Parliament's Portfolio Committee on Communications completed its deliberations on the Electronic Communications and Transactions (ECT) Bill near midnight last night, and the final document contains what all parties characterise as a compromise on Chapter 10, the controversial domain name authority provision.
In terms of the amended version of the chapter, a section 21 company named "The ZA Domain Authority" will take over the South African top-level domain. A board of nine will govern the company, which is effectively a regulator much like the Independent Communications Authority of SA (ICASA).
The board members will be selected from public nominations by a panel of five people "who command public respect for their fair-mindedness, wisdom and understanding of issues concerning the Internet, culture, language, academia and business". The minister of communications will appoint the panel.
The minister must approve and appoint the board members recommended by her panel, and must approve the rules the board decides on.
Membership of the authority will be open to the public for a nominal fee, as is the case with Namespace South Africa, but there will be no elections for representatives of the membership.
Namespace, the body formed to take control over the .za suffix, is less happy with the result but agrees that it is better than the proposal in the original draft of the ECT Bill, which would have given government a far greater degree of control.
"It is a lot better than it was," says Namespace chairman Mike Silber. "We are concerned that democracy has been thrown out of the window in the name of representation."
He is concerned that control of the authority would still rest with the minister, but could not comment on the board appointment process before seeing the final wording of the Bill.
However, he welcomes changes that denied the minister the right to make technical regulations on the handling of the domain name system, and the removal of references to ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, to which SA would have been "subjugated".
"It may be we can live with it," he says.
Current administrator Mike Lawrie is equally cautious but welcomes the move to compromise.
"From what I can make out, from the reports I've had, it sounds as though there has been a distinct improvement," he says. "The fact that there was movement is a good sign."
Lawrie is still the officially recognised administrator of .za. He has control of the domain zone file but voluntary consults with Namespace in running it on a day-to-day basis. For the new government entity to take control, he would have to agree to re-delegate this responsibility.
He recently resigned as co-chairman of Namespace, a body formed at his insistence, but he remains a board member.
Lawrie agrees with Ngcaba that a single individual should not be running .za.
"One must collect wisdom in things like this; one must have the technical expertise, but it is very invidious for one individual to say who can administer [the second level domain] .co.za or that there won't be a .law.za domain."
Like Namespace, he concurs that government must be involved in the running of the country's Internet designation, but like the organisation, he would like to see control remain in the hands of Internet users.
"I agree totally that government has to be involved, but control, no."
But should the proposed authority board be truly independent from government and not under the control of the minister of communications, he says he would consider serving on it if asked.
The compromise was not a political one: Democratic Alliance member of Parliament Vincent Gore says his party voted against it "on the basis that there was still far to much ministerial control, particularly in the making of regulations and the appointment of the panel".
But he confirms that the final version represents a compromise on the part of the Department of Communications.
Ngcaba says the control that the government will have, if a successful re-delegation is completed, will not be used to impose a tax on the use of .za domain names, as many Internet users fear. It will, however, push for representation.
"How many languages do we have in this country? We need all those languages on the Internet," he says. All second-level domains (such as .co.za or .gov.za) are based on English, he contends, and that must change. "We have to have second level domains in Afrikaans, in Zulu, in Sotho, in the other languages."
Ngcaba disagrees with Namespace that a lack of elections means a lack of democracy, arguing that there are many people in SA not organised enough to take part in such elections, except at great cost to the state, but which will have a future interest in the domain system.
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