Internet’s Organizing Body: Nobody Actually Owns Country Codes, Not Even Countries. Or Us.

Does anyone actually own the internet? That might be the existential crisis of our age. We know companies own and operate websites, that other companies own the software that let us look at those sites, and that still other companies own and operate the physical infrastructure that allows us access to those sites. And when we stop to think about it, we know that there are registrars and regulations and standards in place that make specific parts of web addresses — the bits after the dot — work around the world. But does anyone own those? According to the organization that manages the names and numbers that make the whole system tick, the answer is a resounding no.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is the organization that, basically, makes sure the whole world’s internet functions more or less the same way and stays compatible with itself. ICANN is based in the United States, but is not an American organization. In fact, certain functions of internet management that were under the control of the U.S. government in years and decades past have been making a transition over to ICANN.

This particular question of ownership all began with a series of lawsuits. Several victims or families of victims of terrorism filed lawsuits against nations they claimed had sponsored the terroristic acts: Syria, North Korea, and Iran. The plaintiffs won their various suits against the three countries. Now, they’re trying to collect on those judgements, and actually get some money in hand.

That is, of course, far easier said than done. None of the three nations are particularly interested in handing over a pile of damages to the Americans who sued them. So among the assets the plaintiffs are trying to collect from these three nations are their country code top-level domains (ccTLD), and they subpoenaed to ICANN to help make it happen.

A top-level domain is the extension at the end of a website name — like the .com, .edu, and .org we all type a zillion times every day. Country code top-level-domains are two-letter top-level domains assigned to nations or sovereign territories. Two of the most commonly-seen are .us and .uk, but there are over two hundred others like .fr (France), .jp (Japan), and .za (South Africa).

Some ccTLDs have citizenship requirements for anyone trying to register a site under them, but there are plenty that permit worldwide commercial use. For example, the .ly in bit.ly is the ccTLD for Libya. The .tv TLD belongs to Tuvalu, which makes a fair bit of money leasing it out, and Google itself has registered youtu.be — using Belgium’s .be — for video URL shortening.

The three ccTLDs the lawsuit winners are trying to seize are the ones that belong to the countries they won their cases against: .ir (Iran), .sy (Syria), and .kp (North Korea).

So if a ccTLD is something that can be bought, sold, leased, licensed, or traded, clearly it has some value. But, ICANN says, it isn’t actually property, and cannot be owned or possessed by anyone, including ICANN. And if it’s not a thing that can be owned, then it’s not a thing that can be seized.

If the internet is the superhighway that the 90s told us it was, then, the argument goes, domain names and the system behind them are the addresses on that road. And an address isn’t exactly transferable or a thing you can possess.

Someone can own a property at 1 Main Street, and build a house there. They can sell or lease that house or the land it’s on, and if they commit a criminal act or lose a lawsuit then law enforcement can seize the house. But even if the authorities take and resell the property, they can’t seize the name “1 Main Street” and reassign it to the guy on 73 Maple Lane who sued you. 1 Main Street stays where it is, even if the property changes hands and the house there gets razed.

ICANN also pointed out, in their response, that taking the ccTLDs away from the countries that currently use them would pretty much strip them of their value, making them worthless assets to seize anyway. Even if they could be seized, which they can’t.

John Jeffrey, ICANN’s general counsel, said in a statement that “ICANN’s role in the domain name system has nothing to do with any property of the countries involved.” He added, “Country code top-level domains are part of a single, global interoperable Internet.”

ICANN filed its response in federal court on Tuesday. It remains to be seen whether the court agrees with the organization, or whether three entire nations can have their internet identities assigned to someone else.

The documentation — the writs and subpoenas, and ICANN’s responses and motions to quash — is all available on ICANN’s website.