Reverend Sunday Folayan, is the President of Nigerian Internet Registration Association (NiRA).
In 1996, he founded Skannet which aimed to provide affordable and premium internet services to Nigerian subscribers. He also joined NiRA at inception around 12 years ago as a Director before getting elected Vice-President of NiRA for four years.
He is experienced in tech and a pioneer in the Nigerian internet space. Reverend Folayan’s tenure is a few weeks from expiring and to round up his legacy, he has decided to grant a final interview with Pulse.
On this day, he tells Pulse about what NiRA is, the formation, responsibilities, powers, limitations, dreams and vision of the organization. You can read excerpts of the interview below;
Pulse: What is NiRA?
Reverend Folayan: There are two things merged into one when it comes to NiRA and we need to understand the distinction. Not understanding the distinction is why NiRA is not known. NiRA is the Nigerian Internet Registration Association is a not-for-profit, private sector-led public-private partnership between the government of Nigeria and the people of Nigeria for the management of the .ng string which is Nigeria’s flagship identity on the internet.
The ‘.ng’ string – just like the telephone prefix, 234 – is delegated to Nigeria. Just like when you want to get a telephone number, you probably would need to walk through a telecommunications company, which works with the Nigerian Communication Commission, which allocates the number, the management of the ‘.ng’ string is under the purview of National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA).
NITDA is the one that delegated the management responsibilities to NiRA as is the practice globally – the country top level domain (for example, ‘.gh’ for Ghana) in every country is not managed by the government. Rather, it is done by bodies that are set up by the government in partnership with the people.
If you go to Canada, you have something like CiRA – the Canadian equivalent of NiRA. For the two parts of it, there is first, the association which deals with policy.
Members of the association come together and make the rules that guide applicability of names to people and businesses fairly have access to domain names as against premium domains (like newspaper.ng or online.ng) or reserved domains (like state, local government or places of historical importance) which are not give out randomly.
Anybody can be a member of the association, provided you pay your membership fees and you have one domain registered.
Secondly, we have the registry which handles the registration itself from a business perspective. The registry maintains the infrastructure, the staff, the servers and the execution of the policy made by the association.
In terms of business, we run a three-arc model; the registry, the registrars (usually business for web hosting, servers or content development purposes), and secretariat in charge the registry.
Pulse: What are the benefits of membership of NiRA?
Reverend Folayan: One of the most important benefits is your ability to contribute to policies and direction. Buying a domain name is like buying land. You can buy as much as you want and when you have a great number of domain names, one wrong policy can bring the entire network down.
So it’s important that you are a member. If you are a registrar, you want to be able to influence how your business is being protected, it’s important that your business is protected.
If you’ve built an empire online, a domain name might cost NGN10,000. If your domain name is off for once a day, that could be detrimental and cause a significant loss. There are also political reasons, and international interests and so forth.
Today, a lot of Nigerians are carrying out nefarious activities across the internet, so it’s in our best interests to make sure we have a say in how things are directed.
Some of these reasons might not be pecuniary, but they can be very intrinsic.
Pulse: What is the hierarchy internet operations in Nigeria?
Reverend Folayan: As I said earlier, globally, NITDA has mandate to oversee the management. It gets its mandate from the International Association for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) by delegating the ‘.ng’ domain. NITDA then delegated the power to NiRA through a memorandum of understanding – which governs the relations with each body at every level of domain name operations.
NiRA has a Board of Directors and it holds annual general meetings. Within six months of the completion of those general meetings, NiRA must report to NITDA the holdings of those general meetings to prevent the stewardship for the year and gives feedback.
NITDA acts on behalf of the government of Nigeria regulates the registrars while NiRA certifies, accredits and dis-accredits registrars.
Pulse: What is Nigeria’s domain count?
Reverend Folayan: We have a little over 160,000 active domains now. When you register a domain, it has a lifespan. You can decide what lifespan you want, which is usually between one and five years. We are, however, working on a new policy that extends to 10 years.
On the number of ‘.ng’ domains people have registered though, we have about 400,000 or 500,000 domain names.
Pulse: Why is it important to have more ‘.ng’ domains in Nigeria?
Reverend Folayan: When you see how white people register domain names, they register for business, activity, documentation and other things. There are some enabling environment that we may not have in Nigeria, hampering the growth of domain names. One of such is the problem of character peculiar to Nigerian citizens.
