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What time is it? For ICANN, even that can be a controversial question

Kevin Murphy, June 21, 2019, Domain Tech

ICANN has found itself involved in a debate about whether Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea should be recognized.

It’s not unusual for ICANN to find itself in geopolitical controversies — see .amazon for the most recent example — but this time, it’s not about domain names.

It’s about time zones.

One of the little-known functions ICANN provides via its IANA division is the hosting of the so-called TZ Database, which keeps track of all international time zones, daylight savings time practices, and so on.

The database is referenced by scores of operating systems, web sites, libraries and software development kits. It’s used by MacOS, many major Unix/Linux distributions, Java and PHP.

IANA took over the database in 2011, after the original administrator, David Olson, was hit with a bogus lawsuit from an astrology company.

It’s currently managed by University of California computer scientist Paul Eggert. He’s not an ICANN employee. He’s responsible for making changes to the database, which IANA hosts.

There are no complex layers of policy-making and bureaucracy, just an ICANN-hosted mailing list. it very much harks back to the pre-ICANN/Jon Postel/Just A Guy model of international database administration.

But because time zones are set by the governments of territories, and the ownership of territories is sometimes in dispute, the TZ Database often finds itself involved in political debates.

The latest of these relates to Crimea.

As you will recall, back in 2014 the Russian Federation annexed Crimea — part of Ukraine and formerly part of the Soviet Union.

The United Nations condemned the move as illegal and still refuses to recognize the region as part of Russia. The de facto capital city of Crimea is now Simferopol.

As part of the takeover, Russia switched its new territories over to Moscow Time (MSK), a time zone three hours ahead of UTC that does not observe daylight savings.

The rest of Ukraine continues to use Eastern European Time, which is UTC+2, and Eastern European Summer Time (UTC+3).

This means that in the winter months, Crimea is an hour out of whack with the rest of Ukraine.

Currently, the TZ Database’s entry for Simferpol contains the country code “RU”, instead of “UA”.

This means that if you go to Crimea and try to configure your Unix-based system to the local time, you’ll see an indication in the interface that you’re in Russia, which understandably pisses off Ukrainians and is not in line with what most governments think.

You can check this out on some time zone web sites. The services at time.is and timeanddate.com both refer to Europe/Simferopol as being in Ukraine, while WorldTimeServer says it’s in Russia.

The TZ Database mailing list has recently received a couple of complaints from Ukrainians, including the head of the local cyber police, about this issue.

Serhii Demediuk, head of the Cyberpolice Department of the National Police of Ukraine, wrote in December:

by referring Crimea with the country code “RU”, your organization actually accepts and supports the aggressive actions of the Russian Federation who’s armed forces annexed this part of Ukraine. Such recognition may be considered as a criminal offense by the Ukrainian criminal law and we will be obliged to start formal criminal proceedings

It’s the longstanding principle of the TZ Database administrators that they’re not taking political positions when they assign country-codes to time zones, they’re just trying to be practical.

If somebody shows up for a business meeting in Crimea in December, they don’t want their clock to be an hour behind their local host’s for the sake of political correctness.

But Eggert nevertheless has proposed a patch that he believes may address Ukrainian concerns. It appears to have Simferopol listed as both RU and UA.

The IANA transition in a nutshell

Kevin Murphy, February 27, 2015, Domain Policy

The US plan to remove itself from its unique DNS oversight role is about creating a coalition of nations to thwart attempts by Russia and other “authoritarian” countries to increase government control of the internet.

That’s according to Larry Strickling, assistant secretary at the US National Telecommunications and Information Administration, who delivered a beautifully succinct explanation to confused senators at a hearing in Washington DC this week.

Despite unnecessary diversions into issues such as net neutrality and copyright protection — which I’m sure was not at all due to senators trying to score points with their corporate paymasters — the Commerce Committee hearing was surprising well-informed and not nearly as angry as it could have been.

Senators, mostly Republicans, reiterated their concerns that for the US to give up its role in the IANA functions contract could invite a takeover of ICANN by unfriendly nations such as China and Russia, thereby harming internet freedom.

At one point, Strickling was asked by a senator: “If there’s not a problem, what are we trying to fix here?”

His answer was one the best explanations of the political back-story of the transition that I’ve heard, so I’m going to quote it in full here.

