Thursday, March 03, 2011

Domain Names as Expressions of Nationalism...

Not many outside of the tech community give much thought to domain name administration, but those inside of it realize that domain names are the only scarce commodity on the entire Internet. That's why they're not only valuable, but tremendously important.

To catch everyone up to speed, ICANN is the non-profit institution which controls the entire domain name system. National governments have become increasingly angered over how little authority they have in ICANN's decision-making processes, leading to something of an international revolt and calls to vest authority with the U.N. instead. It's power politics at the highest levels.

Whoever would have thought that such a fuss would be made over the fate of top-level domain suffixes like .xxx, .gay, .health, .movie, .web, or dozens of others?

A recent CNET article headline read, "U.S. Seeks Veto Powers over New Domain Names", and my knee-jerk reaction was to fear the overreaching controls of Big Government. However, when actually reading the article, I became convinced of the Commerce Department's reasoning... If more authoritarian and less liberal governments adopt technical measures to prevent their citizens from connecting to .gay and .xxx websites, and dozens of nations surely will, that will lead to a more fragmented Internet, undermining the goal of universal resolvability (i.e., a single global Internet that facilitates the free flow of goods and services and freedom of expression).

In other words, granting governments more power might actually lead to more freedom of expression, not less. Talk about counter-intuitive.

And to anyone who wonders why this matters, consider a recent Policy & Internet journal article by Irina Shklovski and David M. Struthers titled, "Of States and Borders on the Internet: The Role of Domain Name Extensions in Expressions of Nationalism Online in Kazakhstan". The authors argue that, because of country-code top-level domains (ccTLDs), people are aware of national boundary traversals as they navigate the Internet, and their surfing behaviors are influenced as a result.

To put it plainly, there is a difference between a .il (Israel) versus .ir (Iran) website in the perception of readers.

The space of the Internet is often described as easy to traverse with no regard for national borders. Yet few have considered what such easy border crossings on the Internet might mean to the ordinary people actually doing the traversing. Our qualitative study of regular Internet users in Kazakhstan shows that the naming of a state-controlled space on the Internet, through the use of country code top-level domain names (ccTLDs), does in fact matter to the average user. People are aware of national boundary traversals as they navigate the Internet. Respondents in our study identified their activity on the Internet as happening within or outside the space of the state to which they felt allegiance and belonging. National borders are demarcated on the Internet through naming via ccTLDs and can result in individual expressions of various types of nationalism online. We find that ccTLDs are not just symbolic markers but have real meaning and their importance increases in locations where notions of statehood are in flux.

The idea that domain names can inspire a sense of nationalism in the average Web surfer is truly significant. In a cyber space where online identity formation seems to never quite fit traditional molds, national identity and national pride being a real factor should open the eyes of some sociologists.

It makes sense, yet it's still surprising.


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