The ten-year anniversary of an important milestone in the history of the Internet in Canada passed last month without any notice. On March 11, 1999, the Government of Canada wrote to the fledgling Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) to establish the terms under which the new not-for-profit organization would manage the dot-ca domain name space. The Government articulated a vision of the dot-ca domain as a "key public resource" and called on CIRA to act in an open and transparent manner.
More than a million domain name registrations later, many Canadians take the dot-ca for granted. The system works and this bottoms-up creation – it was the (far smaller) Canadian Internet community that worked with the government to develop CIRA – is widely viewed as a success. CIRA has held multiple elections, hosted meetings from coast to coast, eased the prices and complexity of registering domain names, and generally worked to maintain public trust by treating its administration of the dot-ca as a public trust.
While there is much to celebrate, in recent months the organization has shown a troubling yet unmistakable shift toward prioritizing commercial gain over the public interest.
CIRA executives argue that the changes are needed to "diversify and secure" its revenue streams, however, like most country-code top-level domains (ccTLDs), it already has a steady stream of revenue that is more than sufficient to meet its operational mandate. In fact, in common with many ccTLDs, CIRA is set to reap too much money for a non-profit, since the annual renewal of over a million domain names generates millions in virtually guaranteed revenue each year.
Several years ago, the CIRA board (I was a member of the board at the time) set in motion a plan to distribute "excess funds" to public interest projects associated with the Internet in Canada. That proposal received overwhelming support from CIRA members, yet those plans have lagged with CIRA failing to follow-up on a 2006 board resolution that sought to propel the issue forward.
The failure to address the excess funds issue is but one of many policy and social initiatives that have gradually disappeared from the radar screen (or just disappeared completely – a recent website upgrade deleted seven years of board minutes). In 2006, CIRA committed to a review of its domain name dispute resolution policy, spending tens of thousands of dollars on an external report and committing to a public consultation after the report was delivered. The report was delivered in early 2007, but it has never been publicly released, no consultation was conducted, and the board has scarcely even mentioned the issue.
In fact, public consultations, which once formed the cornerstone of CIRA's policy-making process, have similarly disappeared. There have been no consultations over the past two years, during which membership participation in elections has also declined dramatically.
Late last year, the Board agreed to spend $150,000 to develop a business case for CIRA to begin selling even more domain name extensions. Extending the business model has little connection with CIRA's overall mandate, yet no one thought to ask the public what it thought of this shift in approach.
Sitting strangely silent has been the Government of Canada, which has a non-voting seat on the board. The Government aggressively lobbied CIRA to establish a backdoor exception for law enforcement during last year's WHOIS reform (the whois database lists the name and address of domain name registrants), but has done precious little to ensure that the public interest in respected during board discussions.
Ten years after the Government acknowledged the importance of the dot-ca for Canadian social and economic development, the Canadian domain name space sits at a crossroads. The increasingly commercial focus is one potential path, but it is not the only one. Other countries have used their domain name authorities to fund important research, engage in public policy, or even grant every citizen the right to a domain name at no cost.
As we enter the second decade of dot-ca stewardship, now is the ideal time to use the milestone as the basis for a full public review of the goals and mandate of the dot-ca domain.
Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or online at www.michaelgeist.ca.