There has been a problem, sir. At the end of 2012 when the world’s governments got together in Dubai for the ITU WCIT — World Conference on International Telecommunications — you had around 80 countries who voted to say the ITU needs to be more involved in internet governance. These were largely countries in the developing world siding with the more authoritarian regimes.

Part of the impetus for this was the continued irritation that many governments have, that has been exploited by authoritarian countries, that the United States with its special role with ICANN is in a position to control the internet in these developing counties and to turn it off in these countries and to otherwise interfere with the ability of countries to manage their own affairs with respect to the internet.

After this [IANA transition] announcement was made the next two large international meetings at which governments came together you saw a major change in position among the developing countries. We didn’t see any change in position from the authoritarian countries — and you’re not, they’re not going to change their views on this. But the key to succeeding in this on the global stage is to bring the rest of the world along with us, and that’s what we saw at the NETmundial conference in Brazil last April where the only countries who spoke out against the multi-stakeholder model of internet governance were Russia and Cuba.

We then flash forward to the ITU plenipotentiary conference in Busan last November and again you had Russia with the same proposals it’s been making for 10 years: that these functions ought to be transferred to the ITU and managed by governments. And that was beaten back by a coalition of developed and developing countries. So we’ve seen immediate results, or significant results, by the basis of our having been able to take this issue off the table for these countries, to get them to look at what’s really best for them without this overhang of a US role that was unique among governments and which was a source of irritation to governments and was being exploited to our detriment by foreign governments.

The fact of the matter is that the role we play with respect of the IANA functions is a clerical role. It’s truly stewardship. As I said before, we don’t provide any oversight of the policy judgments that ICANN and the multi-stakeholder community make. We participate as a government in the Governmental Advisory Committee, and we will continue to do that in future and will be vigorous advocates for a free and open internet.

The special role we play with respect of the IANA functions is totally administrative and clerical, yet it has been exploited by other governments — authoritarian governments — to our detriment. We’ve taken that off to the table by announcing this transition and as we complete it we will continue to see the benefits of that through the continued adoption and support for this model by the developing world.

His views were echoed by ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade more than once during the hearing, talking about how the transition process is designed to bring on board the “middle countries”, rather than already-allied nations or the fringe, minority authoritarian countries.

He cited Brazil as the key example of a government once in favor of more ITU control of the internet that is now, largely due to Chehade’s outreach and its key role in the NETmundial conference, firmly in the multi-stakeholder model camp.

The entire archived hearing can be viewed here.

Amid Ukraine crisis, Russia scared ICANN might switch off its domains

Kevin Murphy, September 19, 2014, Domain Policy

Russia is reportedly worried that the current wave of Western sanctions against it may wind up including ICANN turning off its domain names.

According to a report in the local Vedomosti newspaper, the nation’s Security Council is to meet Monday to discuss contingency plans for the possibility of being hit by internet-based sanctions.

Part of the discussion is expected to relate to what would happen if the US government forced ICANN to remove the local ccTLDs — .ru, .рф, and the discontinued .su — from the DNS root, according to Vedomosti’s source.

The paper reports, citing a source, that “officials want to control the entire distribution system of domain names in RUnet entirely”. RUnet is an informal term for the Russian-language web.

The report goes on to explain that the government’s goal is not to isolate the Russian internet, but to ensure it remains functioning within the country if its ccTLDs are cut off in the rest of the world.

Russia has been hit by sanctions from the US and Europe in recent months due to its involvement in the Ukraine crisis, but so far these have been of the regular economic kind.

Frankly, I find the possibility of the US government asking ICANN to intervene in this way — and ICANN complying — unlikely in the extreme. It would go dead against the current US policy of removing itself almost entirely from the little influence it already has over the root system.

Some IDNs fly, while some fail

Kevin Murphy, August 14, 2011, Domain Registries

Russia may have witnessed a domain name boom this year with the launch of .РФ last November, but other internationalized domain names are proving far from popular.

Jordan’s الاردن. country-code top-level domain has taken only about 150 registrations since its launch last October, according to a report in the Jordan Times.

