Search
Search

INTERNET

How websites registered to Lebanon’s country code domain almost disappeared from the web

The national network was saved at the last moment from a financial crisis that has been crippling the country for two years. To understand how things got here, we must trace this Lebanese-style administrative fiasco.

How websites registered to Lebanon’s country code domain almost disappeared from the web

Attempts to keep Lebanon’s country-level internet domain ran up against the reality of the Lebanese administration, where the interests of various political parties take precedence over the common good. (Credit: Leeser/Bigstock)

The digital security expert Shakeeb al-Jabri learned from an email sent to his spam folder a few months ago that his cousin’s Lebanon-based company was at risk of having its website deactivated. The email said he had to register with a new payable registrar — an intermediary company certified by the main domain name registry (DNS) to provide registration services to website owners and modify domain names, or web addresses.

“I was shocked because I did not receive any warning or explanation earlier,” the computer specialist says. His cousin’s company’s page had been registered and maintained for years for free with the Lebanon Domain Name Registry (LBDR), which is the official registry for the .lb DNS.

Jabri is not the only one who received this email. Mass emails were sent out to hundreds, and maybe thousands, of recipients, depending on their websites’ expiry date. The email warned that their service would be interrupted, based on a timetable set by the LBDR. It also explained the steps recipients need to follow to register, renew and maintain their websites, or else they would disappear.

After learning the news, Jabri blew the whistle on social media, fearing a new, harmful episode of the crisis that the country has been going through. But it raised only a few eyebrows. However, his concerns were not unfounded.

The national network has been subjected to the current crisis and to Lebanon’s long-standing administrative mess. It likely would have been wiped out from the digital world had it not been for the commitment of a single man: Nabil Bukhalid. Left adrift by the Lebanese authorities, Bukhalid took it upon himself to assume the responsibilities that they are supposed to carry out.

To understand how things got here, we must trace this Lebanese-style administrative fiasco.

Creation

The .lb DNS was originally created for the American University of Beirut’s website in August 1993. It is a top-level country code domain that “was assigned to me by Jon Postel,” a US inventor and the director of domain names, through the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, recalls Bukhalid, the pioneer of the Lebanese internet.

Bukhalid, who served as director of the AUB campus computer network and is passionate about internet technology, founded the national web with the assistance of a group of volunteers as a service to benefit the country.

The Lebanese domain developed as the number of sites grew bigger, and were given for free to the sites’ owners. A few years later, the national network’s infrastructure was completed.

“We realized in 1996 that we couldn’t afford going on like this on our own,” Bukhalid notes.

The 1924 law governing intellectual property rights in Lebanon did not apply to the computing sector. In fact, AUB and Bukhalid would have been found responsible in any dispute involving a domain name registered in Lebanon.

Bukhalid reached out to the Economy Ministry in 1997. In 1999, users were required to obtain a trademark certificate from the ministry to be allocated a .lb DNS. Once this certificate was obtained, the site’s startup and maintenance were provided for free through the LBDR servers, hosted by AUB and run by Bukhalid’s team.

While the country was in the midst of the post-war reconstruction process at the dawn of the new millennium, a national internet network was made available in Lebanon in the space of a few years. It involved many sites ending with .edu.lb, .net.lb, .org.lb, .com.lb, .gov.lb and others for businesses, organizations, universities and government institutions. For Bukhalid and AUB, this network should be logically run by a Lebanese state body.

But attempts to achieve this would run up against the reality of the Lebanese administration, where the interests of various political parties take precedence over the common good.

Transition

Following numerous futile attempts to set up such a body in the early 2000s, Ogero joined the landscape in 2008. The state-owned telecommunications company, which operates under the supervision of the Telecommunications Ministry, emerged as a candidate for managing the .lb network.

While the cabinet at the time voted for this option, the conflict of interest — which manifested itself in entrusting management of the national DNS to the only internet provider on the Lebanese market — was clearly perceivable.

A new problem arose. According to Bukhalid, given that the LBDR runs but does not own the network, the request to transfer administrative responsibility to Ogero should have been submitted to the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority. The latter holds the country-code top-level domain,.lb, which Jon Postel entrusted to the LBDR alone.

It was not until 2013, when Fadi Chehadé, the president of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers — the internet’s regulator and the owner of the global DNS founded in the United States in 1998 — visited Lebanon, that the decision to establish a multi-stakeholder platform tasked with administering the Lebanese DNS was made.

The Lebanese Internet Center (LINC), which involves nearly a dozen representatives from public administrations such as the Economy and Telecommunications ministries, economic agents like Berytech and the Beirut Bar Association and civil society actors such as Bukhalid, was created 15 months later.

