A Trilogy: the tragedy of Internet infrastructure in Afghanistan
The US and other countries have imposed economic sanctions against certain target countries, such as Syria and Iran. These sanctions have had negative consequences for access by the residents of those target countries to a variety of Internet services. Over the years these sanction laws applied to the Internet more fiercely. The dream of an open, interconnected Internet is fading. Now that the head of the newly established Taliban government is on the UN sanction list, it seems likely we are now going to add another sanctioned country to the list: Afghanistan.
There are a few infrastructure elements in Afghanistan that sanctions can affect: generic domain names, country code domain names, and Internet protocol addresses. I will cover these areas in three different blogs. For now, we can talk about what will happen to access to Generic Top-level Domain Names.
Part I. Generic Top-level Domain Names
The Internet uses a system called the Domain Name System (DNS) to make things on the Net accessible to humans. (If you are reading this blog, you likely already know this, but I’ll include it for completeness.) Computers on the Internet address each other through strings of numbers, which are hard for humans to remember. So, for convenience, the DNS maps those numbers to easy-to-remember names like “digitalmedusa.org”. The DNS is hierarchical, so that different people can administer different parts of it. Each “dot” in a domain name is a place where a new person can take over administration in a new “zone” (this is optional, not required). The part at the end (each part is called a “label”) is called a “top-level domain name” because it is at the “top” of the hierarchy. Because on the Internet nobody likes to speak in words when a bit of jargon can make things harder to understand, “top-level domain name” (for example .ORG) is usually shortened to “TLD”. All the TLDs are in a special zone called the root zone, and this zone is administered by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, as one of the functions of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA). ICANN is incorporated in the US, which is significant for this topic.
Generic domain names are domain names that are not assigned on the basis of country. Some have been around for a long time, such as .COM. Others are pretty new, such as .MARKET. While the original TLDs were created before ICANN came into being, the new TLDs were all created according to ICANN processes. Those processes imposed common contractual terms on the registry operators, as well as on the accredited registrars for registering names beneath these TLDs.
Afghan domain name registrants will most likely face the same problems people in Iran and other sanctioned countries face. Problems that I elaborated some years ago, such as confiscation of domain name or forcing a well established business to move, or just ending the domain name with no proper notice. New generic domains registries often have a direct relationship with the registrants, and so have to apply sanctions to those registrants. Sometimes the legacy domain names (such as those ending in .COM) also are taken down through court order .
Unfortunately, due to what might be called private sector over-compliance, the issue is not just limited to the US government block list (or specific sanctioned entities and individuals). Businesses are so risk averse that they don’t even give a chance to normal people living in sanctioned countries to operate their domain names.
Who is going to be cautious from now on dealing with Afghan residents? .NGO, .ACADEMY, .MARKET and a whole host of registrars.
We could have solved this problem by receiving a license from the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). But unfortunately, many actors I have talked to pass the ball to someone else until it finally gets to ICANN. We asked ICANN in a consensus report to file for a license a few years ago, but nothing seems to be happening on that front.
This was the first of the trilogy. Next time we will talk about the .AF fate.