Each gTLD and ccTLD is managed by a registry, whose main responsibility is to maintain and administer a database with all domain names registered in the respective TLD. For example, the .com gTLD is managed by VeriSign, while .uk is managed by Nominet. The actual registration of domain names, by end users (called registrants) is is carried through registrars. In the case of gTLDs, the registry and registrar functions are clearly separated. For some ccTLDs, the registry can also perform the function of registrar.
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) ensures the overall coordination of the DNS by developing and implementing policies governing the operation and evolution of the system. For gTLDs, ICANN concludes agreements with registries (for the administration of each gTLD) and accredits registrars. ccTLDs have a special status, in that ICANN does not set rules for how they are administered and managed. There are, however, several ccTLD registries that have concluded some types of agreements with ICANN (such as accountability frameworks, memoranda of understanding, and exchange of letters), for the purpose of setting up high level principles for the relation between the two parties.
A sensitive aspect in the DNS management concerns the protection of trademarks and to related dispute resolution mechanisms. The first-come-first-served principle of domain name allocation used in the early days of the Internet triggered the phenomenon known as cybersquatting, the practice of registering domain names for the purpose of reselling them later, especially to entities that have trademark rights over the names associated with the registered domain names. The Uniform Dispute Resolution Policy (UDRP) developed by ICANN and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) provides mechanisms that have significantly reduced cybersquatting.
Another important element is related to privacy and data protection in the context of domain names. Currently, registries maintain so-called WHOIS databases containing information about the registered domain names, including data about the registrants. With such information (name, email addresses, postal addresses, etc.) being publicly available, concerns have been raised, mainly by civil rights advocates, who have asked for a redesign of the WHOIS policy. Discussions on this matter have been held within ICANN for the past several years, and a process aimed at redesigning the WHOIS policy has been initiated.
DNS & the creation of new generic top level domains (gTLDs)
In 2012, after six years of consultations and development of a new policy, ICANN launched the new gTLD programme, opening up the Domain Name System beyond the 21 gTLDs existing at that point. Under the new programme, any organisation in the world could apply to run a new gTLD registry, including in non-Latin language scripts, as long as it complies with a series of criteria established in the so-called New gTLD Applicant Guidebook. The introduction of new gTLDs was received with enthusiasm by some stakeholders, who saw this programme as an opportunity to enhance competition and consumer choice in the domain name market. Others expressed concern, especially in relation to the protection of trademarks in the context of the increasing number of gTLDs, and the potential need for trademark holders to undertake defensive registrations of domain names in multiple gTLDs, for the purpose of avoiding cybersquatting. Although the debate on the introduction of new gTLDs continues, the programme is up and running.
Intellectual property was not the only concern. Governments represented in ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC) have drawn attention to the need to implement measures that would ensure the protection of end users and would not harm market competition in the context of the delegation of new gTLDs. As an example, in the case of gTLDs representing regulated sectors (such as .bank and .pharm), governments have proposed measures aimed to ensure that only entities having the appropriate authorisations to operate in such sectors could register domain names in such gTLDs. The protection of geographical names and indicators appeared to be another area of concern: ICANN stopped the delegation process for .amazon to Amazon (the online retailer) after a strong opposition from Latin American countries in its Governmental Advisory Committee. The delegation of .wine/.vin has been intensively debated within the GAC, with countries such as Switzerland and France asking for measures that would prevent the ‘abusive registration’ of domain names representing names of wines for which geographical indications exist (in certain jurisdictions). When ICANN assigned .Africa to a consortium whose application had been endorsed by countries members of the African Union, this decision was contested by a private company.
Other controversies may continue to arise in relation to gTLDs for cultural and linguistic communities. In 2003, ICANN introduced a new .cat domain for the Catalan language – the first domain introduced for a language. This decision was not opposed by the Spanish government, but there could be cases where language and cultural communities requesting the same may have aspirations towards nationhood, and this aspect might cause potential controversy and conflict with existing states.
