Countries don't own their Internet domains, ICANN says

It's fighting an effort to seize Iran's, Syria's and North Korea's domains in a civil settlement, saying they aren't property

The Internet domain name for a country doesn't belong to that country -- nor to anyone, according to ICANN.

Plaintiffs who successfully sued Iran, Syria and North Korea as sponsors of terrorism want to seize the three countries' ccTLDs (country code top-level domains) as part of financial judgments against them. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which oversees the Internet, says they can't do that because ccTLDs aren't even property.

After the plaintiffs filed papers to ICANN seeking the handover of the domains, the organization said it sympathized with their underlying claims but filed a motion on Tuesday to quash the attempted seizure.

A ccTLD is the two-letter code at the end of a country-specific Internet address, such as .us for the U.S. or .cn for China. There are more than 280 of them, all of which need to have managers, administrative contacts and technical contacts who live in the countries they represent. The domains in this case are .ir for Iran and .sy for Syria, plus Arabic script equivalents for each, and .kp for North Korea.

But the domains aren't property and don't belong to the countries they point to, ICANN said. Instead, they're more like postal codes, "simply the provision of routing and administrative services for the domain names registered within that ccTLD," which are what let users go to websites and send to email addresses under those domains, ICANN wrote. If ICANN stepped in and reassigned the domains on its own, that would disrupt everyone who uses a domain name that ends in those codes, including individuals, businesses and charitable organizations, the group said.

"Forced re-delegation of these ccTLDs would destroy whatever value may exist in these ccTLDs, would wipe out the hundreds of thousands of domain name registrations in the ccTLDs, and could lead to fragmentation of the Internet," ICANN wrote in its motion. It doesn't even have the technical capability to do what the plaintiffs ask, the group said.

ICANN actually manages Internet addresses under a contract with the U.S. Department of Commerce, and that contract doesn't allow it to reassign ccTLDs on its own, though it can make recommendations, the organization said.

Though ICANN is based in Washington, D.C., and incorporated in California, it was formed in 1998 as an independent body to shift control of the Internet away from the U.S. government. Since then, under a "multi-stakeholder approach," it's moved to spread out responsibility for the global network to other people around the world who have an interest in it. The U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration is scheduled to end its oversight of ICANN in September 2015.

"Rules for evaluating and certifying ccTLD managers have been established by processes, standards and principles developed by the Internet community," ICANN wrote.

ICANN said it has had "very little interaction" with the managers of the three domains, and all those communications have been technical, involving activation of servers or changes in contact information.

Iran's domains are managed by the Institute for Research in Fundamental Sciences, in Tehran, and hosted on two servers somewhere in Iran and one apparently in Austria, ICANN said. Syria's are managed by the National Agency for Network Services, in Damascus, and hosted on four servers. "Two servers appear to be physically located somewhere in Syria and it is unclear where the other two are located," ICANN wrote.

North Korea's domain is managed by the Star Joint Venture Company, in Pyongyang, and hosted on two servers, both of which appear to be in North Korea.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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