The ‘.ng’ domain name, aside from how it represents Nigeria, it’s our identity on the internet. Also, Nigeria is three times the population of South Africa, yet South Africa has 17 million small to medium scale business while Nigeria barely has five million.
South Africa has about 1.2 million domain names too. In South Africa, it is taken that each venture has about five domain names. In the Nigerian case, we have five million small to medium scale ventures. When it comes to a market capitalization, it will mean that Nigeria has just one million small to medium scale ventures which helps nobody.
So all these tell – Germany, for example has about 10 million domain names. There is also the advantage of utility and consciousness. The average Nigerian is not conscious about digital footprint and digital identity. Nigerians just migrate from providers like Gmail to Yahoo on the same name and never care what happens. Thus, it is easy to assume those identities.
But when you own your domain name, irrespective of the provider, you can change without ever wondering about the problem. In terms of identity and information management, domain names help safeguard digital footprints.
When you take control of your identity, you can always direct your Facebook details to your personal website by redirecting, in an era where social media pages are easily cloned.
Pulse: On the issue of the differences between the ‘.ng,’ ‘.com.ng.’ or ‘.gov.ng’ and so forth. Why that dichotomy?
Reverend Folayan: The internet is hierarchical. When we started, names were supposed to be classified for ease of identification. ‘.ng’ was meant to be the primary string, the second string was meant to be three letters like ‘.edu,’ for educational institutions, ‘.gov,’ for government parastatals, ‘.net’ for network, ‘.org,’ for non-profit organizations and ‘.com’ for commercial entities. The ‘.ng’ behind any of these signifies a Nigerian identity.
That hierarchy system was made, Nigerians clamored that they wanted something more unique, directly on their own. In such case, ‘.ng’ is usually more expensive. It’s also about variety and affordability; if you can’t register ‘.ng,’ you should be able to afford ‘.com.ng’ if you really need a domain name.
It’s easy to argue, but you say you want a land, but complain that lands in Ikoyi are expensive when you can’t even afford a land in Okokomaiko.
Ignorance that a ‘.com’ will make you more visible on global search, but search engine optimization these days there is now a chance that ‘.ng’ is prioritized when national searches or country peculiar searches are concerned. We can’t even differentiate.
Pulse: On the hierarchy, who determines the fees payable?
Reverend Folayan: NiRA determines the fees, we have a price charter. I see people complain that a ‘.ng’ is more expensive, but it costs money to maintain the infrastructure and the staff. We have an annual cost. If annually, we have a cost of 400,000,000 to keep the registry running to pay our bills and we only have 100,000 domains, do the numbers.
400 million divided by 100,000, that gives you N4,000. Even if we want to be charitable, we can’t register a domain for less than 4,000. We’re a non-profit organization and that might not be reasonable. In the same vein, hosting companies have to command hosting fees based on the type of domain you want to register as we discussed on the hierarchy of the internet.
While the registration fee is only about 10% of hosting fees – solely determined by hosting companies, we must also realize that hosting companies have maintenance and infrastructural costs. Storage costs money, so you have to shop around to determine what you really want. You can get a one gigabyte space for as low as N5,000-a-year.
People don’t know this because they use emails and they don’t pay.
But, two things will bring the domain prices down; more domain name registration and NiRA optimizing to make its services more affordable.
There’s, however, a limit to how much we can optimize as we have invested and we cannot keep running at a loss. We have to recoup our investment. NiRA has created a price charter that reflects the dream to bring the domain prices to as low as N200 annually.
Pulse: On content management, there are websites that illegally move pictorial, audio and visual content in ways that hampers rewards for content creators. How can NiRA help this?
Reverend Folayan: NiRA has a means whereby people who abuse the terms of agreement can be reported and dealt with through the email address, [email protected] Any abuse reported to that address is escalated to law enforcement. Bear in mind that we have a Cybercrime Act that provides for and punishes some of these offences.
One of the challenges with punishment with the effective use of the act is that it does not prescribe any organization that will be responsible for executing the provisions of the act.
The act designating an executive agency will make it very easy to police and use the provisions of the act to mitigate abuse. For now, we can only for example, draw the attention of the police. So we are trying to make some advocacy and draw attention to this problem.
But by all means, when an abuse is reported to the registrar, he contacts whoever based on standard operating procedures can disable the domain names. I also think bringing in bodies like the Nigerian Copyright Commission (NPC), the Consumer Protection Council (CPC) and maybe if there’s a working group that cuts across these agencies, then NiRA could help to execute the provisions of the Cybercrime Act.
