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DotConnectAfrica — disconnected from reality?

DotConnectAfrica’s campaign for .africa (or .dotafrica, depending who you talk to) is getting increasingly weird.

As you may recall, DCA is the Mauritius-based company, headed by the charismatic and telegenic entrepreneur Sophia Bekele, which has been campaigning for a .africa gTLD for the last few years.

It “accidentally” applied for “.dotafrica” — a sign of almost mind-boggling incompetence — instead of the intended “.africa”, but remains confident that ICANN will allow it to change its application to correct the error.

Despite these failings, the firm has put a lot of hard work raising the profile of the .africa gTLD, for which it should be commended. Unfortunately, it’s not going to win.

If anyone is going to get the .africa registry contract, it’s the other applicant: Uniforum, the South African ccTLD registry.

Despite this painful truth, DCA appears to be in denial.

Take this op-ed, published yesterday on CircleID.

In it, somebody from DCA (the piece does not have a byline) states:

DotConnectAfrica remains a strong contender for the DotAfrica string name and actually stands the best chance of being awarded the mandate to operate the .AFRICA gTLD registry

What’s the basis for this confidence?

[DCA] has adhered to, and respected all the guidelines of the new gTLD programme, in addition to accepting ICANN’s oversight of the entire process, unlike UniForum which might be penalized for wrongly attributing the rights of DotAfrica gTLD to the AU [African Union] instead of ICANN in direct contravention of the new gTLD programme guidelines

DCA is essentially saying that ICANN, and not the African Union, should be the body that gets to decide who should run .africa.

That’s true. It’s also complete rubbish.

Nobody, not even DCA, denies that .africa is a “geographic” gTLD application, as defined by the Applicant Guidebook.

You may have noticed that in the current new gTLD round there are no applications that are both “geographic” and contested by multiple applicants. There’s a good reason for that.

According to ICANN’s rules: “If an applicant has applied for a gTLD string that is a geographic name (as defined in this Guidebook), the applicant is required to submit documentation of support for or non-objection to its application from the relevant governments or public authorities.”

Geographic gTLDs only get approved if the government(s) of that geographic region don’t object, in other words.

These letters of support or non-objection are not being published by ICANN, but the public record has quite a bit to say about which governments support which bids.

In the case of .africa, which covers a lot of countries, ICANN requires letters of support or non-objection from 60% of the nations concerned, and no more than one letter of objection from a government.

Uniforum executives told me recently that the company has this 60% support. It also has the explicit, exclusive, unambiguous support of the African Union Commission.

Here’s what the AU has to say on the matter (pdf):

the AU Commission selected UniForum SA (the ZA Central Registry Operator or ZACR), to administer and operate dotAfrica gTLD on behalf of the African community. The endorsement of the ZACR is the only formal endorsement provided by the African Union and its member’s states with regard to dotAfrica.

If DotConnectAfrica wanted to scupper the Uniforum bid, its best bet would be to lobby African governments that are not already supporting Uniforum — such as those that are not members of the AU — in order to secure more than one letter of objection.

That wouldn’t give DCA a chance to win .africa — contested geographic gTLDs do not go to auction — but it would mean Uniforum’s bid would be rejected for want of support.

But DCA is taking a different — and completely inexplicable — approach.

In a June press release, which tried and failed to explain why DCA applied for .dotafrica instead of .africa, the company said:

Uniforum should really be worrying about the more serious problem it has on its hand, to wit: the agreement signed with the AU is with Uniforum SA/ZA Central Registry, but the putative registry operator/applicant for ‘Africa’ is UniForum SA trading as Registry.Africa.

Where is UniForum SA trading as Registry.Africa’s endorsement for ‘Africa’ gTLD? Is it the specious letter of appointment to apply for DotAfrica gTLD, or the purported agreement between the AU and Uniforum SA/ZA Central Registry? DCA Trust will be watching closely to see how UniForum will try to correct these documentation problems to ensure that no illegal acts are committed.

Did you understand that?

DCA is saying that because Uniforum plans to operate .africa under a standard “doing business as” brand of Registry.Africa — something fully disclosed in its gTLD application — its official letter of support from the AU is somehow open to debate.

To make the company look even more out of touch, DCA has recently had an unhealthy focus on the “insidious mass media manipulation” campaign that it reckons Uniforum has been waging against it. Presumably this blog post can be added to that file at DCA HQ.

I’m struggling to recall where I’ve witnessed such nutty PR before.

Oh, wait.

