Last week, the much-anticipated Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC) Early Warnings on new gTLD applications were finally issued. And the GAC didn't disappoint. A total of 242 warnings were issued on 163 strings (including 31 strings applied for by Radix).
The GAC warnings yet again show that Africa is perfectly capable of being at the top of league tables — for the wrong reasons. As we all know, Africa has consistently, and for a long time, been at the bottom of rankings of countries in terms of various development indicators. Take the widely recognized Human Development Index (HDI) published by the UNDP in its annual Human Development Report (HDR). Africa's, and specifically, Sub-Sahara Africa's (SSA) HDI has, since 1990 consistently been the lowest of all the regions of the world, according to the 2011 HDR. Similarly, SSA had the least index (4.4 out of 10) for overall satisfaction with life for the 2006-2010 timeframe, compared to 6.7 for high human development countries, and 7.8 for Denmark.
Africa also has a far less developed ICT industry and infrastructure than other parts of the world, despite impressive gains that have been made in the past decade. The relatively small ICT sector in Africa is a major reason why Africa's participation in the ICANN community and Internet ecosystem is almost negligible. Thus, Africa presently has no gTLD registry, its 54 ccTLDs have few registrations, and the continent's participation in the domain name industry is almost nil.
Against this background, it was not surprising that Africa had the least number of gTLD applications in ICANN's new gTLD program. Only 17 of 1,930 applications were from Africa. Even then, two of the 17 applications were from the League of Arab States based in Egypt, and 13 were from South Africa, leaving only 2 applications from only two of the remaining 45 countries in SSA.
Africa's participation in the new gTLD program stands in stark contrast to the large number of applications from other parts of the world. The US alone accounted for a staggering 884 applications; 52 times the number of applications from Africa. The Asia Pacific region (excluding Australia, which applied for 41 strings) applied for 262 strings, while Latin America and the Caribbean (including Mexico) applied for 24 strings.
It is thus interesting to note that Africa managed to get to the top of the league tables of the GAC early warnings. Africa accounted for 30 (12.4 percent) of the 242 warnings, just behind Europe which filed 51 warnings, and ahead of the Asia Pacific region which filed 25 warnings, excluding 129 warnings from Australia.
Africa also tops the list of warnings issued to an applicant, with the .africa application from DotConnectAfrica Trust (DCA) receiving 17 warnings from 16 African governments, and the African Union Commission (AUC), a GAC observer. .africa sits just above .hotel, which has 16 GAC early warnings. Other strings with significant numbers of warnings are .health (9 early warnings), and .sarl (with 6 early warnings).
Most of the GAC early warnings against .africa were from West African countries, who accounted for 7 of the warnings. East Africa accounted for 3 warnings, followed by Central, North, and Southern Africa (each issuing 2 warnings). The opposition against .africa application by DCA is thus spread across the continent, and not confined to a few countries or regions.
The significance of the opposition to the DCA application for .africa is also manifested in the fact that the 16 governments that issued early warnings against DCA represent 69.6 percent of the 23 African GAC members. Given that these GAC members represent almost half of the 54 countries in Africa, and that the AU Commission speaks for the entire membership of the African Union, their warnings have gravitas.
In as much as it is significant that the opposition of the African governments to the DCA application for .africa is strong, it is story of the scramble for .africa that is most eye-opening. Although not quite the European scramble for African colonies and riches during 19th century, the contest for a .africa TLD has been fierce, with more than enough bad blood already spilled.
Following bitter feuds between various parties, including DCA, the AUC called for proposals from applicants interested in seeking AUC support for their .africa TLD application. In the end, the AUC selected UniForum, a South African not-for-profit company, to apply for and manage the .africa TLD.
DCA, a non-profit charitable trust registered in Mauritius, then decided to forge ahead with its application. Although the string DCA applied for initially was "dotafrica" this was later changed under ICANN's change request rules to "africa" effectively meaning that there now are two contestants (both African) for .africa. And an Africa vs Africa battle royal is all but certain to happen.
Whatever the outcome of the .africa saga and applications, the truth is that Africa has yet again fallen victim to individual squabbles just when it would have been most helpful to have a united front. Instead, we now have an Africa that is battered and bruised, and facing the risk that a victory by either of the parties for a .africa TLD might be a hollow one.
For this reason, it is of utmost importance that efforts be made to explore the possibility (as remote as this might seem) of building bridges between the two factions, and proceeding with one .africa application. Otherwise, we might just end up with a situation where the biggest loser in the .africa battle would be, ironically, Africa.
By Katim S. Touray, International Development Consultant, and ICT for development advocate
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