Battle for control of Internet domain for Africa intensifies

Tuesday July 24 2012

By MUTHOKI MUMO [email protected]

A silent battle is being waged in Africa for a new type of resource. The contested treasure is not oil, diamonds or even land. It is virtual infrastructure.

Two companies are fighting for the right to control a generic top level domain (gTLD) that is expected to represent a unified African identity for businesses and organisations with links to the continent.

Multinational corporations operating in Africa are watching the developments in this battle carefully, assessing the value of the new gTLD from the sidelines and waiting ready to protect their brand identities in a new Internet space, if need be.

gTLDs are basically suffices attached to the end of a web address to identify the class of the site.

They include .com (for commercial entities), .org (for non-profit organisations) and .edu (for educational institutions.

“Kenyan businesses are growing rapidly. They are gaining a regional presence and stand to benefit from the new domain,” said Ms Alice Munyua, Kenya Network Information Centre (KENIC), the organisation tasked with managing the ‘.ke’ domain.

Last year, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) called for applications for new gTLDs — opening the floodgates for everything from .book and .app to .author and .ART. Corporations, such as Bharti Airtel and car manufacturer Audi, have also stepped in to register their brands as domain names in an effort to protect their identities from speculators.

Uniforum, the firm that runs South Africa’s country code top level domain (‘.za’) has entered an application to manage the ‘.africa’ domain, while DotConnectAfrica (DCA), a Mauritius registered firm, has applied for .dotafrica.

Both domain strings are classified as geographic, and therein lies the rub. Before ICANN can approve any new geographic domains, it requires the approval of affected regions.

In the case of Africa, 60 per cent of the countries must approve the new domain and its management.

Uniforum has an endorsement from the African Union Commission (AUC) and nods from about 40 states.

DotAfricaConnect claims that the AUC has reneged on an endorsement it had allegedly awarded it in 2009 and has condemned the organisation’s involvement in the process as fostering uncompetitive behaviour.

“(The AU’s endorsement) is monopolistic and anti-competitive, coupled with problems of lack of transparency and accountability,” said DCA in a statement posted on its website.

Both companies are aggressively trying to woo the continent. Uniforum is leveraging on its ‘.za’ experience and promises of boosting struggling ccTLDs through a fund to be created from the proceeds of the ‘.africa’ domain.

On the other hand, DCA has promised to set-up a registry in Nairobi in partnership with Safaricom and FINCOM technologies Kenya.

“Country domains are not performing well. We will channel surplus funds to support them to the benefit of the whole continent,” said Uniforum CEO Neil Dundas during a press conference in Nairobi last week.

The struggle has also taken a local dimension at KENIC. Over the past five years, KENIC has experienced a high turnover in its management and board.

The organisation has had five different CEOs in four years. The latest CEO, Mr Sammy Buruchara, took office this month.