[Cross-posted on the IT and Public Policy blog]
In his article in the Economist, Kenneth Neil Cukier explains via the spat between comedian Sacha Baron Cohen and the Kazakh government over domain name "borat.kz" that regulating name assignment on the internet is more critical than one may think at first glance.
A lesser known domain name contention occurred in the aftermath of the March 2009 coup d'Etat in Madagascar and is still currently visible online. First, here is a very brief review of the ongoing political crisis in Madagascar:
After months of public protests in the streets of Madagascar major cities, then president Marc Ravalomanana was removed from office by former Antananarivo Mayor Andry Rajoelina with the support of the army.
The coup was highly criticized by the majority of the international community which since then has withdrawn most of its financial assistance to a country that is a highly dependent on international aid for supporting its national budget.
As mentioned in my previous blog post, it was critical for the government of Madagascar to quickly regain the trust of the international community which explains why they extended a great deal of efforts to portray the regime change as a power handover in agreement within the ruling of the constitution and not an army-driven takeover. The effort to gain legitimacy has not really panned out as planned as Madagascar is being asked by the UN commission on Human Rights to explain multiple violations of basic human rights (article in French).
The takeover from the past regime did not only happen in the presidential palace and in the ministry offices, it is also still apparent on the internet. The domain name "ravalomanana.com" named after the deposed president redirects automatically to the official website of the current government "http://www.hat.gov.mg" .
It is a bit unclear and frankly rather puzzling why the current government would even want to be associated with the former president in such manner. Their contempt for the previous regime was unequivocal even before the coup so one can only assume that this domain name redirection is a way to suppress one of the communication outlet of the former president.
A search on who owns the domain name indicates that the ICANN is registered by MONIKER ONLINE SERVICES, INC based in Florida. Another possibility is that the fees for hosting the domain were already paid by the former administration and the current one did not want to pay for additional fees for hosting a new site.
In the end, the egregious confusion over the domain name is certainly not helping Madagascar make the case that they have their affairs in order. It reflects poorly on both the former president who seems not able to control the content of the website that bear his name and it makes the current government look like petty thieves who collect readers who intended to find out about Marc Ravalomanana. In many ways, the manner in which the battle is unfolding online is symptomatic of the outer confusion that also reigns on the national political scene. (The vice-prime minister recently resigned over disagreement with the direction of the transitional government). I think we agree that it would be unfathomable to see anything but the official website of Barack Obama on barackobama.com, yet the confusing situation has now persisted for almost a year in Madagascar.
The Kazakh government insisted on protecting the content of website utilizing the .kz extension and won the battle, rightfully so. This emphasizes the fact that an extension or a domain name is at the forefront of a nation's image, its very first representation to the rest of the world. Evidently many developing nations are still trying to catch up on regulating appropriately domain name assignments.