Pulse: How far have these advocacy issues gone?
Reverend Folayan: We continually advocate, but ours is to advocate and raise the consciousness. When the call was made on us to examine the Cybercrime Act, we made our submission.
At the last Nigerian Internet Government Forum (NIGF), I spoke extensively on this topic in Abuja, challenging every member of the Nigerian internet ecosystem, to see this challenge and let us deal with it holistically.
One of the things we are trying to do – although still in the formative stage – is to set up a ‘NiRA whitelist.’ Everywhere you go, Nigerian domain names are being blacklisted. The idea of a whitelist is that we maintain a ‘whois…’ and check who owns the domain. Someone registers a domain, we can verify their names and their email address.
We can verify two things about them. We can also verify a landmark near their office or other means like tracing bank details or Corporate Affairs Commission details, and say we can verify three things.
The idea is to promote suitable and honest clientele for ease of conducting business and reputation protection. So when a person searches a company on ‘whois,’ for example, it can read that seven things have been verified about that owner.
So, we can set a benchmark, based on verification – this could be five verifications. So anybody who chooses to do business with anybody below those five verifications is running at a risk. We are still working on this, but it could really help genuine Nigerian business from being lumped up with fraudulent bodies.
Pulse: Will the ‘whitelist’ also aid the fight against cybercrime?
Reverend Folayan: Cybercrime is a moving target. For a moving target, you don’t deploy stationery arsenal. As the means for cybercrime keep increasing, it becomes hard to create a lasting working solution. There is no particular way to combat cybercrime, but we need deterrent means.
The perfect means could guaranteeing hefty punishment for cybercrime and publicizing the names of punished offenders, but when don’t have a holistic way of dealing with it, crimes escalates. There’s also the problem of songs like ‘Logo Benz’ (by Lil Kesh and Olamide) while the National Broadcasting Commission sits around and does little.
On the issue of infiltration like domain name hijacking and we have deployed what we call DNS SEC and we are in the process of signing the ‘.ng’ zone, so every domain can be secure. Right now, the domain name service is not encrypted, but that’s what the DNS SEC is coming to fix. Hopefully, within the next six months, we should be able to sign the roadwork.
Sometimes, a two-factor authentication could also which is similar to a token can also help with security. I would advise website owners to install those on their website.
We need a holistic effort to combat cybercrime, there is no one way.
Pulse: As governments create tax holidays in certain fields, does NiRA have a fee concession scheme for SMEs or startups?
Reverend Folayan: NiRA created the NiRA Academy. It is set up for advisory services for would be entrepreneurs in the domain name industry. A lot of entrepreneurs are uninformed, so we set up the academy to help entrepreneurs select names and appropriate domain names to select.
We do not grant discount to end users, but registrars have programs that take care of that.
Pulse: What is the estimated worth of the Nigerian domain name market?
Reverend Folayan: We don’t have a scientific way of measuring this, everybody can only just estimate. Estimates might not be accurate, but you can start somewhere. So, as I said this earlier on, the costs of a domain name is just about 10% of registering an online entity.
If it requires N12,000 to set up a website, the domain name is probably worth about N1,000. So if I work on the basis that NiRA is currently turning over N400 million I can estimate that the worth of hosting is about N4 billion. That means we have N4.4 billion.
I also know for a fact that the domain names that are not ‘.ng’ are probably 20 times of those that are ‘.ng.’ I told you we have registered 160,000 ‘.ng’ domain names. So that means, Nigerians have registered like two million non-.ng domain names.
If you multiply the 4.4 billion by 20, it might mean Nigeria’s domain name market is worth about 88 billion Naira. When you consider that our online domain name presence is at only 5%, you can divide that 88 billion multiply by 0.5%, you could have 1.7 trillion in worth, potentially – that’s my own conservative estimate; I might be wrong though.
Pulse: What does NiRA encourage the most?
Reverend Folayan: Local hosting. 1.7 trillion is outside in Nigeria, bringing it in will bring a big boost to Nigeria. The maintenance, hosting and all that are not in Nigeria which could further improve that number. Less than one percent of domain names registered are hosted in Nigeria.
Government is better with 30% of their websites hosted in Nigeria. If we could boost numbers on both sides to maybe 60%, it will have a profound effect on the Nigerian economy.
Pulse: What is the NiRA Awards?
Reverend Folayan: It is to further commend people who contribute to the ‘.ng’ advancement in their own unique way of doing it.