Owing to this nonprofit association, Lebanon became “the first Arab country to entrust the management of domains to a multi-stakeholder structure representing all internet actors,” Chehadé told Le Commerce du Levant at the LINC launching ceremony in June 2014.

This was the first victory of the transition process, according to Bukhalid, who was still administering the LBDR. However, he told Le Commerce du Levant in 2014 that “several steps are still required,” most notably the establishment of a procedure for registering national domain names similar to most countries in the world. Yet, the .lb DNS management system was never reworked.

Blockage

“The LINC has never been approved to register with the Interior Ministry, despite our four or five annual attempts to do so since its inception,” Bukhalid explains. The ministry has never provided a formal reason for its rejection, which has stopped the LINC from opening bank accounts and achieving the purpose for which it was set up.

The blockage is rooted in a political dispute that arose between the economy and telecommunications ministries in drafting a bill governing e-commerce and entrusting the Lebanese DNS’ management to the private sector under the Economy Ministry’s supervision, Wassim Hajjar, a judge who took part in drafting the bill, said in a 2015 press conference.

“No ministry shall have the power to regulate access to the internet, which has become a fundamental right associated with the freedom of expression,” said then-MP Ghassan Moukheiber, who was also involved in drafting the bill at the time.

After more than a decade of political talks and futile attempts to register the LINC as an independent multi-stakeholder structure under the umbrella of the Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture of Beirut and Mount Lebanon (CCIAB) — and after AUB started growing impatient — Lebanon enacted a new e-transactions and data protection law — Law No. 81 of 2018.

The law states that the management of internet sites ending with .lb should be entrusted to a “national body” comprising representatives from several ministries, including the Telecommunications, Economy, Justice and Administrative Development ministries.

Nevertheless, some of the law’s provisions, which are pretty vague, continue to be ineffective without an implementation decree — which is a classic scenario in Lebanon. After the law was voted on, MP Samer Saade, the chairman of the parliamentary committee tasked with examining the law, could not have been any clearer. “This law is based on the French National Commission on Informatics and Liberty, which has concentrated, important powers. But it is impossible to give a single body in Lebanon so much power, because everyone would fight,” he said.

Conversely, a division of responsibilities would de facto weaken the legal text.

As political procrastination persisted, the LBDR situation became critical. Amid the never-ending administrative slowness, and successive developments on the Lebanese scene, the summer of 2019 arrived, bringing with it the worst economic crisis that Lebanon has suffered since the Civil War.

Public anger exploded in October over the corrupt political elite and brought down the government led by Saad Hariri. The management of the .lb DNS has since been relegated to the bottom of the list of national concerns.

Amid a popular uprising, the start of the currency and banking crash and later successive COVID-19 lockdowns, AUB issued an ultimatum in June 2020. It warned of a pressing need to relocate and redelegate the LBDR register to a third party within two months, or else the entire system would be deactivated. In plain English: all sites ending with .lb were at risk of disappearing.

This is when things started moving at a faster pace.

Rescue

After things had remained at a political standstill for more than 20 years, a race against time began to safeguard the .lb DNS, including state institutions’ websites, as Lebanon sank further into the crisis.

Bukhalid consulted with the LINC board and then-Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s office, and was referred to the Office of the Minister of State for Administrative Reform (OMSAR).

On June 30, 2020, Bukhalid submitted a request co-signed by AUB and the Internet Society Chapter Lebanon — an NGO representing the Lebanese internet community — to Minister of State for Administrative Reform Damien Kattar, who studied the matter.

“Throughout my 27-year-long attempts to engage the Lebanese government on this matter, Minister Kattar was the first to have responded favorably, and most importantly in writing,” Bukhalid says. In parallel, Bukhalid obtained AUB’s consent to extend the deadline until Sept. 30, 2020.

On July 29, Diab held a meeting with Kattar and Bukhalid to decide how to proceed. The three of them agreed on an emergency solution that would temporarily activate the LINC, to which the LBDR databases would be transferred so that they could be administered until the anticipated government entity is established, pursuant to Law N0. 81.

To this end, the founder of the .lb network was tasked with setting out a roadmap, which would usually take weeks. However, faced with the pressure of an imminent digital disaster, “we did it in a few days,” recalls Nasser Israoui, the director of OMSAR’s technical cooperation unit.

Bukhalid submitted his action plan to the officials on Aug. 3. The next day, an explosion devastated Beirut; Hassan Diab announced his government’s resignation on Aug. 10.

“This is when everything was put on hold,” says Israoui, whose office reached out to AUB to delay the transition. Yet, given the warnings issued throughout the years and the magnitude of the economic depression, AUB was resolute.

