Cost In Cyberspace

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Canadian cyberspace "landowners" just had their first-ever election and hardly anyone showed up to vote. Of the roughly 75,000 owners of the 225,000 "properties" like rabble.ca registered at the new Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA), only 3,300 exercised their franchise - about a 4 per cent turnout. The election period lasted seven days.

In a July 11 press release, CIRA President and CEO Bernard Turcotte said, "The newly elected board has a solid mandate from the membership. We are quite pleased with the level of participation in this first election." Eight out of the twelve CIRA board members represent the corporate sector, three are from academia and one stands for the federal government.

Turcotte called it "online democracy at its best."

Others, like dot-ca domain owner Peter Lomath, protested that the election was a sham orchestrated by an old-boys club of business/government types who now control this extremely lucrative cash cow - CIRA. (The entire three-week campaign, an online question and answer forum, is viewable online.)

The real issue is money - lots of it.

How would you like to earn about $5-million a year with a capital investment of about $100,000? That describes CIRA, and it has not even completed year one. The registration authority came into existence November 1, 2000. Growth rates of 20- to 50 per cent are likely. All it needs to run is a few good Internet servers, an excellent online connection, an office and a small staff.

The task of registering a dot-ca domain name is little more than an entry into a simple database program. The job is so easy that, for thirteen years, it was done for free by a few volunteers led by John Demco, computing facilities manager in the University of British Columbia Department of Computer Science. Now, a dot-ca domain name costs about $40 a year, of which $20 goes to CIRA. The other $20 is kept by the registrar, a sort of virtual real-estate agent. Seventy-two such registrar companies have appeared over the last year to cream off these easy millions.

Maureen Cubberley, originally from the public library community, is one of the new CIRA board members. In a recent e-mail, she described John Demco as a "man of conscience worthy of everyone's vote." Demco indeed garnered more votes than anyone else.

In a telephone interview, Demco said, "I have mixed feelings about the CIRA election process." Coming from academia, Demco is concerned about the dominance of corporate interests on the new CIRA board. However, in addition to his position at UBC, he is now a principal of one of the Canada's largest registrars, Webnames.ca.

According to Demco, it was not feasible to continue running the dot-ca domain on a volunteer basis. CIRA was necessary to answer the question: Who gave you the authority? "There was no top down," he says. "It was a grassroots effort. There was never any legislation. We were creating the process as we went along." With its newly elected board of directors, Demco now feels CIRA is an entity with a public mandate to allocate Internet domain-name space in Canada.

Like the vast Canadian forests, or the radio and TV airwaves, domain space is a free, virtually limitless public resource. But like those resources, it can be exploited for huge profit. Hence it requires management and regulation. "It's too hard to set up barriers to keep commercial interests out," says Demco. Issues facing the new authority include Canadian presence requirements (do you need to be physically located in Canada to own a dot-ca domain name?), registration fees (Is a profit of $4-million a year too high for a non-profit organization?), and alternate dispute resolution (Who owns mcdonalds.ca? The McDonald clan, or the burger company?).

Nobody knows for sure what the future holds for CIRA. Will it become like the CRTC or will it be more like its international U.S.-based counterpart ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers)? "As you go through the process of creating an organization, you have to make some decisions and you just hope that you can correct them later down the road if necessary," says Demco. One can only hope conscientious souls like this one will prevail, and CIRA will ultimately represent all Canadians, not just corporate interests.

Barry Shell is research communications manager at the Centre For Systems Science, Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada and a freelance science writer specializing in high-tech topics. Shell also created www.science.ca - profiles of Canada's top scientists. He's written three books, and freelances on CBC radio, as well as for numerous magazines and newspapers including The Globe and Mail, The New York Times, and Adbusters. Contact him at shell@sfu.ca.

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