The International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) has created a precedent with its approval of the .cat domain extension for the Catalan language community. Critics say that by approving ".cat" for Internet sites in Catalan and pertaining to Catalan language and culture, ICANN is giving a ‘virtual’ national status to Catalonia, one of Spain's wealthiest and most powerful semi-autonomous regions, with Barcelona as its capital. The new .cat domain can be used as of January 2006.
ICANN is the internet's key oversight agency responsible for managing and coordinating the Domain Name System (DNS) to ensure that every internet address is unique and that all users of the internet can find all valid addresses. ICANN was selected by the U.S. government in 1998 to oversee internet policies. However, the US Department of Commerce retains a vetoing power over ICANN’s decisions. It has asked ICANN to delay approval of a new ".xxx" domain name as a virtual red-light district for porn websites.
The application for the .cat domain was an initiative of PuntCAT, a coalition of 98 organisations supporting the Catalan language and culture, including writers' and editors' associations, professional and technological associations, schools, companies, federations and media consortiums etc. PuntCAT successfully advocated a domain name for the Catalan language community. Catalan is an official language in Spain and is widely spoken in the autonomous Spanish region of Catalonia, as well as in the Balearic Islands, the region of Valencia and parts of the region of Aragon. It is also the official language of the principality of Andorra in the Pyrenees. It is additionally spoken in parts of southern France around Perpignan, as well as in the Italian (Sardinian) city of Alguer. Backers of the .cat domain name say that it could unify Catalan speakers. Apparently, the Spanish government did not object to PuntCAT's application. According to a press release by ICANN on September 15th, "the ICANN-Board noted the written communications it had received from the governments of Spain and Andorra not objecting to the .CAT application." PuntCAT will become the policy maker for .cat which means that it can determine who and what goes on their domain extension (pdf).
Top Level Domains (TLDs) are divided into classes according to certain rules. Currently more than 260 domain name suffixes exist, mostly country codes such as ".uk" for the United Kingdom. Recent additions include ".eu" for the European Union. Most TLDs have been delegated to individual country managers. The country codes are assigned from a table known as ISO-3166-1, which is maintained by an agency of the United Nations. These are called country-code Top Level Domains, or ccTLDs. In order to obtain such a country-code Top Level Domain one needs to succeed in getting onto this UN-maintained list. This is not required for a domain name like PUNTcat obtained because the .cat domain is not a country-code Top Level Domain but a so-called sponsored Top Level Domain.
The establishment of the .cat sponsored Top Level Domain (sTLD) is a novelty for ICANN, because countries and geographical territories (even Greenland which is part of Denmark, the British and French overseas territories, and the Palestinian territories) all have domain suffixes with just two letters, not three. All of them are mentioned on the UN-maintained list with country-code Top Level Domains. The domain name ".cat" is not. The suffixes with three letters have previously been reserved for non-territorial domains, largely under commercial, professional or national organisations like .com or .biz This ICANN-precedent means that for example Flanders could also apply for a sponsored Top Level Domain, for example ".vla" or ".fla" instead of having to apply for a country-code Top Level Domain (ccTLD) ".vl". Wallonia could for example apply for ".wal" (but so, in fact, could Wales).
The Catalan government is delighted with the decision of ICANN. Some expect that there will be a lot of applications to switch existing websites from .es (Spain) into .cat (Catalonia). The Catalan government has already announced that it will now register its site under the new domain. "The acceptance of the domain signifies top-level recognition and is of primary importance for the Catalan culture and language. It is a distinctive element which will correspond with increasing Catalan content on the web." said Oriol Ferran, the secretary for telecommunications and information affairs of the Catalan government.
While the .cat domain name is not a country-code Top Level Domain (ccTLD) but only a so-called sponsored Top Level Domain (just as .aero .coop and .museum), critics of the .cat domain name claim that this creates the impression that Catalonia is a separate and independent country.
A recent addition in the country-code domains (ccTLD) includes ".eu" for the European Union to be operated by EURid. The Regulation on the implementation of the .eu Top Level Domain (Regulation (EC) No 733/2002) provides that EU Member States may submit to the European Commission and to the other Member States a limited list of broadly-recognised names of geographical and/or geopolitical concepts which affect their political or territorial organisation that may either: (a) not be registered, or (b) be registered only under a second level domain according to the public policy rules. Six Member States – Denmark, Germany, Greece, Spain, Austria and Portugal – have submitted lists of geographical and/or geo-political concepts. Catalonia is mentioned on Spain's list as a name reserved by Spain that can be registered only under a second level domain according to the public policy rules. The other Member States, including Belgium, have not filed lists. Prior to commencing .eu registration on a first-come first-served basis, there will be a so-called sunrise period to allow public bodies and holders of prior rights (e.g. trade marks) to apply for the corresponding .eu domain name. Immediately after the four month "sunrise period" is over, registrations will be taken on a first-come first-served basis.