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Way back in 1999, a man by the name of Mike Lawrie started the ball rolling to manage South African domain names. He started a non-profit organisation in conjunction with the the local chapter of the Internet Society (ISOC-ZA). At first everything went into the planning and structure of the whole scheme. Eventually in 2001 this organisation consisting of prominent individuals from the private sector, saw the light. Everything was taken into consideration, even participation from government. At the time, ITWeb reported as follows :

[Johannesburg, 22 August 2001] - The local chapter of the Internet Society, ISOC-ZA, says the planned non-profit company that is to oversee the registration of domain names across the .za namespace will come into operation in September. The Section 21 company, Namespace South Africa, is to be formed at a meeting scheduled for 31 August, which will probably see the deregulation of domain registration in September.

Namespace has been a long time coming, with a committee to steer the process of its formation chosen in February 1999 after the current administrator, Mike Lawrie, expressed his wish to hand his post over to a formal body. Namespace is to be an open membership body, with free and automatic membership for any individual or company with one or more registered domains in the .za space. Other interested parties will be able to join at a nominal R20 fee. The company will be steered by a board of nine individuals, of which six will be elected by the membership and one each appointed by ISOC-ZA, domain registrars and the government.

Now government has decided it wants a piece of the pie. A bill was drafted in a big rush and lots of liberties were taken. Response to governments interference by Lawrie were such : “The government proposals are driven by a frightful amount of ignorance,” he says, referring to the Bill and an earlier proposal for a body that would take over his job. He does it for free; the proposal called for R24 million to do the same thing.

ITWeb goes on:

The Electronic Communications and Transactions (ECT) Bill currently before Parliament makes provision for government to take control of the .za space through a non-profit domain name authority. The minister of communications would appoint all the directors of the authority and set the policy under which it would operate. Government would be the only member and shareholder of the authority under an exception from the Companies Act.

The ministry of communications intends to take full control of the South African country code top-level domain, .za, but it faces stiff opposition from the current administrator, which fears the technical incompetence he has seen from government. The government says it has a duty to administer the .za domain as a national asset, but others feel it is stepping over the line. “What you have here is a bizarre situation where a politician can start determining technical standards, which aren't South African technical standards but international technical standards arrived at by some form of consensus,” says IT lawyer Mike Silber about the planned authority.

After much representation by concerned companies and individuals, government made some positive changes to the proposed bill. The bulk of which will still be pushed through parliament next month. To make things worse, a report was published on the government website which does not bode well for the private sector nor for Lawrie's organisation - ITWeb this morning reported on the statement which was published on government Web site and accused Namespace of hankering “back to an era where a tiny minority controlled the wealth of the country”.

Shortly after this another statement was issued - The ministry of communications says a statement by it, which launched a scathing attack on the Namespace ZA organisation, was published online by mistake and does not represent the views of communications minister Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri. “It went out by mistake; it was published by mistake,” says ministry spokesman Robert Nkuna.

In spite of all this, the two got together and came to some compromise. Lawrie knows that they're barking against thunder, though he's trying to limit the damage. Another controversial point is that of cryptography -

Another provision that has drawn fire is a requirement that any cryptography product used in SA be registered with the Department of Communications, so that the vendor can assist law enforcement officials in cracking encryption when needed. Anyone supplying a cryptography product not registered would face a prison sentence of up to two years. Cryptography experts have pointed out that many pieces of popular software, such as the Windows operating systems and most Linux distributions, are packaged with or contain embedded cryptography software. The Bill, in its draft form, differentiates between traditional digital signatures and “advanced electronic signatures”, digital signatures that would be officially recognised by government. While the Bill would give digital documentation legal recognition equal to that of paper documents, advanced signatures would have to be used where the law requires a signature.

What does all this mean to people like me? Once again we're at the mercy of government, specifically Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri. With the recent Telkom debacle no-one can know for sure when another law will be passed, giving this woman even more powers over something she knows nothing about.

A short history on Telkom - Telkom's five-year exclusivity came to an end a couple of weeks ago opening the door for a second national operator. Nothing has changed so far for the man in the street. With the SNO being Transtel and Eskom, government still has a hold on our pockets seeing that both companies are semi-government in any case. Telkom gave the undertaking (or rather government) to roll-out an enormous amount of lines to rural areas. This was to be undertaken over a the five year exclusivity period. A sixth year of exclusivity was offered to Telkom, who turned it down. It is of absolute no use to install telephone lines and instruments to people who can't afford the monthly rental, never mind paying for calls. Telkom still holds the monopoly with no end in sight.

Next on Matsepe-Casaburri agenda will be censure-ship on all domains - and that's just about a guarantee!

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