Friday, December 05, 2008

Are ".hk" domains at risk of draconian control?

Are ".hk" domains at risk of draconian control?

The governance of the Hong Kong Internet Registration Corporation (HKIRC), the country code top level domain (ccTLD) operator of ".hk," will be restructured later this month, when the number of directors on its board will be reduced from thirteen to eight. The government will appoint four of these directors and stands to have a deciding vote on the selection of the chairman.

The move has caused concern within the Internet community and legislators express worries that more government intervention may mean intervention in online liberty.

Such fears are not groundless. Over the years, the HKIRC has been criticized for a lack of understanding of and participation in the global and regional domain name business and governance, and that its board is routinely filled with members unfamiliar with the trade. While six of its present board directors are elected directly from members, less than 1% of the owners of 170,000 registered ".hk" domains are registered as members, and directors stand to be elected with a hundred or fewer votes, casting doubts on their level of accurate representation.

These factors may have contributed to various HKIRC blunders over the past few years, such as the recent report from computer security firm McAfee declaring that ".hk" domains were the least secure in the world.

Yet, although the government rightly acknowledges a problem, it has tried to solve it in the wrong way. Although ".hk" is a public resource--authorized by ICANN to the country or region (like Hong Kong) which delegates the operating rights to a body (like the HKIRC)--it does not mean government can or should control it as a government body. Indeed, most ccTLDs in the world are managed by the industry and end-users familiar with Internet governance and international perspectives--such as Australia, Canada, Taiwan, Germany, and many others.

The government claims it conducted a public consultation after a 2006 consultancy report. Indeed, but the result of the consultation was never announced in the same public manner as the consultation was carried out. When the Internet community found out the government's final decision and started negotiations with the HKIRC on the restructuring, it was already "too late."

The HKIRC says it does not censor content of websites under the ".hk" domains. Yes, but not quite. It can influence content access and freedom of information by making policies that could ban or revoke the names of Web sites that may contain or spread content which may be deemed illegal or even simply undesirable--in the name of controlling unwanted materials such as spam, obscenities or other hazards.

This is exactly why government influence must be kept to a minimum in domain name administration for any open society.

Increasing government control for ccTLDs is hardly a global trend. Taking draconian control of ".hk," along with the other recent initiatives such as the review of Control of Obscene and Indecent Articles Ordinance, clearly indicates a government direction favoring more regulations on the Internet. This is what our community must steadfastly guard against.

Published on Computerworld Hong Kong website, December 5, 2008

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