- The Washington Times - Monday, July 23, 2001

MANILA The Philippines has become the reluctant battleground for one of the nastiest fights in cyberspace, with implications for how Internet country codes can be commercialized around the globe.

The fight over the use of .ph (pronounced dot-P-H), the "top level domain name" or country code for the Philippines, has been sparked by the marketing efforts of J. Emmanuel Disini, a computer engineer-turned-entrepreneur who sees commercial potential in marketing the name as an Internet address linked to mobile phones.

His critics argue that the use of .ph as a designation for phones would dilute the value of the domain name as a country identification for the Philippines.

"What I'm proposing in no way devalues .ph. In fact, it enhances it," Mr. Disini said in an interview in his office in Manila's Ortigas business district. "These people simply want to take control of my business."

The dispute, watched by legal analysts and electronic-commerce moguls worldwide, has taken an ugly turn of late with petty postings in Internet chat groups, public shouting matches and libel lawsuits.

With no resolution in sight, the Philippine Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) has become involved, a move not welcomed by cyberspace purists who abhor government meddling in Internet issues.

Toby Monsod, DTI's assistant secretary for information technology and communications, said she hasn't taken sides, but she acknowledges "a real distaste for the way it is being handled on both sides."

The disagreement is likely to end up before ICANN, the California-based Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. The private agency, created by a broad coalition of the Internet's academic, business, technical and user communities, administers country codes and generic designations such as .com, .net, .org and a host of recent additions such as .biz and .info.

The Philippine saga began in 1989, when Mr. Disini, a Filipino working in Silicon Valley, volunteered to run the .ph registry.

At the time, the Internet was the province of a few academics and computer enthusiasts. Still fewer people had the technical know-how to administer a country code. The authority to handle them was doled out on an ad hoc basis by John Postel, an Internet pioneer.

For nearly a decade, Mr. Disini ran the registry alongside his own Internet businesses.

The registry itself was neither large nor profitable. In the Philippines, like most other countries, Internet and e-mail users prefer generic designations that end with .com or .net. Until recently, country codes seemed to have little commercial potential.

Then, a few entrepreneurs got deals to market Internet country codes with unintended semantic connotations that had commercial appeal.

Tuvalu, a string of nine tiny Pacific islands that had been assigned .tv, sold the rights to a California company for $40 million over 10 years. The money has allowed Tuvalu to build schools, hospitals and provide other services once beyond the reach of the cash-strapped nation of just over 10,000 people.

The .tv Corp. markets the Tuvalu domain name to networks, local stations, studios and producers who see marketing potential in a .tv Internet address. The designation "movies.tv" is available through the .tv Corp. for $1.25 million a year.

"Such alternative uses were never intended," Jonathan Weinberg, a professor of communications law at Wayne State University in Detroit, said in a telephone interview. "But there is certainly nothing in the regulations that prohibits it."

Mr. Disini, the .ph administrator, believes he can profitably market the Philippines country code name based on the semantic link between .ph and "phone." He plans to offer users a package of optional, value-added services to link their mobile phones with the Internet to post contact information, transfer bank funds and pay bills.

"There's nothing in the ICANN regulations that prohibits a for-profit model," said Mr. Disini, who also owns Internet companies DotPH and DotPHone.

"I ran the registry for more than a decade without making money. Now that I've come up with a new business model, my competitors want to shut me down."

Fernando Contreras Jr., chief executive officer of Interdotnet Philippines Inc., is leading the fight to strip Mr. Disini of his authority to administrator the Philippine country code. Mr. Contreras wants it redelegated by a group he helped found, the Philippine Domain Authority Conveners.

Mr. Disini filed a $2 million libel lawsuit against Mr. Contreras, who then sued Mr. Disini for a like amount.

"At first my interest was purely commercial," said Mr. Contreras. "I felt that by controlling the registry, he had an unfair advantage over fellow competitors. But the real issue is leaving Internet policy in our country in the hands of one person. It's like he's the president and the Congress, and that's not right."

"The issue really is about who owns .ph, the local Internet community or Joel Disini," said Jim Ayson, a local journalist who moderates the Philippine Cyberspace Review chat room. "I think it's something that belongs to Filipinos who use the Internet."

Not everyone agrees.

"When I hear that argument, I have to ask: What is this 'something' that belongs to these people?" said A. Michael Froomkin, a specialist on Internet governance at the University of Miami School of Law. "These designations were a private arrangement among private people."

The Department of Trade and Industry is trying to determine whether marketing .ph for mobile phones in any way dilutes the value of the domain name for the Philippine Internet community.

"I understand the feelings of those who say using .ph for phones diminishes the value of the domain name as a country code," said Miss Monsod, the assistant secretary of trade for information technology.

"But I must say that I'm not swayed by that so-called patrimony argument alone. If Joel Disini has developed technology that is useful and a marketing plan that is unique, he should be rewarded. That has to be factored into the deliberations."

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