Kosovo struggles to gain international recognition online | Science | In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 05.11.2010

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Kosovo struggles to gain international recognition online

Even though Facebook has finally located Pristina in Kosovo, the newfound country still lacks a telephone country code and its own top-level domain name, and that may take some time to rectify.

Even though Kosovo is free, it lacks a country code

Even though Kosovo is free, it lacks a country code

Kosovo has hit a new milestone in its quest for recognition. Last month, Facebook began acknowledging the tiny Balkan nation's fledgling statehood. The social networking giant now identifies users in the capital, Pristina, as being in Kosovo.

Facebook chalked it up to a routine systems update. The result: Pristina is now properly located in Kosovo, instead of Bosnia-Herzegovina. It's a bit of a mystery why Facebook thought Kosovo's capital was in Bosnia, which doesn't even share a border with Kosovo.

"It is significant in a way, symbolic. I think it's a small victory for a very large war - let's call it a war - to change all the Websites on the Internet," said Fisnik Ismaili, creative director of the ad agency Olgilvy Kosovo, in an interview with Deutsche Welle.

Olgilvy devised the most prominent symbol of Kosovo's statehood, the large yellow sculpture in central Pristina that spells "Newborn." It was the focal point of celebrations after the former Serbian province declared independence in February 2008.

Seventy-one countries have recognized Kosovo since then, and in July, the International Court of Justice ruled that the declaration did not violate international law.

Not one, but three telephone country codes

But so far it hasn't been enough for Kosovo to achieve a different kind of sovereignty - its own dialing code and top-level domain.

"It's problematic," said Alban Kastrati, the spokesperson for Ipko, Kosovo's second largest mobile phone provider, which also provides broadband Internet, in an interview with Deutsche Welle.

Calling a mobile phone in Kosovo actually requires calling Slovenia, Monaco or Serbia

Calling a mobile phone in Kosovo actually requires calling Slovenia, Monaco or Serbia

"We are a state – a sovereign state recognized by the most impactful countries. We would like to have more elements that identify Kosovo as a state."

Nearly all countries around the world are identified with a telephone country code. Germany has +49, Canada has +1 - and even Greenland, which is still part of Denmark, has +299. Kosovo, however, doesn't have its own unique country code.

Instead, Kosovo has three codes: +386 from Slovenia, +377 from Monaco, and +381 from Serbia. All those numbers are considered local within Kosovo. An Ipko user with a Slovenian code need not enter Monaco's code to call a subscriber with the state-run Vala, the largest provider.

Still, all of this means that numbers cannot be ported - or moved - to different providers. Local operators also must pay fees to the foreign carriers that hold the numbers. Ultimately this telephone smorgasbord is bad for consumers, said Agaim Kukaj, director of information and communication technologies for the Republic of Kosovo.

"Operators are suffering," Kukaj added. "They have to pay higher costs. These costs are often transferred to consumers. Instead of investing in infrastructure or lowering the prices of services, they have to pay money for things other operators in the world are not paying."

The International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers must approve Kosovo's top-level domain name

The International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers must approve Kosovo's top-level domain name

No top-level domain

And if not having a phone code wasn't bad enough, Kosovo lacks another digital pillar of a sovereign state: a top-level domain. These letters affixed to web addresses serve as electronic flags. Brazil has .br, the United Kingdom has .uk, and even the Palestinian Territories have one - .ps.

But Kosovo hasn't even applied for its .ks because officials have been assured that it would be rejected. It turns out that obtaining one, as well as a country code, requires some international diplomacy.

Kosovo must apply to the International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) for domains and the International Telecommunications Union for a country code. These organizations generally look to the United Nations for answers, which is a problem because Kosovo doesn't have UN membership and most importantly isn't included in its statistical database as a country or area.

This makes the process much rockier because countries that remain opposed to Kosovo's impendence can more easily obstruct Kosovo, Kukaj added.

"All these obstacles are coming from countries which didn't recognize our country - especially these big and influential countries like Russia and China," he said.

"We know these obstacles, but still we are all the time we are trying to find small doors and enter into these small doors."

E-commerce sites still don't recognize Kosovo

Previously, Kosovo unsuccessfully applied for a country code while it was a UN-administered province of Serbia.

But now that Kosovo has declared independence and is a member of both the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, officials are increasingly hopeful that they stand a good chance of securing a top-level domain and telephone country code in the next year or two.

Still, it's far from certain when or even if Kosovo will get a domain or country code. That's not stopping Kosovo from establishing an electronic state. Plans are under way to a build an Internet exchange point. Once it's completed, domestic traffic will stay in Kosovo instead of having to take a circuitous route around Europe.

Meanwhile, much of the Internet has yet to acknowledge Kosovo as a country. Google directs users to its Serbian page, and online ordering can be a crapshoot since many sites do not provide an option for a Kosovo address.

Kosovars hope that other websites will follow Facebook's example

Kosovars hope that other websites will follow Facebook's example

But Facebook's acknowledgement of Kosovo's statehood might have a domino effect, said Martin Waehlisch, an international law specialist, and the co-author of a new Friedrich Ebert Foundation report about the public diplomacy of Kosovo.

"I hope that this example could serve as an idea for other websites," Waehlisch said, who argues that individual users can have a big impact in persuading websites to recognize Kosovo, in an interview with Deutsche Welle.

"It's so simple, and it could change the perception of people abroad who know little about Kosovo. When they type it in they always see that it is a country, it is independent, and it has a flag."

Author: Nate Tabak
Editor: Cyrus Farivar

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