The management of country code top level domains (ccTLDs)
The management of ccTLDs involves three important issues. The first concerns the often politically controversial decision as to exactly which country codes should be registered when dealing with countries and entities with unclear or contested international status (e.g. newly independent countries, resistance movements). One controversial issue was the allocation of a Palestinian Authority domain name. In justifying its decision to assign the .ps TLD, IANA reiterated the principle of allocating domain names in accordance with the ISO 3166 standard for country codes, as was proposed by Jon Postel, one of the founding fathers of the Internet.
The second issue concerns who should manage ccTLDs. Currently, there are many registry models in place for ccTLDs. In some cases, the registry is a governmental entity (a national regulatory authority, a research institute within the government, etc). There are also countries where the government sets the rule for the management of the ccTLD, but leaves the actual administration in the hands of the private sector. In yet other instances, private companies manage the ccTLDs, with no involvement from the governmental side. In addition, there are several multistakeholder ccTLD registries, whose management structures include representatives of the various stakeholder groups.
If in the early days of the Internet, governments did not seem to be very interested in ccTLDs, things have changed lately, with some governments trying to gain control over their country domains, which they consider to be national resources. Transition (re-delegation) to a new institution managing the ccTLD (delegee) within each country is approved by ICANN only if there is no opposition from interested stakeholders within the country.
The third issue relates to the fact that ICANN imposes no rules as to who should manage ccTLDs, and how these should be managed. ICANN, through IANA, goes as far as delegating or redelegating ccTLDs on the basis of some high level guidelines aimed to ensure that the ccTLD registry is technically competent to manage it, with the support of the local community.
In 2005, ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee adopted a set of Principles and Guidelines for the delegation and administration of country code top level domains, which were intended to serve as a guide to the relationship between governments, ccTLDs and ICANN. One of the key principles outlined in this document, which does not have a binding status, is subsidiarity, according to which ‘ccTLD policy should be set locally, unless it can be shown that the issue has global impact and needs to be resolved in an international framework’.
As mentioned above, several ccTLD registries have concluded some types of agreements with ICANN setting up high level principles for the relation between them. However, at the same time, some ccTLD operators have shown reluctance to become part of the ICANN system.
The creation of internationalised domain names (IDNs)
The Internet was originally a predominantly English-language medium. Through rapid growth, it has become a global communication facility with an increasing number of non-English-speaking users. For a long time, the lack of multilingual features in the Internet infrastructure was one of the main limits of its future development.
In May 2010, after a long testing period and political uncertainties, ICANN started approving TLDs in a wide variety of scripts, including Chinese, Arabic, and Cyrillic. IDNs have been introduced in several countries and territories as equivalent to their Latin country code top level domains (ccTLDs). For example, in China, 中国 has been introduced in addition to .cn, while in Russia, рф has been introduced in addition to .ru. IDNs are also part of ICANN’s new gTLD programme, allowing for the registration of new top level domains (gTLDs) in scripts other than the Latin one; for example, .сайт (website) and .онлайн (online) are among the new TLDs available to the public.
The introduction of IDNs is considered to be one of the main successes of the Internet governance regime. However, limitations remain, as universal acceptance is still a challenge when it comes to issues such as functional IDN e-mails and recognition of IDNs by search engines.
Transition of NTIA's role
On 14 March 2014, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) of the USA announced its intention to transition its role and responsibilities with regards to the root zone and the IANA functions (which, besides the administration of the DNS root zone, includes responsibilities related to the Internet protocol parameters and allocation of Internet numbering resources). ICANN launched a global consultation process, coordinated by the IANA Stewardship Transition Coordination Group (ICG), looking for a proposal to transition the stewardship of the IANA functions from the US government to the global multistakeholder community. Specific proposals from the three operational communities (the domain names community, the Internet numbers community, and the protocol parameter registries community) were incorporated by the ICG into a unitary proposal that was finalised in October 2015. In June 2016, the US government announced that the transition proposal meets the criteria necessary to complete the privatisation of the IANA functions. On 1 October 2016, the IANA functions contract between the US government and ICANN expired, and the stewardship of the IANA functions was transitioned to the global multistakeholder community.