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Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Porn sites lay bare São Tomé 'image problem'

 

Porn sites lay bare São Tomé 'image problem'

By Michael Peel

Financial Times

Published: December 14 2004 02:00 | Last updated: December 14 2004 02:00

 

The tiny western African nation of São Tomé and Principe claims it has unwittingly become the continent's electronic porn publishing capital after a Swedish company and its local partner sold the country's internet identity without government approval.

 

 

The government is demanding a share of the income earned from selling addresses using São Tomé's .st suffix, after a US survey found they accounted for more than three-quarters of the porn pages generated from websites that use African nations' identities.

 

The controversy highlights an evolving debate over control of potentially lucrative national internet identities - known as top-level domains - after disputes over domains ranging from Moldova to the minuscule Pitcairn Islands in the south Pacific.

 

"São Tomé doesn't receive a thing," protests Deolindo Costa de Boa Esperança, São Tomé's infrastructure minister, adding that the profusion of porn had given his country an "image problem".

 

The government's dismay began after the publication in June of a global internet porn survey by Secure Computing, a California-based company. It said that São Tomé - an impoverished archipelago off the west coast of Africa, whose population is estimated at less than 150,000 - accounted for 307,000 of the 389,000 porn pages found on African domains.

 

Shocked by the findings, Mr Costa says he delved into his files and was surprised to find a June 1999 document concerning the appointment of new domain managers. Headlined simply "Announcement", the paper is signed by Aguinaldo Salvaterra, a local network engineer, and Jon Karlung, chief executive of Bahnhof Internet, Sweden's oldest internet operating company. They say they were appointed by the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), the US-based body that took over domain management authority from the US government amid concerns over Washington's potential control of the web.

 

São Tomé says the partners should have sought official approval and claims they have failed to honour a series of promises made at the time of their appointment, including setting up a fast link to Bahnhof's Swedish network centre and free connections for São Tomé's parliament. A US telecoms lawyer is working free of charge to help officials investigate the case.

 

Domain names can be big business: VeriSign, a Californian company, paid $45m (€34m, £23m) in 2001 to buy the company that manages the sought-after .tv domain of the Pacific island of Tuvalu. Bahnhof markets the .st suffix on the internet as "The street domain", charging a €35 annual registration fee for each user.

 

Mr Karlung insists his company has done nothing wrong, adding that Bahnhof had applied to take over the .st domain after discovering it was being co-managed by a dead priest. He scoffs at the US porn survey figures, saying they are "completely wrong", and that the São Tomé domain has "not been a fantastic business", with about 5,000 clients and average revenues of between €10,000 and €12,000 a month.

 

He added that the application was supported by São Tomé's government, although he admits the arrangement is "informal", and he has nothing in writing to verify his claim. Bahnhof has been stung before, he says: it had an accord in 2000 to manage the Democratic Republic of Congo's domain, but the agreement collapsed after President Laurent Kabila was assassinated and an official separately demanded that 10 per cent of the venture's income be paid into his Swiss bank account.

 

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the US not-for profit corporation that took over IANA's role and appoints domain managers on behalf of all internet users, declined to reveal any details of the São Tomé case. The corporation, which says it takes the wishes of governments "very seriously" when making its decisions, has over the past five years changed mangement with government consent in a number of countries such as Australia. In a tacit acknowledgement of the increasing commercial exploitation of the internet, the corporation says it is moving away from delegating domain management responsibility to "trusted individuals" and towards a more formal process involving accountability to the local internet community.

 

Mr Salvaterra, the co-signatory of the agreement with Bahnhof, runs a bar and cybercafé in São Tomé, where the staff wear T-shirts bearing the logo "internet for all".

 

He acknowledges that he and Bahnhof have done little in the country other than give two high schools computers and internet connections. He says this is because the government has shown little interest in working with him, in spite of his good intentions: he points to a July 2002 testimony written by a former infrastructure minister, praising his dedication to domain management.

 

Mr Salvaterra claims all his investments improve the country's technological infrastructure, even if some of the money goes into his own businesses. He has plans for a radio station and a television venture.

 

Asked if he has kept records of the money he has earned and spent after selling his country's identity over the past five years, he grins and regrets that he does not.

 

"That's my big mistake," he says.

 

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