Governing Internet Territory: ICANN, Sovereignty Claims, Property Rights and Country Code Top-Level Domains

57 Pages Posted: 12 Mar 2015 Last revised: 26 Nov 2019

See all articles by Milton Mueller

Milton Mueller

Georgia Institute of Technology

Farzaneh Badiei


Date Written: March 8, 2015


This paper examines the legal and Internet governance controversies over country code top level domains (ccTLDs). Recent litigation by terrorism victims (Weinstein v. Islamic Republic of Iran and ICANN) argued that ccTLDs are property and attempted to seize Iran’s .IR domain from ICANN for compensation. In refusing to uphold this claim, an appeals court ruled that a forced redelegation would impair ICANN’s role in global Internet governance. While the .IR case is recent, the underlying tensions between the authority of states, the role of ICANN and rights of organizations that have been awarded ccTLDs have been simmering for two decades. Three governance models are in play: a sovereignty-based model, a property rights/market-based model, and a global public trustee model. The legal and political science literature leaves this Internet governance issue unexplored and unsettled, while court rulings on the property status of domains have been mixed or indecisive. Most legal scholars merely assume that states have sovereignty rights over their ccTLDs and do not critically assess the justification for, or the implications of, a sovereignty-based model. Likewise, many legal scholars, governments and Internet governance institutions have resisted recognizing TLD delegations as a property right, but their arguments are often based on misunderstandings of the economics and technology of the domain name system. Drawing on law and economics and sovereignty theories, this paper shows that top level domain names have all the essential features of a property right. It argues that a governance regime that recognized them as such would be preferable to a regime based on sovereignty claims or a global public trustee model.

Keywords: ccTLDs, ICANN, Sovereignty, Property rights, Law and Economics

Suggested Citation

Mueller, Milton and Badiei, Farzaneh, Governing Internet Territory: ICANN, Sovereignty Claims, Property Rights and Country Code Top-Level Domains (March 8, 2015). 18 Colum. Sci. & Tech. L. Rev. 435, Columbia Science and Technology Law Review, Vol. XVIII, GigaNet: Global Internet Governance Academic Network, Annual Symposium 2015, Available at SSRN:

Milton Mueller

Georgia Institute of Technology ( email )

School of Public Policy
Schhol of Cybersecurity and Privacy
Atlanta, GA 30332
United States
404-385-4281 (Phone)


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