DotConnectAfrica, yesterday

If DCA wants to be taken seriously it’s going to have to explain — in plain, unobfuscated English — one of two things:

1) Which governments support its application (and this letter from 2009 doesn’t count).

2) Why the 60% rule does not apply to its .africa bid.

Until either of those things are clarified, DCA’s messaging is just a confusing mess.

Unbelievably, .africa will be contested

The .africa top-level domain may well be unique — the only geographic gTLD to be contested.

DotConnectAfrica, which has been campaigning for .africa for years, has confirmed that it has applied for the string, despite the fact that another bidder has support of the African Union.

DCA chief Sophia Bekele blogged:

because of the history of the DotAfrica gTLD and our experience during the ‘Yes2DotAfrica’ promotional campaign, we anticipate a prolonged process

The AU in February announced that it was providing its support to a .africa application from UniForum, the South African ccTLD registry.

DCA had previously secured what appeared to be a letter of support from an AU official, but it has since been withdrawn.

According to ICANN’s Applicant Guidebook, if you want to run a geographic gTLD representing multiple countries, you need the express support or non-objection of 60% of those countries.

I’m pretty certain DCA doesn’t have this support, but the AU’s membership does include more than 60% of the nations in Africa.

Is DCA applying in order to get a pay-off from the Uniforum bid? It’s possible, but without the required government support its negotiating position appears to be pretty weak.

Expect objections.

Sedari working on .africa gTLD bid

Kevin Murphy, February 28, 2012, Domain Registries

Sedari has been contracted to support the controversial African Union-backed .africa top-level domain application.

The new gTLD specialist will supply UniForum with its usual suite of financial, technical and policy support services, Sedari said today.

South Africa-based UniForum was given approval for its .africa bid by the AU last week, raising questions over a longstanding rival application by DotConnectAfrica.

UniForum is already responsible for South Africa’s .za country-code top-level domain.

African Union yanks .africa bid support, seeks registries

Kevin Murphy, May 18, 2011, Domain Policy

The African Union has called for registry operators to express their interest in managing the proposed .africa top-level domain.

It has also confirmed that it is not currently backing DotConnectAfrica’s longstanding bid to apply to ICANN to operate .africa.

DCA has for some time been touting its support from a number of African governments, including the AU, which is required for a geographic TLD bid to be approved by ICANN.

But the AU said in a statement last week:

The AU Commission was at some point approached by an organization now known as DCA seeking endorsement and support for in its bid to use of the domain name.

The AU Commission would like to hereby categorically state that it is not supporting any one individual or organization in this bid.

The statement glosses over the August 2009 letter from AU Commission chairman Jean Ping, which offers to aid DCA with its efforts to gain government support for .africa.

With its support for DCA no longer applicable, the AU yesterday issued its official call for Expressions of Interest from experienced registry operators:

DotAfrica will serve a community which spans over a large portion of region, therefore providing registrants with accrued possibilities for establishing their Internet presence. It is expected that the Africa small and medium size enterprises will greatly benefit from DotAfrica, as they thrive beyond their local markets to invade the regional and continental marketplace.

The EOI does not set out any guidance on what the AU expects to see in a proposal – it doesn’t even specify whether it’s looking for a sponsor or a back-end operator – it merely asks for audited financial statements and a potted corporate bio.

The deadline for the EOI is June 3.

The .africa bid has become fiercely political recently, with DCA throwing around accusations of corruption and back-room dealing.

Its outrage has been centered largely on an AU task force on .africa that was created last November, and its chairman, Nii Quaynor.

He is the registrant of dotafrica.org, which was previously used in a .africa bid that competed with DCA’s.

Other task force members are involved with AfTLD, the African ccTLD association that has also announced it is preparing a .africa bid.

In a blog post this week, DCA calls for the task force to be abandoned.

“Corruption” claims as .africa fight heats up

Kevin Murphy, May 9, 2011, Domain Policy

The fight for the right to run .africa as a top-level domain has been heating up in recent weeks, culminating today in claims of “corruption” and “large-scale illegality”.

A organization called DotConnectAfrica has been mustering support for .africa for a few years, but since March it has faced a rival bid from AfTLD, an association of African country-code TLDs.

The contest has already degenerated into quite a fierce war of words, with allegations of corruption coming from one side and counter-claims of FUD coming from the other.

DCA claims the AfTLD initiative is using “double-dealing” to “unfairly” win the endorsement of the African Union, while AfTLD says DCA is using “intimidation” to get its way.

