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The lines are drawn in .za battle

A week ago it appeared that the Department of Communications and Namespace, the domain-administrator-in-waiting for .za, would reach a compromise on the future of SA's top-level moniker.

The situation now looks rather different. Although Namespace and government continued discussions around the issue yesterday, which Namespace described as "constructive but inconclusive”, various parties are already preparing for the battle sure to come if negotiations fail.

Current .za administrator Mike Lawrie, a pensioner who runs the domain as a volunteer, yesterday raised the possibility that he could thwart attempts by government to take control of it. If necessary, he said, he would move the crucial .za zone file out of the country where it would not be accessible to government.

"I will take what civil disobedience I can,” he told a meeting of the Internet Service Providers Association (ISPA).

This, he said, will prevent the realisation of his nightmare of the local domain system crashing due to incompetent administration. Isolating the .za zone file would make it static but stable, with current second-level domains such as .co.za and .gov.za remaining operational, but without the option to create more such levels.

"I cannot put this strongly enough. There will not be a crash, not through anything I do or anything I can prevent,” he vowed. "There will not be a crash even if the government comes in and seizes the primary computer [from which it is run].”

At present, administrator Lawrie's assent is needed for a change of control for the domain, and he has expressed grave doubts about the structure proposed in the Electronic Communications and Transactions (ECT) Bill, which he says gives the minister of communications too much control over the domain. Lawrie is a board member of Namespace, the body created at his urging to take over his job.

Looking for input

UniForum, the administrator of the popular second-level domain .co.za, last night started the process of polling registrants for their opinions on chapter 10 of the ECT Bill, which deals with the .za issue.

UniForum is a non-profit company that handles .co.za through authority dedicated to it by Lawrie. The vast majority of South African domains are registered in .co.za, which is an abbreviation of "company”.

"We are trying to get some guidance from the coza registrants on what UniForum should be doing about chapter 10,” says Calvin Browne, a director at the company. "We want to find out how they feel and take it from there.”

UniForum was involved in the debate around the Bill in Parliament's Portfolio Committee on Communications, but Browne says now that it is in its final format, the broad base of registrants affected need to be heard.

As of this morning, 35 127 e-mails were sent to owners of a domain in the .co.za space (such as itweb.co.za). The mail points to background information on the Bill and a Web page where they can record an opinion ranging from "strongly agree” to "totally opposed” to chapter 10. Only one vote is possible for every domain.

Browne says no firm cut-off date has been set for the poll, but UniForum would like to have data to present to the National Council of Provinces when the Bill comes up for discussion next week. The council is the final body that can amend the Bill before it is passed on to the president to be signed into law.

Black empowerment supports government

The Black Business Council and its member bodies the Black IT Forum, or BIT4M, and the SA Communications Forum (SACF) this morning came out in strong support for government's stance.

The bodies say Namespace can represent the views of only a minority of the population, those that have access to the Internet, while the government should manage all policy relating to the Internet to the benefit of all.

"The move by government is in essence to ensure that transformation occurs and diversity is ensured,” says BIT4M chairman Hasmukh Gajjar. "We do not hear voices of dissent against this Bill from the majority of the population.”

The organisations say the current version of the Bill has their full support, as it is the result of a process that saw comments from industry and the public taken on board, and resulted in amendments of the text.

"Nobody says that what Lawrie and Namespace have done so far is not appreciated,” says SACF president Eddie Funde. "Their efforts are appreciated.”

However, the bodies say the Internet now impacts the lives of all people and extending its reach in SA is a matter of national policy. They believe there is need for an organisation such as that proposed by the government, which can interpret government policy and see that it is applied to, for instance, the administration of .za.

They do not hold with arguments that the technical side of running something such as .za should be isolated from policy matters, nor that the taxpayer will foot the bill for an organisation that will take over the job of a single, unpaid volunteer.

"These are the objections of a few individuals with vested interests,” says Gajjar.

Both the SACF and BIT4M were invited to take part in the formation of Namespace, but declined "because the table was already laid” says Funde.

Related stories:

Govt slammed Namespace ‘by mistake'
Govt tells ‘shadowy' Namespace to butt out
Govt, Namespace find compromise on .za


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