• It has been called a controversy, a skirmish but The Economist rightly calls it the Scramble for Africa. It has played out in a disturbingly similar manner as the Berlin Conference, says The Economist. Lawyers in California are at the heart of the tugging, pulling and endless litigations and appeals that are in effect depriving Africa of its own Top Level Domain, .africa. The fight is being fought so far away from home that many Africans have no idea about it. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a non-profit organisation that manages the web’s address book has been at the centre of the storm with ZA Central Registry and DotConnectAfrica exchanging blows over ownership of the domain. With many irregularities and unfair practices as well as vague by-laws to govern the process, this “slicing up of Africa” will take a long time.

    History of the “scramble”

    The .africa Top-Level Domain was initially applied for by DotConnectAfrica (DCA), a Mauritius registered non-profit in Kenya with the support of the African Union Commission (AUC). However, the AUC decided to go through the process and find its own company to run the domain. DCA went ahead and applied independently to ICANN choosing not to snub the AUC’s new plan. The AUC selected ZA Central Registry, a South African non-profit. In the Economist’s words, “ZACR’s ace was not just that it had the support of almost three-quarters of African countries (it needed 60%) but that it had been chosen by the African Union to look after the address book for the continent.” However, an expert third party evaluator contracted for the process by ICANN reported that neither bid could pass evaluation. This was in part due to ambiguous provisions in the Applicant Guidebook and criteria not used by governments in their letters of support. InterConnect, the third party evaluator engaged ICANN to find solutions, making recommendations which were systematically rejected if they did not further ZACR’s case. 

    One recommendation was that the AUC be accepted as a public authority for purposes of the application so as to avoid redundantly going back to the governments for revised letters of support. This meant the DCA’s application would be accepted as it was also underwritten by the AUC thus meaning both bids would be successful under the circumstances. ICANN refused to adopt this position and instead chose to take the Government Advisory Committee’s advice that DCA’s application could not be approved. After the declaration, ICANN was quick to draft a letter of support which the AUC signed with some changes and sent back to InterConnect which was then pressured into approving the application the next day. Documents relating to the arguments given to an independent review panel have been censored by ICANN. The Register details the background to the current DCA-ZACR impasse here.

    An independent review team at the International Centre for Dispute Resolution (ICDR) held that ICANN acted in a way inconsistent with its mandate. ICANN shielded two top officials from questioning in the ICDR proceedings which was based on a revision of ICANN by-laws after it lost a similar case in 2011. In the current case, ICANN employees were found to have actively interfered with the process to ensure their preferred bidder won. After that, ICANN then sought to cover-up its involvement by censoring results of an independent inquiry. In April 2016, an injunction was filed against ICANN after it attempted for a second time to hand the .africa domain to ZACR despite the controversy the whole issue is still consumed by. The ruling came from an American Court which ordered ICANN not to hand out the name to anyone before a resolution had been arrived at.

    What does the DCA v ZACR conflict mean?

    DCA, though registered in Mauritius has set up an affiliate DCA Registry Services Ltd. In Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. ZACR, which was known as UniForum SA is a South African non-profit. This has made the current turf war seem like a Kenya versus South Africa showdown, strangely fought in the United States of America, not Africa. The feeling is that the two countries may be fighting so hard for the domain mainly for foreign direct investments that would pour into the registry host nation. African Union representative, Abulkhirat Esam said, “The dotAfrica domain will be used as a vehicle to promote the development of Africa’s Internet services and ecosystem.”

    The host country will be at the centre of this development the African Union speaks of, which is not only a prestigious honour but is an economic boost. It is a pity that Africa will be detached from the pivotal decision that affects its internet identity. America will decide.