domains (ccTLDs) like .za for South Africa, .cm for Cameroon, and .ug for Uganda. ICANN designates who operates a particular ccTLD and sets general technical policies regarding ccTLDs. However, beyond the act of recognition, the ICANN role ends and decisions are made at the country level; ICANN does not have authority over the local policies or distribution of domain names within the ccTLD space.
ICANN (or its predecessors in the early years of the Domain Name System) has assigned the responsibility to administer a particular ccTLD to a company, university, government agency or individual in the country that is technically competent to manage the system. (The Internet Assigned Numbers Authority maintains “Root-Zone Whois Information” that lists the sponsoring organization for the ccTLD of each country, including the administrative and technical contacts and URL for registration services; see http://www.iana.org/cctld/cctld-whois.htm)
Many experts make a strong case for why building an effective ccTLD registry should be a high priority for African countries that want to grow their Internet industry. If implemented effectively, a ccTLD is a valuable national resource that can give a local identity to websites on the Internet. And a well-run ccTLD institution that is sustained as part of a local market can also bring other benefits, such as providing a home for the local technical community to get trained and build businesses.
However, there are a number of questions around the selection of the ccTLD managers, what should happen if things go wrong at the country level, and who decides when something has “gone wrong” that requires intervention. The bottom line is that capable and reliable institutions are needed to run the ccTLDs, and there must be mechanisms in place for dealing with disputes when they arise.
This is the kind of scenario that can lead to problems… A ccTLD manager may have been picked long ago, for what seemed like good reasons at the time. But now the system has outgrown their capacity, and other capable actors apply to take their place (sometimes more than one). A dispute arises between the designated manager and the new applicants, and no one has the clear authority to resolve the matter because many governments have no rules about the management of the ccTLD resource.
Because ICANN endeavors to work by consensus, this can mean the discussion goes on and on with no clear decision-making. Eventually ICANN faces numerous requests to reallocate the ccTLD registry. Everyone involved has a different view. The situation stalls and nothing happens.
Even where governments do have policies for dealing with their ccTLD, some commentators worry that divergent national agendas could fracture the global network, so they call for agreed principles to help harmonize the system across countries. In Africa, the management of ccTLDs varies widely, from the highly-structured .za system in South Africa, to the .so domain of Somalia that at present is not operational.
ICANN currently lacks the institutional competence to handle these kinds of issues. Setting up an international treaty organization to handle these kinds of matters has been proposed, but even if that goes forward it can be expected to take a long time to realize. In the meantime, ICANN needs sensible policies that can be followed that will lead to implementable decisions. And to be good at this ICANN must have local representation on its staff and in its committees to develop and review such policies and processes.