In the absence of a full-fledged government, Kattar communicated to Bukhalid the government’s inability to activate the LINC. On Sept. 23, AUB warned OMSAR and Bukhalid that the system would be deactivated shortly.

Bukhalid was able to negotiate an extension until late November, and commenced data migration from the LBDR to a cloud. But a key question remained: what about the .gov.lb DNS?

“I could not transfer government domains without the authorities’ approval,” Bukhalid says. On Sept. 30, Diab and President Michel Aoun signed a special approval to this end, also subject to conditions.

Bukhalid has to decloud all the LBDR once a government entity, which OMSAR would supervise and operate, is created and activated.

“Had I refused to do so, the Lebanese institutions’ internet network would have collapsed,” says Bukhalid, who was presented with a fait accompli and got down to uploading the .gov.lb DNS data to international servers.

The last-minute rescue of all Lebanese domains was finally completed in December 2020.

Nevertheless, after the AUB campus hosted the infrastructure of the registry for free, for nearly 30 years, and the cost of resorting to international hosts exceeds the budget of a caretaker government in a country that has been going through an acute crisis and defaulted on its debt in foreign currencies.

Burden

From being described by Le Commerce du Levant as “the builder” of the Lebanese web in 2014, to saving the Lebanese internet, Nabil Bukhalid has now become its creditor. “The cost of the data logging contract [on the new servers] amounts to $15,000 [in so-called fresh dollars] and was due in December 2020,” he says.

In mid-October, Bukhalid contacted Banque du Liban in the hope that BDL would subsidize the financing of this sovereign service, similar to how it once subsidized essential items such as fuel, wheat and medicine.

BDL rejected his request flat out and referred him to his bank. But the banking sector, which has been in survival mode since the summer of 2019, has imposed illegal and informal restrictions on accounts, preventing depositors from transferring funds in foreign currency out of Lebanon.

“My bank simply did not respond to my request, although exceptional,” says Bukhalid, who had to dip into his personal savings in an account abroad to pay the initial registration fees with international hosts.

“My goal at the time was to save the registry and not interrupt the service on the web,” he says. While Bukhalid declines to reveal how much he has spent so far, he told L’Orient-Le Jour that the LBDR’s annual budget under the contract amounts to $42,000.

The mission was accomplished in January 2021, as the new infrastructure of the LBDR registry was tested and validated in preparation for the launch, slated on Feb. 1. Given that no official Lebanese entity provided the funds and international transfers are restricted, Bukhalid decided in March 2021 to register the LBDR as a company in Delaware, in the United States.

This option enables the system to self-finance through intermediary registrars. Five registrars are accredited by the LBDR, and pay the annual registration and renewal fees. Holders of .lb websites must therefore register with these registrars to ensure their internet address’ continuity and pay the fees in foreign currencies or lira.

The new conditions also apply to government domains. “For instance, each ministry is required to pay its own registrar a registry fee for its own domain,” says Najib Korban, OSMAR’s chief information officer. Yet, with the banking restrictions preventing these registrars from sending the funds covering the costs abroad, “Nabil Bukhalid alone continues to finance the whole system,” Korban says.

While it is still necessary to institutionalize the LBDR and entrust its management to a multi-stakeholder administration, “the situation is no longer critical,” Bukahlid says.

“This is a transition period for the .lb network, and we need to protect the people’s rights,” he adds.

To sum up, Boukhalid and his team succeeded in protecting the rights of the Lebanese holding one way or another. The long-standing neglect of the Lebanese authorities almost ruined the fruit of their labors.

All sites ending with .lb, which almost disappeared from the web, are now safe and sound on foreign servers. While authorities slow-walk implementing a solution that will enable the system to move back to Lebanon, Bukhalid continues to carry the Lebanese web on his shoulders.

“It is a one-man show, which is neither reliable nor sustainable. What if something bad happened to him?” asks Najib Korban, calling for Najib Mikati’s cabinet, which received Parliament’s vote of confidence on Sept. 20, to take quick action to entrust the LBDR’s management to “a body as stipulated in Law No. 81.”

Nabil Bukhalid is undoubtedly hoping to be relieved from a responsibility that should not have fallen to him in the first place, with the new cabinet formation filling a 13-month political vacuum.


This article was originally published in French in L’Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Joelle El Khoury.


The digital security expert Shakeeb al-Jabri learned from an email sent to his spam folder a few months ago that his cousin’s Lebanon-based company was at risk of having its website deactivated. The email said he had to register with a new payable registrar — an intermediary company certified by the main domain name registry (DNS) to provide registration services to website owners and modify...