On November 1 2000 administration of the Irish top level domain '.ie' was transferred from the Computer Services Department of University College Dublin, which has been responsible for this domain since its inception, to a separate limited company, the IE Domain Registry Limited.

This is an independent limited company which will administer the .ie domain as a public service on behalf of domain name users. The new company will be responsible for registering and allocating all .ie domain names. The .ie domain registry currently has in excess of 17,000 web site addresses registered and handles approximately 600 new applications each month.

University College Dublin's stewardship of the .ie domain has been controversial since, unlike most top level domain administrators, it has imposed rather onerous restrictions on the acquisition of domain names in the domain for which it has responsibility.

For example, it has restricted the registration of domain names which are offensive, or contrary to public policy or generally accepted principles of morality. Other regulations include the 'generic name regulation'. This provides that no domain name may consist of generic names, words or descriptions, or a combination of such, followed by .ie, which in the view of the registry would be likely to be misleading if registered in the name of the applicant, or would be likely to infer or imply that the applicant had exclusive or certain rights emanating from this domain name. The 'geographical name regulation' contains similar provisos with respect to geographical names, words and descriptions.

Arguably the most controversial requirement is that applicants must be able to prove a 'real and substantive' connection with Ireland. This must be proved through the provision of sufficient documentary evidence to support the claim.

The regulations state that this link may be proved by a natural person applicant's production of a valid Irish passport or an Irish birth certificate. In the case of a body corporate it may be proved either by incorporation within Ireland or, in the case of incorporation outside Ireland, by the establishment of a 'place of business' within Ireland which is registered under Part XI of the Companies Act 1963, or a 'branch' in Ireland which is registered pursuant to the European Communities (Branch Disclosures) Regulations 1993.

On a practical level, this has meant that an overseas company wishing to buy a .ie domain would normally have to set up an Irish subsidiary to do so, although the registry may, at its sole discretion, accept other documentary evidence that an entity has a real and substantive connection with Ireland. The naming authority may refuse to register a name where the proposed name is, in its opinion, likely to lead to confusion.

This tough registration regime has arguably limited the potential for cybersquatting. However, where a non-judicial body has the power to decide issues arbitrarily there is obvious scope for abuse. Perhaps reflecting concern in relation to this issue, domain registration was among the various areas addressed by the Electronic Commerce Act 2000 when it was passed in June 2000 by the Irish Parliament.

This act provides that by regulation made for the purposes of easy comprehension, promotion of competition, fairness, transparency, avoidance of deception and public confidence, the relevant minister may authorize, prohibit or regulate the registration and use of the .ie domain name in the state. In particular, the act provides that these ministerial regulations may prescribe:

  • designated registration authorities;

  • the form of registration;

  • the period during which registration remains in force;

  • the manner in which, the terms on which, and the period or periods for which registration may be renewed;

  • the circumstances and manner in which the registration authorities may grant, renew or refuse registrations;

  • the right of appeal and appeal process;

  • the fees, if any, to be paid on the grant or renewal of registration, and the time and manner in which such fees must be paid; and

  • other matters relating to registration which appear to the minister to be necessary or desirable to prescribe; in short, power to regulate all aspects of the process.

No regulations have yet been issued under this act and the Department of Public Enterprise has stated that it has no plans to press for implementation at this stage. It will, however, keep the matter under review.

The new registry, IE Domain Registry Limited, is continuing to administer the registration system in accordance with the pre-existing regulations, but changes are under consideration and the technical requirements for a .ie domain name have already been changed. For example, the point of contact for a domain need no longer be '[email protected]'.

At a practical level, this change of registrar is of interest to lawyers involved in e-commerce projects not only due to the likelihood of changes to aspects of the registration process but also due to the legal nature of the new registrar. This new independent company which will administer the .ie domain is limited. It was formed without a share capital, but instead liability is limited by the guarantee of a nominal sum. The company's memorandum states that it has been established for "charitable purposes", and the fact that it has no share capital and few assets means that entities attempting to pursue action against it through the courts may be able to obtain injunctive relief with respect to the issue at hand, but will be unlikely to recover costs or damages.

For further information on this topic please contact David Sanfey at A & L Goodbody by telephone (+353 1 649 2000) or by fax (+353 1 649 2649) or by e-mail ([email protected]).

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