The poor showing has been attributed to both a lack of awareness and a lack of demand. The article quotes Mahmoud Al Kurdi, sales and marketing manager at regional presence provider Virtuport:

If a person does not even know how to type the address of a certain website in English letters, he or she can type in Arabic letters on Google and search for the website. I see no point in typing address in Arabic letters. It is not convenient.

The sentiments are echoed in the article by other local experts, while the registry, the National Information Technology Centre, said it is planning a marketing campaign to drum up interest.

There could be other reasons for slack adoption – Jordan’s IDNs costs $140 for the first two years and $35 per year thereafter. There are also strict rules governing who can register.

Meanwhile in Russia, .РФ had taken 855,751 registrations by June 30, according to the registry’s first-half 2011 report, following its scandal-tinged launch eight months earlier.

Russia is of course substantially larger than Jordan – which has a population smaller than that of London – with ten times as many internet users as Jordan has citizens.

The Top Ten Hottest Posts of 2010

Kevin Murphy, December 29, 2010, Gossip

Tumbleweeds are blowing through the domain name industry this week, which makes it an excellent time to take a look back at 2010, in the form of a list of this blog’s most widely read posts.

In descending order, here are the top ten DomainIncite stories of 2010:

ICANN had no role in seizing torrent domains
When ICANN stood accused by the blogosphere of helping the US government shut down dozens of .com domains in November, it took the organization a full week to officially deny it. In the meantime, it kicked off a Twitter campaign encouraging people to visit this post, making it the year’s most-read by some margin.

dotFree’s “free” domain names explained
Everyone wants something for nothing, so when I provided the first interview with the chief executive of the recently launched dotFree Group in August, it gathered a lot of attention. It turned out .free domains may not be as “free” as some had hoped.

WordPress.com becomes a domain name registrar
When I spotted that WordPress.com owner Automattic had received an ICANN registrar accreditation, company CEO Matt Mullenweg was good enough to link back to this post when he subsequently announced the move to his readers in October.

First reactions to ICANN’s VI bombshell
It was the biggest shake-up in the domain name industry in a decade – ICANN announced in November that it would start letting registrars and registries own each other. The full repercussions have yet to be felt, but this post summarized some of the early reactions.

ICANN will not attend White House drugs meeting

When and how governments and law enforcement should be able to block domain names is an ongoing hot topic for the industry. This September post broke the news that ICANN would not participate in US talks about blocking “fake pharmaceuticals” web sites.

Porn group starts anti-XXX campaign
The ongoing .xxx drama continues to be one of the key domain name industry stories that plays just as well with a mainstream readership. In addition, including the keywords “xxx”, “group” and “porn” in the same headline has proven disturbingly useful for acquiring search engine traffic.

Gaming scandal hits Russian domain launch
Internationalized domain names finally arrived on the internet in 2010, and the launch of Russia’s .РФ (.rf) IDN ccTLD was easily the biggest success story. It has racked up almost 700,000 registrations in the last two months, but was hit by allegations of registrar gaming, which I reported on here.

ICANN told to ban .bank or get sued
The road to the approval of ICANN’s new gTLD program was widely anticipated to have wrapped up by the end of the year. It didn’t, but that didn’t stop some eleventh-hour special pleading by organizations such as the Financial Services Roundtable.

Whistleblower alleged shenanigans at DirectNIC
DirectNIC has had its fair share of legal troubles in 2010. First it was sued for cybersquatting by Verizon (which it denied) and then, as I reported in this December post, a former employee alleged a complex scheme to make money through fraudulent domain arbitrage (which it denied, then settled).

Survey reveals demand for .brand TLDs
A World Trademark Review survey revealed mixed reactions from trademark lawyers and corporate marketing departments to new TLDs, but it did reveal that most companies would use their “.brand” TLD, if they had one, as their primary online address.

Let’s hope 2011 brings such a diverse range of interesting topics to write about. I’m certain it will.

Gaming scandal hits Russian domain launch

Kevin Murphy, November 24, 2010, Domain Registries

The launch of Russia’s .РФ country-code top-level domain, widely lauded as a runaway success story, has been tainted by a registrar gaming scandal.

Government antitrust authorities are investigating six registrars over claims that they registered tens of thousands of premium domains in order to auction them to end users, according to local reports.

The registrars in question are thought to have colluded, using each others’ services to register the names, hence the competition probe.

