DotAfrica is about to go live, and it has been described as “one of the most important developments to impact the African internet – ever.”
That is the view of Lucky Masilela on the long-awaited arrival of the .africa generic top-level domain, which has gone through its sunrise phase, is now in its landrush phase, and will be available to the general public as of July 4.
Masilela is chief executive officer of the ZA Central Registry, the company charged in 2012 with overseeing the process of giving Africa its own geographic top-level domain for the first time.
“DotAfrica is not simply a generic top-level domain to us. It represents a focal point around which to build an entirely new African web presence,” he said.
This focal point has been a long time coming. DotAfrica was conceived by African heads of state on 2009, with the idea of delegating a domain for organizations and individuals sharing a special and unique affinity for Africa, subsequently set in stone by a directive from African ICT Ministers to the African Union Commission in 2010.
“This directive envisaged the need to set up the structures and modalities to establish a world-class .africa registry as a first step towards realization for the vision of the African Community of States to participate in the digital space on par with its international counterparts,” Masilela said.
It did not prove that simple, however. ZA Central Registry was in April 2012 officially endorsed by the African Union Commission and more than 70 percent of the individual member states of the African Union to apply for the right to administer and manage the .africa top-level domain, and appointed by the International Association for Names and Numbers (ICANN) in March 2014.
Yet, Masilela said in spite of this the delegation of the .africa top-level domain has been strained by a dispute with a competing applicant, Dot Connect Africa Trust, which forced ZA Central Registry to go to court and delayed the whole process.
“The litigation process that the ZA Central Registry undertook had major cost implications and delayed the continental dream that was shared in the OR Tambo declaration, further disadvantaging our African people from owning their digital space with one domain for the entire continent,” Masilela said.
Dot Connect Africa Trust had challenged the ICANN decision to award ZA Central Registry control of the process, which was sent for re-assessment. ICANN, in March 2016, passed a resolution to proceed with the delegation of the .africa top-level domain to ZA Central Registry, a decision Dot Connect Africa Trust took to court. In April of last year, it successfully obtained injunctive relief against ICANN, preventing the delegation to ZA Central Registry.
It also filed a claim for damages against both ICANN and ZA Central Registry on grounds of fraud, conspiracy to commit fraud, unfair competition, intentional interference with contract, and for the Registry Operator Agreement to be declared void ab initio.
It took until June 2016 for the U.S. District Court to dismiss all these claims against ZA Central Registry, but by this point, the process had been badly delayed and the case against ICANN rumbled on. It was not until February of this year, almost three years after it had happened for the first time, that ZA Central Registry was allocated the role once again.
The first .africa domain was registered on February 15, signaling that the .africa top-level domain was resolving in the root zone. Masilela said the timing was “fortuitous and significant”, as it marked the 27th anniversary of the release of Nelson Mandela from prison.
“Mr. Mandela’s release from incarceration and his subsequent leadership in embedding democracy within the fabric of our society and country was, and still is, a profound moment in the history of South Africa and for Africans all over the world,” he said.
“Equally, the .africa top-level domain, as an invaluable continental asset, has the potential of having the same or if not greater impact on the African economy and African people, if nurtured properly.”
If all this sounds a bit overblown, in internet terms at least, the top-level domain is important news for the continent.
“Before, the internet community located on the African continent felt as if we were guests on someone else’s web. The psychological impact of a part of cyberspace that reflects the name of our continent can not be underestimated,” said Masilela.
DotAfrica is not just about African pride, though, with the launch of the generic top-level domain powered by solid business sense.
“We believe that it is a memorable name, an easily-recalled name, and a desirable name that will increasingly make an appearance in corporate marketing communication with all the associated benefits including feet in stores and clicks on sites,” Masilela said.
“Without wanting to comment on specifics, we hope that every African will see a need to embrace this domain name and take ownership of it. It is not about the number but about the impact this name will have on the development of the ICT sector across the continent.”
Tom Jackson is the co-founder of tech news and research platform Disrupt Africa and a journalist covering innovation on the continent from the Cape to Cairo.