Masters of our own Domain

The role of a ccTLD administrator is not to arbitrate public morals. While simple rules can be set concerning appropriate use of the domain, they need to be kept to a minimum. The approach we need to take is a minimalist one. There are some terms, for example, that do little or nothing to enhance the public dialogue. Swear words, for example.

But that does not mean that a domain administrator should have any direct role in defining what topics can or should be discussed in the public sphere.

A ccTLD administrator is neither pastor, policeman nor politician. It does not exist to make rules about public morality, nor should it be given powers beyond the minimal set necessary to ensure the smooth operation of its part of the Internet Domain Name Service (DNS).

Vanuatu has laws, and everyone has to respect them. A national domain administrator has a responsibility to uphold those laws, and to the extent that it’s reasonable to do so, it should ensure that those laws are upheld by its stakeholders and clients.

A domain administrator’s role is primarily technical. Most of what they do is make the registration of domains by multiple parties practical, simple and conducive to the conduct of a public exchange of information, for whatever purpose.

[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent.]

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been working on contract to assist the Interim Telecommunications Regulator in conducting a consultation seeking public input on how best to manage Vanuatu’s .vu domain in a pluralistic, healthy commercial ISP market.

A fair amount of technical information necessarily goes into such discussions, and you can read more about that on the Regulator’s website.

The issue of managing Vanuatu’s national domain affects us all. It’s not sufficient for a bunch of geeks to get together and decide everything; we need to make sure everyone in Vanuatu has a clear idea what’s happening.

To that end, I’ve dug through a number of older columns on the subject of what a domain is, how it should work, and what it all means to Internet users in Vanuatu.

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What's in a Name?

Throughout the country, we find that the depiction of the human body, the discussion of certain topics, to be perfectly appropriate in one community, but tabu in the next.

At the core of the problem, therefore, is the question: How can we usefully engage on a discussion of controversial topics – not just pornography, but politics, society, kastom, religion… you name it – if we don’t allow certain words and terms to be used?

[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent.]

A colleague recently sent me a link to a story originating from Ireland, in which the national domain administrator refused to allow the registration of certain terms. I’ll let the author of the original article explain:

‘I’ve been trying to register the domains and for about four years. Every time I try to register either domain, the Irish Domain Registry (IEDR) refuse my application because “the proposed domain name must not be offensive or contrary to public policy or generally accepted principles of morality.”’

(For reference, ‘.ie’ is the two letter domain name (properly called a country code Top Level Domain, or ccTLD) that that signifies Ireland. Vanuatu’s ccTLD is ‘.vu’.)

The writer continues: “I found myself a solicitor who specialises in digital law (e.g. cases involving the Internet) and arranged an appeal against the refusal of registration.

Eventually, a court found that there was nothing inherently offensive about the domain names, but to the author’s astonishment, it still found against him. The rationale? The court had no mandate to intervene with the actions of the domain administrator. The body managing Ireland’s ccTLD is a purpose-built non-profit organisation, and though the Irish government has reserved the right to take control of the ccTLD, they haven’t exercised it. In all likelihood, they wouldn’t, except in an emergency.

Vanuatu is currently taking a look at how its ccTLD will be managed in the future, so it’s worth taking a few moments to consider what we would do in the same situation.

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Kastom in the Virtual Nasara

In Vanuatu, Kastom takes a lifetime to learn. More complex than any set of laws, it’s a tightly woven fabric of behaviour that is in a constant state of redefinition. Defined by respect and mutual support, it is measured and arbitrated by our chiefs and enforced by the community as a whole. It is at once amorphous and innately understood.

Although it manifests itself differently from one island to another, the importance of one’s name is integral to finding one’s place in local kastom. Indeed, the highest honour an expat can earn in Vanuatu is to be given a name. A naming ceremony implies the attainment of (usually honourary) chiefly rank. One’s name, in short, is the ultimate expression of one’s place, standing and role in the community. It conveys the very essence of its bearer.

Practices vary from island to island, but choosing – and using – a person’s name is rife with overtones about one’s relation to others. Expats are often confused, and sometimes amused, by most ni-Vanuatu’s unwillingness to address others by name. People are instead referred to in terms of their familial relationship to the speaker. Where relationships are unknown or ambiguous – between strangers, for example – a local default usually exists. It’s common to be addressed as ‘tawi’ in Tanna, though strictly speaking that would make you the person’s brother or sister in law. In a delightful example of linguistic drift, young women in North Malekula are almost universally addressed as ‘uncle’.

So why, when names possess such a strong tabu here in Vanuatu, do we put no stock at all in how Vanuatu’s name is used on the Internet?
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