The largest registrar, Regional Network Information Center, aka RU-Center, is alleged to have registered 65,000 domains during the first days of the .РФ launch in order to profit from auctions.

These domains have been frozen pending resolution of the dispute. The registry, Coordination Center for TLD, is thinking about cancelling the registrars’ accreditations.

RU-Center is quoted as saying, laughably, that the premium domains were registered in order to prevent cybersquatting.

In a statement, the registry questions the public good of registering проститутки.рф, which apparently means “prostitute.rf” and is currently asking $190,000 at auction.

The investigation certainly takes the gloss off the launch, which has so far racked up well over 500,000 registered domains and was put forth as case study for internationalized domain names.

US and Russia face off over ICANN veto power

Kevin Murphy, October 6, 2010, Domain Policy

The ruling body of the International Telecommunications Union this week kicked off a major policy-making meeting in Guadalajara, Mexico, and has already seen the US and Russia taking opposing stances over the future control of ICANN.

A group of former Soviet nations, chaired by the Russian Federation’s Minister of Communications, seems to have proposed that the ITU should give itself veto power over ICANN decisions.

A proposal filed by the Regional Commonwealth in the field of Communications (RCC) calls for the ICANN Governmental Advisory Committee to be scrapped and replaced by an ITU group.

Consideration should be given to the expediency of having the functions of GAC carried out by a specially-constituted group within ITU with the authority to veto decisions adopted by the ICANN Board of Directors. If it is so decided, the ITU Secretary-General should be instructed to consult ICANN on the matter.

The proposal was first noted by Gregory Francis at CircleID.

It says that the GAC is currently the only avenue open to governments to “defend their interests” but that it has “no decision-making authority and can do no more than express its wishes”.

It also notes that fewer than 50% of nations are members of the GAC, and that only 20% or fewer actually participate in GAC meetings.

The proposal was apparently submitted to the ongoing ITU Plenipotentiary Conference but, in contrast to ICANN’s policy of transparency, many ITU documents are only accessible to its members.

A reader was kind enough to send me text extracted from the document. I’ve been unable to verify its authenticity, but I’ve no particular reason to believe it’s bogus.

The RCC was set up in 1991 to increase cooperation between telecommunications and postal operators in the post-Soviet era. Its board is comprised of communications ministers from a dozen nations.

Its position on ICANN appears to be also held by the Russian government. Igor Shchegolev, its communications minister, is chair of the RCC board.

At the Plenipotentiary on Tuesday, Shechegolev said (via Google Translate):

We believe that the ITU is capable of such tasks to international public policy, Internet governance, its development and finally, protection of interests of countries in ICANN.

Philip Verveer told the conference:

the ITU should be a place where the development of the Internet is fostered. The Internet has progressed and evolved in a remarkably successful way under the existing multi-stakeholder arrangements. Changes, especially changes involving inter-governmental controls, are likely to impair the dynamism of the Internet—something we all have an interest in avoiding.

ICANN itself has no formal presence at the Plenipotentiary, after ITU secretary-general Hamadoun Toure turned down a request by ICANN president Rod Beckstrom for observer status.

The conference carries on until October 22. It’s likely that we haven’t heard the last of the anti-ICANN rhetoric.

Russian domain crackdown halves phishing attacks

Kevin Murphy, August 20, 2010, Domain Tech

Phishing attacks from .ru domains dropped by almost half in the second quarter, after tighter registration rules were brought in, according to new research.

Attacks from the Russian ccTLD namespace fell to 528, compared to 1,020 during the first quarter, according to Internet Identity’s latest report.

IID attributed the decline to the newly instituted requirement for all registrants to provide identifying documents or have their domains cancelled, which came into effect on April 1.

The report goes on to say:

Following a similar move by the China Internet Network Information Center in December 2009, spam researchers suggested that this tactic only moves the criminals to a new neighborhood on the Internet, but has no real impact on solving the problem.

I wonder whose ccTLD is going to be next.

The IID report also highlights a DNS redirection attack that took place in June in Israel, which I completely missed at the time.

Apparently, major brands including Microsoft and Coca-Cola started displaying pro-Palestine material on their .co.il web sites, for about nine hours, after hackers broke into their registrar accounts at Communigal.