What’s in a name? The ac.za registry as a trusted domain

The domain name system (DNS) is one of those services that remains invisible, unless it goes awry, in which case the impact is severe. TENET has moderated the ac.za domain space for over 20 years and is working to ensure it remains a trusted domain space.
What’s in a name? The ac.za registry as a trusted domain

In the 1980s, when the Internet was still the ARPAnet, all requests for web addresses would go through Elizabeth Feinler of the Stanford Research Institute’s Network Information Centre, where she and her team would keep a master list of every Internet-connected computer in the world. Today, with well over 350 million domain names on the Web, the system for registering domain names has become significantly more sophisticated, and is now known as a domain name system (DNS). This system is most often described as a giant phone book: a way to map names that people understand to the numbers that computers use as addresses. This allows the billions of Internet users to instantly access the hundreds of millions of websites available, and often, just by glancing at the domain name, know where a site is from, and to what extent it can be trusted.

DNS is one of those services that remains invisible, unless it goes awry, in which case the impact is severe. This does happen. By design it is distributed across the world with multiple DNS registries and servers, each ensuring their part of the database is maintained, including up-to-date information on who owns a domain. Each registry also maintains a collection of rules, policies, dispute resolution mechanisms and so on.

TENET’s history with .za domain space

TENET’s history with the .za domain dates back to the first days of Internet access in South Africa, where TENET’s predecessor, UNINET, was delegated the management of the .za domain in November 1990. From these early days TENET (in its different forms over the years) has played a key role in ensuring the technical stability of the .za domain through the provision of domain name servers for .za domain itself as well as for many second level domains. In South Africa second level domains are used as a way to structure the name space of a domain to make it clear why it exists. So co.za is commercial, org.za is an organisation, ac.za is academic.

TENET has moderated the ac.za domain since August 2000. Today TENET, in its role as the ac.za DNS registry operator, continues to provide ac.za domains free of charge to both universities as well as other higher educational organisations, some of whom are not clients in any other way. As of 9 June 2022 there were 411 domains belonging to 234 organisations, of which only 85 are potentially TENET partners. This is done as a public service, at no cost to the registrants.

AC.ZA: a trusted namespace

In academic and other guidelines for navigating the plethora of information available on the Web we are often advised to look at the URL to assess the validity of the information. In a world where misinformation and disinformation pose such a threat the DNS, and particularly moderated second-level domains, offers a valuable verification service that we may take for granted. For instance, if I am looking for a source of trustworthy research, or investigating degree or diploma options, an .ac.za site will be more trustworthy than a .com site or a .co.za site because it goes through some sort of a verification process when registering. So too for a gov.za site, which means it is a bona fide South African government site.

“This really matters,” explains Guy Halse, head of trust and security at TENET. “There is a lot of fraud and other dodgy practices in the higher education and research space, including institutions that offer degrees that are not accredited in South Africa.”

“For example, there exist two Nelson Mandela universities, that we know of, on the Web, one is the known and respected institution in Nelson Mandela Bay with the website mandela.ac.za,” says Halse, “The second, nelsonmandela.university is a domain that is unvetted by any DNS registry, and its bona fides are unknown.”

Prospective students should really make sure they’re interacting with the institution they’re expecting, and the domain name is one way to ensure this.

It is because of TENET’s work as administrator, registry operator and moderator of the ac.za domain name that Internet users can be assured that all sites within the ac.za domain meet the basic eligibility criteria for a bona fide higher education institution (private or public), a learned society and associated research and support institutions, all based in South Africa.

Draft .za Registry and Registrar Licensing Regulations and Procedures

As the operator of a moderated sub-domain, TENET has a vested interest in the overall stability of the .za domain name space. It is for this reason that they are closely engaging with the .ZA Domain Name Authority (ZADNA), who are the statutory regulator charged with oversight of South Africa's DNS, over the draft .za Registry and Registrar Licensing Regulations and Procedures.

“Along with others, we have expressed to the ZADNA our concern that heavy-handed regulation will damage the domain space, increasing the cost and bureaucratic effort of not only hosting a site under the .za domain, but also of serving the community as a registrar,” says Halse.

The risk is that this may lead to a loss of confidence in the .za domain space, particularly because there are so many other options available. A wholesale loss of confidence in the un-moderated domains of co.za will in turn affect the trust that the public place in moderated domains like ac.za.

TENET did submit written representation on the proposed regulations in response to the ZADNA’s invitation to comment on the draft,” says Halse.

“We look forward to a constructive process to ensure the end product of these regulations serves to continue the growth of, and trust in, the .za domain name space.”