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January 7, 2016 / bswitaba

The Jostle for .africa (dotAfrica) gTLD; The saga and the long march to Africa’s digital presence

ICANN and ZACR sign landmark Registry Agreement

The signing of the landmark Registry Agreement in Singapore (2014).
Photo Credits: dotAfrica

During ICANN 49 meeting in Singapore, a Registry Agreement (RA) between Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), and the ZA Central Registry (ZACR) for the delegation and administration of the .africa (dotAfrica) Top Level Domain (TLD) was concluded.
The African continent was elated with the news of this historical signing; for the first time, Africa stood an opportunity to pride herself with a much needed unique identity.
But alas before the toasting could subside, the supremacy battles and sideshows between ZACR and dotAfricaConnect (DCA) erupted again with the latter lodging a complaint alleging unfair treatment of its application.
For over two-years, these two parties had engaged in a prolonged fight to become the official registry operator for .africa (dotAfrica).
In previous years, DCA had made attempts to make applications to be the official registry for .africa (dotAfrica), a move that was rejected by ICANN in June 2013. In the following month (July 2013), ICANN oversaw ZACR’s application pass the initial evaluation of the .africa (dotAfrica) gTLD.
The result of this evaluation was published in ICANN’s initial evaluation report.
On the other hand, DCA connived several techniques to have its application reconsidered by ICANN. In October 2013 for instance, DCA officially requested for an Independent Review Process (IRP) to be carried out by the International Center for Dispute Resolution (ICDR).

Despite signing the Registry Operator agreement with ICANN in 2014, a year down the lane, ZACR have not been able to enforce the contract or finish the Pre Delegation Testing (PDT). This follows DCA’s submission of a “Request for Emergency Arbitrator and Interim Measures Protection”, on 28th March 2014. In it’s request, DCA asserted that it was “entitled to a fair hearing and with a role to provide a meaningful legal redress”.
In it’s response, ICANN requested that DCA’s trust request be refused. This did not however deter DCA who eventually got a lifeline when their request was referred for review and consideration to the ICDR Panel.
The Panel would then rule in favour of DCA when it directed ICANN to refrain from further processing of any application for .africa (dotAfrica), until the Panel had heard the merits of DCA Notice of Independent Review process. This decision dealt a major blow to ZACR while to DCA, it was perceived as a glorious one with DCA CEO and Founder Ms Sophia Bekele hailing it.
Ever since, ZACR and DCA have been embroiled in a bitter tussle and jostle in the quest to have control of the coveted geographic brand.

Prominent Internet Governance pundits have nevertheless had a diatribe into DCA’s application stating that it “lacked merit” and accompanying supporting documentation as stipulated by ICANN’s Applicant’s Guidebook for Generic Top Level Domains (gTLDs). ICANN guidelines state that for an applicant to be successful in lodging an application for a gTLD, a minimum of 60% government support is required for it to go through. It is alleged that DCA does not have the required 60% threshold. Technically, this is construed to mean that DCA’s application was “flawed” from the very start and should not have gone through to the evaluation stage.
On its part, ZACR boasts of more than 75% support from Africa governments and is unanimously supported by the African Union (AU).

Why does .africa gTLD matter?

Being a gTLD for the entire African continent, .africa (dotAfrica) has an enormous brand value (estimated to be worth millions of US$), which could be considerably and very profitably enhanced. This may be one of the prime factors as to why it is so hotly contested for by the two parties.
Statistically, there are more than 1000 ICANN accredited Registrars worldwide but only five (5) are based in Africa. According to ZACR, .africa (dotAfrica) thus possess an impressively significant growth and development of a competitive and competent Registrar market in Africa that is bound to directly benefit African ccTLDs, promote enterprise development, as well as increase the accessibility to basic Internet resources and infrastructure to the public.
In terms of content development, .africa (dotAfrica) will be an opportunity to promote African content from developers. Similarly, it is projected that partnering with content providers, social media vendors, governments and NGOs will drive content development and community buy in for the gTLD.
From a marketing perspective, .africa (dotAfrica) will help Identify with the continent, eventually aiding in showcasing brand and commitment to Africa’s growth and development. This will in turn help expand business footprint and influence in the region.

Forward-Looking

Undoubtedly, Africa has been put on another unprecedented long wait to have her unique geographic identity. With the lack of a Modus Operandi between ZACR and DCA, speculations of interesting situations among the concerned parties once the IRP renders its final decision have been rife:
In the eventuality that the IRP rules in favour of ICANN (for that matter ZACR), then DCA’s long resistance may have come to a stretch. However, given the pragmatic aggressiveness DCA is renowned for, and it’s privileged ties with the U.S congress, abiding by the ruling may be a bitter pill to swallow. Rather, it is likely that DCA may instead choose to drag the matter into the corridors of the U.S justice system!
On the other hand, should DCA carry the day, ICANN has a herculean task too – to abide by the ruling, and or head to the U.S judicial system as well to have the IRP ruling overturned.
For ZACR, the scenario is homogeneous in the event DCA is fortuitous in the ruling – the U.S judicial system may be the only option for ZACR to enforce its rights in regard to the signed Registry Agreement with ICANN.

When reached for comment regarding the complexity surrounding .africa (dotAfrica), Mr. Neil Dundas, the Executive Director of ZACR reiterated that the deadline for the Geographic Names Panel (GNP) extension had been set for 28th January 2016. “This is when the GNP must make the final decision on whether DCA’s application has the required government support – If not, the DCA application must be dismissed and the ICANN Board can elect to allow the ZACR application to proceed with the delegation of .africa (dotAfrica)”.
Assuming that this is the best case scenario, then it indeed maybe a sigh of relief, and glimmer of hope that the African continent has been waiting for eons.

As the clock ticks in the meantime, all eyes by the Internet community are set on the 28th to witness events that may unfold – of who will carry the day in the quest to have “Africa in One Space”, and most importantly when the launch of .africa (dotAfrica) will be.
Whether it will be ZACR or DCA that will be triumphant, only time will tell. All in all regardless of the outcome, Africa must prevail.

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The author is an ICANN Fellow, Trainer, Researcher, Consultant in Internet Governance and Policy matters.
Disclaimer: Views expressed here are solely those of the author and should not necessarily be construed to be those of ICANN, IAFRIKAN, any of their organs or agencies nor of any other organisation(s) mentioned or discussed.

The copyright license of this article remains with the author. The translation and publication of this article in other languages is encouraged. For more information, please contact the author.

 

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