Byron Holland is President and Chief Executive Officer of the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA). View bio
Domain name seizures have been top-of-mind for many people lately.
It was one of the topics identified at the Canadian Internet Forum, and the high profile seizure by the U.S. government of the Canadian online gambling site bodog.com has been getting a lot of media attention. This also isn’t the first time the U.S. government has seized domain names based on ‘illegal’ activity. In 2010, a number of .COM, .NET and .ORG domains were seized, and a country code top-level domain (ccTLD) operated by VeriSign in California, .TV, was seized as well. In 2011, another 150 were seized.
For the most part, the Internet does not recognize national borders. Internet traffic is routed all over the globe, and it’s possible to register a domain using a wide variety of domain name extensions.
Here’s the thing – the stuff to the right of the dot matters: note that bodog.ca still resolves.
If you register a domain name with an extension that is managed in another country, it is likely subject to the laws of that country – full stop. If a website is found to be in violation of American law, and the domain for that site is an extension managed by a U.S. entity, the U.S. government may seize it.
If you keep your business in another country (in the case of Canada, register a .CA with a Canadian Registrar and use a Canadian web host), foreign governments can’t unilaterally seize it. CIRA has never been asked by a foreign government to shut down or seize a domain name.
The DNS root zone does fall under American jurisdiction with ICANN (through IANA) as the operator. However, ICANN has explicitly stated in a blog post that they do “not take down domain names” and that they “have no technical or legal authority to do that.”
The fact is ICANN couldn’t cherry-pick domains even if it wanted to. If the U.S. government decided that they wanted to shut down a .CA website, and tried to do it through ICANN, they would have to shut down all of .CA in the root zone. This would involve cutting off every single .CA website and email address from the Internet, and they’re not going to do that for a number of reasons (not the least of which is the fact that shutting down the entire .CA domain space and everything in it would be a major international incident).
The global economy would freeze if the U.S. government took such an action. The underpinnings of the Internet would be completely undermined. Think about this: the U.S. government hasn’t even shut down the Internet in nations they’ve been at war or have very strained relations with – Iraq, Libya, Iran are just a few examples – because the trust that supports the Internet is fundamental to the economic and social well-being of humanity. Given that, why would they shut down an entire top level domain over a single website?
The Internet has brought us incredible benefits, many due to the fact that it breaks down national and geographic borders. However, because of the very nature of the Internet – the fact that it is ‘virtual’ and ‘in the cloud’ – most of us don’t tend to think of it being governed by the laws of a particular nation. But as the bodog.com case demonstrates, it is critically important to be aware of which jurisdiction your digital assets are in, and therefore what laws they may be subject to.