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Last Updated: Tuesday, 29 June, 2004, 08:46 GMT 09:46 UK
Iraqis seek self-rule on the net
By Clark Boyd
Technology correspondent

Iraq wants to claim new territory for its own, planting its flag in cyberspace.

Iraqi Asaad Y Alnajjar, one of the people who applied to be in charge of .iq
Iraqis want to be in charge of their home on the net
It wants to administer and control the internet domain name .iq, taking it back from a firm in Texas which currently owns it.

The government has officially petitioned the US-based Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann) for control of .iq.

Icann, an international, non-profit corporation controls certain custodial duties critical to the functioning of the internet.

One of those duties is the delegation and re-delegation of so-called top level domain names, such as .com and .edu.

There are also country code domains, such as .iq, Iraq's assigned domain name.

Through a petition process, Icann has the power to assign control over that domain name, as well as to re-assign it, if the situation warrants.

"If there's a country code domain whose previous caretaker has abandoned the job, or is otherwise not a consensus pick anymore, Icann would at least be in a technical position to reassign the name," explained Jonathan Zittrain of Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

Symbolic measure

There is a strong case to be made that the.iq caretaker has abandoned the job.

But it was not Saddam Hussein, the former Iraqi leader who never showed much interest in his country's assigned domain name.

Icann's handling of these top level domain names has been marked by a strong status quo-ism
Jonathan Zittrain, Berkman Center for Internet and Society
The domain name is technically under the control of a Texas-based company called InfoCom, whose owner is a Palestinian, Bayan Elashi.

He is currently on trial in a US federal court. He and his brothers stand accused of funding the hardline Palestinian movement, Hamas.

That helps to explain why the newly formed Iraqi National Communications and Media Commission wants Icann to reassign .iq.

The head of the commission, Siyamend Othman, wrote in May to Icann, saying that allowing Iraqis to control .iq would be "an important tangible and symbolic milestone for this nation".

Getting the domain name could be a slow process.

"Icann's handling of these top level domain names has been marked by a strong status quo-ism," said Mr Zittrain.

"Not wanting to make a change unless is absolutely necessary, or unless everyone is essentially on board."

It took Icann several years to settle a dispute over .pn, the domain name for Pitcairn Island, with a population of 75 or so.

On the other hand, it took Icann about six months to re-assign Afghanistan's domain name, .af, after the fall of the Taliban.

"I think Afghanistan does provide the right model," said Mr Zittrain. "It would be hard for me to see Icann refusing the request as a way of announcing to the world that that country has gone online, has gone digital, and wants to stake a claim to the territory.

"And in that sense, as was true for Afghanistan too, setting up .iq could have helpful symbolic value."

Limited web

The US-led Coalition Provisional Authority recently conducted a survey of internet use in Iraq.

Women at a US computer project in Iraq
Few people have access to the internet in Iraq
In that survey, only about 6% of Iraqis said they have internet access and only 2% said they use it regularly.

But Hayder Aziz, who runs a small technology start-up company in Baghdad, is upbeat about the future.

"There's a potentially a massive market within Iraq for information and information technologies," he said, "essentially it's a technology-starved nation."

To him, .iq could help Iraqis establish their online presence.

"Definitely .iq would be extremely important for Iraqi companies to identify themselves as Iraqi, and for educational establishments and government establishments as well.

"I think it's essential," he said.

The US administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, thinks so too.

He sent an e-mail to Icann on 16 April stating that returning .iq to Iraqi hands will "signal to investors that Iraq is re-building for a hi-tech future".

ICANN acknowledges that authorities in Iraq have asked for help in reassigning the dot-IQ domain name, but that no formal application has yet been made.

In a statement, ICANN says it has advised Iraqis of the re-delegation procedures, and has given them examples of recent successful re-delegations.

Icann says that once Iraqi authorities formally apply for a re-delegation, that application will be processed quickly according to Icann's standard criteria and processes.

You can hear more on this story on the BBC World Service programme, Go Digital

Clark Boyd is technology correspondent for The World, a BBC World Service and WGBH-Boston co-production

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