Masters of their domain

Explaining UMSU's website troubles

Photo by Carolyne Kroeker

On Jan. 6, the Manitoban reported that the UMSU executive is withholding $640,000 in fees owed to the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), the national student union of which UMSU is a local.

One of the major items at issue had to do with claims of inappropriate CFS control over the UMSU website. Early reports of this dispute were somewhat unhelpful in their technical vagueness. There are many parts of what we colloquially call a website, and it is not clear what it means when you say, as UMSU president Al Turnbull did, that “UMSU should own umsu.ca.”

When you visit a website, your browser downloads files from a remote server and renders them in a graphical form that is easy for a human to understand. Because running a server can be a fairly demanding task, most websites are on servers administered by web hosting companies rather than the actual owners of the site.

Another aspect of a website is the domain name. The real address of the server you wish to download files from is a complicated and not very memorable string of numbers. And there may for technical reasons be more than one server or other complicated back-end arrangements that the user doesn’t need to know about.

For this reason, we assign websites a human-readable, memorable name called a domain name. The domain name for UMSU’s website is umsu.ca. Although domain names have a fairly simple function, the connection between domains and branding makes certain domains extremely valuable, and domain ownership disputes are common.

CFS-Services (CFS-S), a branch of CFS, includes domain registration and web hosting among the services it offers. The University of Manitoba Students’ Union’s website is currently hosted by CFS-S, though according to CFS spokesperson Anna Dubinski, CFS-S does not otherwise have any control over the website – they could not add, modify, or delete pages, for example.

The only website-related matter that is in dispute is the ownership of the domain name. On this, UMSU and CFS at least agree on all the relevant facts, which is fortunate because these are a matter of public record. The domain name is registered to UMSU. However, the technical and administrative contacts are both given as Ben Lewis of CFS.

This gives CFS a fair amount of control over the domain. In theory, they could set up their own site on a different server and redirect umsu.ca there. Or they could allow the registration to lapse, or even sell the domain to another organization.

Dubinski stressed that CFS would never do any of these things without proper authorization. But this does not preclude CFS keeping things in their current state—which is suboptimal but workable for UMSU—and essentially holding the domain hostage as leverage in other disputes, while preventing UMSU from seeking out other service providers and further weakening the bond between the two organizations.

Which is, according to a statement from Turnbull, exactly what CFS is doing.

Incidentally, this is not the first time that CFS has been involved in inter-organizational domain name disputes. In 2007, the Varsity (the University of Toronto student newspaper) reported that CFS had owned casa-acae.ca, a domain corresponding to the bilingual acronym of CFS’s rival the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA), which has been criticized for being insufficiently bilingual.

According to the Varsity, CFS transferred ownership of the domain to Pablo Vivanco, a former CFS-Ontario executive member, in order to set up the website for an organization called the Central American Students Association, whose Spanish acronym was also ACAE.

Currently CASA’s website is accessible from casa-acae.com, while casa-acae.ca is inactive. A WHOIS search does not reveal the present owner of this domain.

Knowing this history, and knowing UMSU’s ambivalent relationship with CFS in recent years, it’s not surprising that UMSU began looking for a new web services provider.

“In 2013, UMSU determined to explore alternative web-based service providers and requested the return of administrative control of its domain from CFS-S,” Turnbull said in his statement. “CFS-S then demanded the settling of other disputes with UMSU before acting to return full administrative control of the domain.”

It is possible to file a complaint with the Canadian Internet Registration Authority, which UMSU would likely win. In a statement, Turnbull said, “Although UMSU would prefer that administrative control of its domain is simply transferred to its rightful owner, UMSU is prepared to pursue any and all available avenues to regain control of this critical asset.”

The domain name may not seem like the most pressing matter on UMSU’s plate at the moment. And, of course, there are other issues in dispute between CFS and UMSU. But I think this is a matter of at least symbolic importance. It has major implications for the status and independence of members of a federal organization like CFS.

The current state of affairs, where UMSU owns their domain in name only and lacks the ability to do anything with it, would only be appropriate if our union were simply the local CFS office. However, this is neither organizationally nor historically true. The Canadian Federation of Students having control over the domain is a symbolic indignity that has a very real political effect for University of Manitoba students.

It doesn’t matter whether the current state of affairs is the result of malice or bureaucratic inertia. It doesn’t matter whether you agree with the UMSU executive’s policies in general. In this case, they’re right. The Canadian Federation of Students has a duty to hand the domain over.

Update, 10 Feb 2014, 2:15PM: In the email statement cited above, Anna Dubinski of CFS indicated that the organization had in fact provided information to UMSU that would allow the domain to be transferred. This part of the statement was omitted from the original version of this article and does not appear in the print version.

In the intervening weeks the domain has not been transferred and it currently remains under the control of CFS. The Manitoban is attempting to determine why this is the case.