The Canadian Internet Registration Authority, the agency that administers the dot-ca domain name, holds its annual general meeting in Toronto later this week. Attendees will vie for door prizes and hear from executives about the growing number of Canadian domain name registrations, the robust financial health of the organization, and a small list of corporate by-law amendments. Yet as CIRA moves into its second decade, the promise of a leading Internet voice in Canada and an active, engaged membership is gradually fading away.
Engaging Canadians was viewed as a top priority during the organization’s early years (I was a board member from 2001-06). Meetings were held in communities across the country in an effort to educate Canadians on the dot-ca and to encourage participation in Internet governance issues. The annual general meeting was webcast to ensure all Canadians could attend, even if only virtually.
While CIRA never managed to become a household name – many registrants simply want their website or email to work without regard for bigger policy issues – it could count on hundreds of Canadians to vote for the board of directors, participate in consultations, and show their interest in how Canada’s domain name space should be managed.
Today, most of that interest and energy has disappeared. CIRA has been largely absent from the public policy issues of the day and few members show much interest in its governance. This year, only three people were able to muster the necessary 20 indications of member support in order to appear on a board of director ballot. In fact, one member became so frustrated with CIRA’s support for election debate that he created his own site at ciratalk.ca.
Perhaps the greatest failure, however, has been the stagnation in parlaying the organization’s financial success into a bigger contribution to the Canadian Internet landscape. Rather than focusing on Canada’s domain name registration statistics, where Canada ranks in the middle of the pack as compared with other developed countries, it is worth considering how it has fallen behind other country-code domain names in allocating resources toward Internet public interest initiatives.
In the United Kingdom, Nominet (which runs the dot-uk domain), has contributed millions of dollars to charitable organizations that help disadvantaged groups access the Internet. Similar programs are in place in Australia, which makes annual grants to projects for the benefit of the community.
Other domain name agencies have concentrated on research and policy development. The Austrian agency funds an annual call for projects to enhance Internet access, the Netherlands’ agency supports organizations focused on Internet security and innovation, while the Italian agency maintains a prize competition for student research.
Yet another approach is to concentrate on developing countries. For example, the French domain name agency provides support to the International College Fund that promotes Internet use in the developing world.
A fourth possibility is to remove any financial barriers to domain registration by offering free registration to residents. Citizens of Rwanda and the Republic of the Congo are both entitled to free domain name registrations that run on local servers. In South Africa, nom.za is offered as a second-level domain freely to South Africans who cannot afford other .za domains.
At the heart of these initiatives is the recognition that a country-code domain name is a public trust that must look beyond commercial opportunities to fulfill its mandate. To achieve that goal, CIRA should be thinking about giving away domain names or scholarships, not thousands of dollars in door prizes.
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 email@example.com or online at www.michaelgeist.ca.