On 17 March 2002, .aero the first top level Internet domain to be sponsored and introduced by a specific community sector, opened its doors for business..
With hindsight, it was an obvious step for the air transport community to embrace the idea of creating and running its own top level Internet domain. Although the domain is sponsored and managed by SITA, the agreement negotiated by SITA with ICANN was always premised on the basis of a governance system that ensures the air transport community as a whole remains actively involved in the evolution of standards, the maintenance of the domain's integrity and the pioneering of new services. As such, many of the broadly spread governance issues that have been discussed during the past couple of years have been addressed within this community environment.
Linking with WGIG and WSIS?
In the context of .aero, it is worth reminding ourselves of some of the key points that arose from the Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) Report that was placed before the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Tunis last November.
First, the WGIG August 2005 Report provides the following working definition of the phrase 'Internet Governance': "Internet governance is the development and application by Governments, the private sector and civil society, in their respective roles, of shared principles, norms, rules, decision-making procedures, and programmes that shape the evolution and use of the Internet".
The Report goes on to make it clear that Internet governance includes not only issues dealt with by ICANN, but also other significant policy issues, "such as critical Internet resources, the security and safety of the Internet, and developmental aspects and issues pertaining to the use of the Internet".
In terms of global action, the WGIG Report "identified a vacuum within the context of existing structures, since there is no global multi-stakeholder forum to address Internet-related public policy issues" – and went on to propose the "creation of a new space for dialogue for all stakeholders on an equal footing on all Internet-governance related issues". The Tunis Summit approved this proposal with the creation of the Internet Governance Forum, which was meeting for the second time in Geneva as this newsletter went to press.
This is where the air transport community's experience through a sponsored domain assumes such relevance.
When the Internet was first introduced, many of the ICAO and IATA designators and codes were legitimately taken as domains by companies and organizations that had nothing to do with air transport (e.g. sas.com is not the airline but the software services company). With millions of domains registered using almost every word in the English language, predictability is crucial. So the .aero domain has gradually introduced a structured naming convention based on the long-established designators and codes, without in any way conflicting with those air transport businesses that have a well-established Internet presence via the company name and top level or country domains.
Currently, all existing airport and airline codes are pre-registered by SITA and reserved for the use of designated code holders.
Thanks to these conventions and the strict eligibility verification processes, implemented by SITA on behalf of the community, there has been little evidence of any hijacking of domain names in the .aero domain, and little evidence of cybersquatting or domain name speculation in the three and a half years since the .aero domain was introduced.
So what will happen in the future?
Magical as the Internet undoubtedly is, the public domain structure is a mass-market solution that can be inflexible, inconsistent and insecure. By leveraging the advantages of the domain name system (DNS), even greater certainty, predictability and flexibility can be achieved for the benefit of those using .aero domains. For those within the community, for anyone having contact with an air transport community-related business, the guaranteed convention for airlines and provides certainty, transparency and predictability.
"I have always imagined the information space as something to which everyone has immediate and intuitive access," wrote World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners Lee in his book Weaving the Web, (HarperSanFrancisco 1999). Thanks in large measure to the predictability of the naming structure and the exclusive nature of the .aero domain, that expectation could be met in a variety of ways to the benefit of passengers and operators. These are just some of the ideas that we have been considering in recent months:
• Passengers could complete transactions from any Web-enabled device relating to a specific flight and date, including flight alteration and payment.
• Passengers could access and pay for services such as airport parking and duty free goods - simply by knowing the three letter airport identifier and .aero suffix.
• Passengers, airlines and airports could administer and process elements such as lost luggage through the use of predictable e-mail addresses.
• Aircraft themselves can become a network: an engine can have its own IP address and communicate remotely with ground maintenance.
• Containers for cargo (known as unit load devices, or ULDs) can be given their own .aero addresses.
The ability to present this level of joined-up thinking over the development and evolution of the Internet depends on the operation of a domain that offers security and predictability to domain name owners, together with transparency and predictability for users.
The option of a sponsored domain for global communities run along the lines of .aero – based on the needs and aspirations of that community within the broader community, run by that community for the benefit of its members and for the broader community at large – has much to recommend it in resolving issues of governance and future development.
Of course, what suits the air transport community will not necessarily suit other communities. And there is no doubt that issues of root server security, stability and interoperability need global coordination. But it is surely better for an identifiable community, to be able to retain the maximum freedom for innovation and the evolution of communal standards, than to be governed wholly by a dominant global body applying generic standards and policies. That was the basis on which ICANN agreed to endorse the introduction of the .aero domain – and it remains the guiding light for the .aero domain, its sponsor and its community as a whole.
* This article is based on an essay prepared for the Council of European National Top-Level Domain Registries (CENTR) and published as part of the Council's WSIS input.