Under ICANN’s proposed rules, any entity that wants to apply for a TLD purporting to represent a large geographic region must secure the support of 60% of the nations in that region.

It’s not explicit, but it’s quite possible that African Union support may cover this requirement. Backing from the AU therefore could be the deal-breaker for .africa bidders.

DCA has a letter, signed by AU Commission chair Jean Ping, dated August 2009, which offers to support the DCA application.

But there’s good reason to believe that this support may have been revoked last year, and that the AU Commission has opened up its options once more.

The Commission last November annnounced (pdf) a new Task Force, charged with finding an entity to act as the official applicant for .africa when the ICANN new gTLD program opens.

DCA seems to believe that this Task Force has been captured by supporters of the rival AfTLD bid. In a press release today, it says:

there is a dangerous nexus between a certain cabal within the AU Task Force on Dot Africa and the AfTLD – and this nexus has been established in order to disingenuously facilitate ‘insider’ help for AfTLD’s Expression of Interest to the AU and prospective bid to ICANN.

The release goes on to make a number of allegations, such as:

AU Task Force members on DotAfrica are also advisors and confederates of AfTLD. DCA believes that such affiliations are unwholesome and foster corruption, nepotism, abuse of office, and large-scale illegality.

DCA appears to be concerned (to put it lightly), that some of the members of the AU Commission Task Force appear to have conflicts of interest.

The Task Force’s chair, Pierre Dandjinou, and its vice-chair, Nii Quaynor (a former ICANN director) have both previously put their names to a different and now apparently defunct .africa project that also intended to compete with DCA for .africa.

Another member of the Task Force, Abibu Ntahigiye, manager of Tanzania’s .tz domain, also appears to sit on the executive committee of AfTLD as its treasurer.

I’m not sure if any of this cross-pollination meets the definition of “corruption” or “illegality”, but I can understand why DCA is worried.

The DCA press release follows an AfTLD meeting in Ghana last month at which attendees were urged to “don’t believe what others claim” and “entertain no intimidation” when it comes to the .africa contest.

A presentation (pdf) delivered by AfTLD general manager Vika Mpisane says: “AfTLD, just like the AU, recognizes no any alleged pre-endorsements of any alleged bidder by the AU.”

Mpisane has been quoted recently heavily implying that DCA plans to put its commercial interests before the good of Africans, saying:

On one side is the self-serving commercial interest that some entities are already championing; these are entities that are in it purely for the money; on the other side is a community-serving commercial interest that most of the African internet community prefers.

AfTLD says it recently closed an RFP for a back-end registry provider to join its bid for .africa (and .afrique, which it also plans to apply for) and will announce the winner soon.

The AU Commission is expected to launch an RFP for a registry manager to endorse.

Competition for .africa heats up

Kevin Murphy, March 10, 2011, Domain Registries

AfTLD, an organization of African country-code top-level domain operators, has announced its intention to apply to ICANN for the .africa TLD.

The initiative appears to be different to and competitive with the best-known .africa applicant to date, Sophia Bekele’s DotConnectAfrica.

AfTLD said that it plans to seek a mandate for .africa from the Commission of the African Union. It also expects to discuss forming a company to manage the bid at a meeting in Ghana next month.

Vika Mpisane, AfTLD’s chairman and general manager of South Africa’s .za ccTLD, said in a press release:

We are not just interested in .africa only, but we want to also take on .afrique, which is the French version of .africa. It’s only natural for us to do this because at least 50% of Africa speaks French. We also intend to have an internationalised version of .africa as well because we have significant Arabic Africa population, but we will start definitely with .africa first.

AfTLD shortly intends to announce a “leading registry services provider” to run its back-end, but indicated that in future it would expect to run the registry from within Africa.

The current version of ICANN’s new TLDs Applicant Guidebook sets the bar for a .africa bid very high, in practice possibly requiring near-universal governmental support.

A bidder for this kind of protected geographic term would require letters of support from 60% of the nations concerned. For Africa, as the Guidebook defines it, that’s about 34 countries.

However, crucially, if more than one African government were to object in writing to any given .africa application, that bid could be killed off.

AfTLD has 24 ccTLD registry members. They’re not all government-run TLDs, of course, so it doesn’t necessarily follow that it already has 24 countries on board.

A key question is whether endorsement of a bid by the African Union could be interpreted as blanket approval from all of its 53 member governments. I don’t think that’s a given, under the letter of the Guidebook.

But if it is, DotConnectAfrica may already be there. It has a signed letter from AU Commission chairman Jean Ping, dated August 2009, that endorses its specific bid.