Seats at the Policy-Making Table

Larry Press
OnTheInternet, in press

In a 1993 paper on Networking Plans in Haiti [1], Schiller Jean Baptiste and Daniel Pimienta, set forth their plan for REHRED, the Haitian Research and Development Network. REHRED, was to provide "all the services which are required by a national research network," and was to be "handled by the whole Haitian community." They hoped REHRED would be a "basic stone" in the "process of the reconstruction of Haiti and helping the country participate in global development." This has a familiar ring to many who have pioneered networking in emerging nations.

By August, 1993, email was flowing from Haiti through The Dominican Republic to the Internet. REHRED met with the Ministry of Public Works, Transport, and Communication in April, 1996, and it was decided they would administer the .HT top-level domain (TLD), with Haiti's first Internet service provider, Alpha Communications Network (ACN), as technical contact. (Baptiste was ACN president). The first Internet "ping" was to ACN in November, 1996, and REHRED filed the InterNIC registration forms for the .HT TLD. On March 6, 1997, IANA, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, notified REHRED that the registration of .HT was completed, and a "whois" query at that time confirmed REHRED as registrar and ACN as technical contact.

But, the time for celebrating this milestone was short. On March 13, IANA received a FAX stating:

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Haiti is pleased to inform you that it has decided to grant to FOCUS DATA, on a non-exclusive basis, the right to use Haiti's Top Level Domain. FOCUS DATA is a company duly registered in Haiti as an Internet Service Provider (ISP).
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Haiti would appreciate it if you would take the necessary steps to implement that decision.
On its face, that FAX is confusing, but the same day, IANA sent the following email to REHRED, without comment or a copy of the FAX:
We recently received a FAX from the Haitian government, asking us to redelegate the HT domain to another company for the time being. The Internic has been informed, and we suggest you stop all activity concerning the HT domain. FOCUS DATA has now been given the rights to the HT domain. Please comply with this decision. The Internic will redelegate the domain to this company ASAP. Thank you for your cooperation. [2]
The administration of .HT was redelegated to an organization called Hintelfocus. (Evidently "Focus Data" is a state-licensed ISP, "Hintelnet" is a company with an MCI link to the Net, and "HintelFocus" combines the two).

REHRED protested this reassignment and continues to do so. They question IANA's interpretation of the above FAX, and feel that regardless of the interpretation, IANA violated its own procedures (RFC 1591), and has not been fully open in disclosing and documenting all that has transpired. IANA's position is that it merely implemented the wish of the Haitian Government. For a discussion of procedural and disclosure issues and suggestions for avoiding such problems in the future, see [3].

I do not know what truly happened in Haiti, or what the motivations were, but, regardless, the appearance is bad. To many it seems as though a pioneering, grass-roots research network was displaced by suspicious US and Haitian business interests.

In one sense, that is surely what happened. Research, university, and NGO groups pioneered networking in every nation, but they are now confronting a commercial tidal wave. This is the case in the US as well as emerging nations. For instance, my campus and university system are considering network outsourcing and other commercial relationships, and companies like UUNET and Sprint have decided the old peering arrangements are no longer reasonable.

Telecommunication privatization and competition are also sweeping the world. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) reports privatization of state-owned telecommunication companies in 40 nations during the 1990s, and lists forthcoming privatizations in 16 nations [4]. In February, 69 nations signed a World Trade Organization (WTO) agreement regarding competition [5]. At the same time, technology is changing rapidly.

Pioneering research networks are confronted by this reality. They wish to see networks disbursed throughout their nations -- reaching rural areas, poor people, students, and hospitals and clinics as well as the business elite in capital cities. However, they cannot do that alone. It requires massive investment, and the multinational telecommunication companies and world capital markets are part of the deal.

The Net began as a very low-capital revolution -- UUCP networks and even an international IP link can be put together with a small grant and a few motivated people -- but it will not remain a low-capital affair, nor would we want it to be. (This is reminiscent of the early days of personal computing, when Steve Jobs would give you free schematics for the vector-board computer kit he was selling at his card table at the Homebrew Computer Club, mothers nursed babies in their booths at computer shows, and the guy running the show was on roller skates).

We must also ask what is actually at stake in the dispute over the Haitian or any TLD. What does REHRED or Hintelfocus or anyone else stand to gain by being TLD administrator? (The same question must be asked in the much more visible debate now occurring in the case of the generic TLDs such as .com and .edu). The fees from registering .HT organizations are surely not worth fighting over. Unless the registrar discriminates against some organizations, there should be no commercial advantage, and there is no reason to believe either REHRED or Hintelfocus would discriminate. If they did discriminate, presumably IANA would intervene. Domain registration should be a fairly mechanical task. My guess is that what is at stake is legitimacy -- a seat at the telecommunication policy-making table in Haiti.

I believe the REHREDs of the world should have a seat at that table. They have earned it by introducing the Net and educating the policy makers. Furthermore, they understand the technology. With all due respect, it is hard to believe that the person in the Haitian ministry who drafted the FAX shown above understood what "TLD" means. Most important, they are interested in and champions of non-commercial applications which may be critical to the development of their nations.

The telecommunication companies also deserve a seat at that table. Without that seat, they will not invest, and the enterprise will be stillborn.

Government should also be there. As noted above, this is a time of transition. Governments are privatizing telecommunication in return for capital, modernization, expertise, or perhaps just to be relieved of a confusing burden. However, that is not to say they are free of responsibility. Telecommunication is a strategic component of development -- infrastructure planning is social planning whether we like it or not. Population, health care, education, investment, commerce, etc. will follow infrastructure. The government should be at the table to countervail the power of the international telecommunication giants.

But can the research networks and governments match the muscle of an MCI (now combined with British Telecomm and Telefonica of Spain)? Perhaps not. International organizations and regulatory bodies may also deserve a seat at the table -- the ITU, ISOC, WTO, or others not yet known. Who else should be at the table? Who is setting telecommunication and networking policy in your nation?

For many years, telecommunication has been fairly static, but the tectonic plates are now adrift. We have the opportunity to guide them.


  1. Schiller Jean Baptiste and Daniel Pimienta, Networking Plans in Haiti, Matrix News, August, 1993, gopher://
  3. Quarterman, John, "Haiti and Internet Governance" Matrix News 705, May 1997,
  4. World Telecommunication Development Report, Tables 4.3 and 4.4, International Telecommunication Union, Geneva, 1997.
  5. Press, Larry, "What May the WTO Telecommunication Agreement Mean for Emerging Nations?


For background on REHRED and Haitian networking, see: For discussion and source documents on the controversy over the adminstration of the .HT domain, see:


This article was inspired by discussion of the Haitian TLD with Daniel Pimienta, Luis German Rodriguez, Sam Lanfranco, and John Quarterman.

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