Is Western Sahara a part of Morocco or is it truly independent? Never really settled in the real world, an old dispute now has repercussions on the Internet as two governments fight for one of the last unassigned country codes.
Western Sahara liberation front executive Mhamed Khadad is fighting for control of the .EH domain
Undelegated extensions – ones that haven't been assigned to anyone yet – are like 2 character .COMs: extremely rare. Look up the authoritative list of country code domains, IANA's database, and you won't find many suffixes that are unassigned.
Yet a click on .EH, the country code Top Level Domain for Western Sahara, shows an empty entry. No sponsoring organisation (i.e. the registry), no administrative contact, nothing.
This "territory of northwestern Africa, bordered by Morocco to the north, Algeria in the northeast, Mauritania to the east and south, and the Atlantic Ocean on the west is one of the most sparsely populated territories in the world, mainly consisting of desert flatlands," as defined by Wikipedia, has long been in dispute.
Morocco and the Saharawi – the local people - have argued over this stretch of desert since it stopped being administered by Spain in 1976. Morocco immediately laid claim to the land, only to be opposed by local liberation front Frente POLISARIO. The UN worked throughout the 1980s to put an end to fighting between the two sides. A settlement mission - MINURSO (United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara) - was set up in 1991 to monitor a recently brokered ceasefire.
Two requests for .EH
The dispute has now spilled over on the Internet, with both sides laying strong claims to .EH.
"Since November 2006, we've answered all ICANN's requests for clarification or further information," Saharawi MINURSO coordinator and POLISARIO executive Mhamed Khadad told Domaines.info in an exclusive interview. "We've talked to both IANA staff and members of the ICANN board and .EH has been discussed at two board meetings, in January and April 2007. We also sponsored the San Juan ICANN meeting to show the Internet community the effort going into the .EH delegation project. And now we are told that Morocco has put in a request. It is obvious Marocco's real intention in also requesting the .EH domain is to block the delegation process."
Not surprisingly, Morocco's view is somewhat different. "The Western Sahara territory is administered by Morocco," Moroccan national telecommunications regulator ANRT's Hamida BENLEMLIH told Domaines.Info when questioned on the Moroccan .EH claim. "ANRT has sent ICANN a request for delegation of .EH with the support of the Moroccan government, Western Sahara's people (through several local organisations), civil society and the private sector. The aim of the request sent by ANRT to IANA is to consolidate the Saharawi people's access to the Internet and to preserve their interests."
ANRT also attended the San Juan ICANN conference and gave out leaflets highlighting their claim to .EH.
Morocco certainly has technical and financial resources that are unavailable to the poorer Saharawis. But their drive for independence is undeterred and they haven't hesitated to call in outside help. "Recognising that the Saharawi Government does not have sufficient technological means for the administration of the country code domain name, we express our wish to delegate the management and administration of the domain names space under EH to the EHNIC Foundation (hereafter referred to as EHNIC), appointing it as Technical Contact in the IANA ccTLDs database," claims the Saharawi's .EH delegation request.
"We declare that EHNIC is a non-profit-making entity, participated in by various bodies, among them the Saharawi Government itself, and that its principal function is to operate the registry of domain names under EH as a public service for the benefit of the Internet local and international community, under the ultimate supervision of the Saharawi Government as Delegation Authority of the domain name."
Ultimately, the question ICANN should have to answer in choosing a sponsor for .EH is simply: who can best serve the needs of the local population by managing .EH?
Herein also lies the ICANN dilemma. Although in theory a technical regulator only, ICANN has always been called upon to take political decisions as well. And the .EH question is obviously highly political.
The Saharawis realize this and are striving to convince ICANN not to stray too far from its original mandate. "We will not let ourselves be dragged into the political arena," says Mhamed Khadad. "That issue is in the hands of the UN who, despite Morocco's claims, continues to consider Western Sahara as a separate territory from Morocco. The question ICANN has to consider is a simple one: should an Internet space be given to the Saharawi people or should they be deprived of one for fallacious reasons."
The question may be simple, but finding the right answer is sure to be a good deal more complicated.