Who Should Own '.Patagonia?'

What the fight between a sports gear company and a South American nation says about Internet governance today.
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Lago Grey, Patagonia. (FlyNutAA/Flickr)

Argentina's "territory" is under threat -- both physically and virtually -- according to its president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. Not only did the residents of the Falkland Islands (or Islas Malvinas) vote overwhelmingly to remain part of Great Britain, but Patagonia, Inc. (the outdoor apparel company) has laid claim to the .patagonia Internet domain.

Resolving Argentina's cyberspace dispute with Patagonia falls to the little known but influential Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers ("ICANN"). ICANN met this month in Beijing to update its policies and discuss potential additions to the global catalog of domain names, including .patagonia, .amazon, .search, and .book, to name a few.

No single person, company, organization, or other body controls the Internet. What technology can be used online, what goods and services can be sold by whom, and what videos get uploaded to which sites are decided by a combination of civil society groups, governments, inter-governmental organizations, and network operators. This multi-stakeholder model promotes the open flow of information, innovation, and the growth of the Internet.

ICANN will decide who will manage the .patagonia domain (and whether or not to even create it) by following a set of policies that embody the multi-stakeholder model and balance the interests of government, business, and civil society worldwide.

ICANN is a crucial player in international Internet governance because it manages the worldwide allocation of Internet Protocol ("IP") addresses -- the numbers that identify an actual Internet site -- and associated website names within the Domain Name System ("DNS"). ICANN also authorizes domain registries (equivalent to wholesalers), such as Verisign, Inc., to manage generic top-level domain names ("gTLDs"), such as .com, .net, .org, etc. The registry, in turn, works with retailers, known as registrars (such as godaddy.com) to allocate specific domain names (e.g. www.theatlantic.com) to individual consumers.

ICANN was created in 1998 to internationalize management of key aspects of the Internet that were previously overseen by the U.S. government. It receives its formal authority from the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority ("IANA") functions contract with the U.S. Department of Commerce. Today, ICANN is a private non-profit organization headquartered in Marina del Rey, California, and governed by an internationally selected board of directors. It is assisted by several advisory committees and supporting organizations that represent the full range of Internet constituencies - from governments to web companies.

Debate over control of the .patagonia domain arose during ICANN's recent push to authorize new gTLDs to complement the existing ones. Creation of the new domains will allow for greater Internet innovation, increase competition in the registry space, and expand the existing namespace for domain names. ICANN is currently overseeing an application process whereby interested companies and individuals, such as Patagonia, pay an application fee to apply to operate a new gTLD of its choosing. If more than one applicant applies for the same domain, an auction will be held. The application process includes multiple levels of review that ensure all stakeholders, including governments, have a voice in deciding which new gTLDs are assigned and to whom.

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Eli Sugarman is a fellow at the Truman National Security Project and a former foreign-affairs officer with the U.S. State Department's bureau of international security and non-proliferation.

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