While Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ambitious Digital India policy looks to promote the usage of “.in” domain name and expand the availability of domains in various local languages, a controversy has broken out over the government’s decision to appoint a technical service provider (TSP) who allegedly has no experience or capability in Indian language domains.
Afilias India Ltd, the company that has been the technical service provider (TSP) of the “.in” domain name since 2007, has taken the government to court alleging irregularities and misrepresentations in the bid submitted by US-based Neustar about its qualifications and language capabilities for the project that will be worth Rs 80 crore over five years.
In a writ petition filed in the Delhi High Court on August 20, a copy of which has been seen by Moneycontrol, Afilias has alleged that the National Internet Exchange of India (NIXI), a government agency, has awarded the contract to manage the “.in” registry to Neustar Data Infotech (India) Pvt Ltd, a company that does not allegedly meet the criteria for carrying out the scope of work laid out in the request for proposal by the government.
NIXI is a government non-profit that manages the “.in” domain, including the already implemented internationalised domain names (IDN) like “.भारत” in 15 Indian languages and is working on seven more in the pipeline. Consultations for implementing IDN in six Indian languages for domains other than .in and .भारत are on since 2015. Due to the vast number of languages and scripts in India, the technical expertise required is also immense.
In its petition, which was heard by the Delhi High Court on Friday, Afilias has alleged that the latest contract for a TSP for ".in", the RFP for which was issued on January 30, 2018, required the bidders to have “experience and expertise in Indian language domain names and Indian scripts”.
Neustar, which operates domain names like “.us”, “.biz” and “.co”, emerged as the lowest bidder and was awarded the Letter of Intent. But Neustar has never implemented Indian language domain names, a required technical pre-qualification, according to people in the know.
“NIXI has selected a provider who has, by their own admission, never done something like this,” Ram Mohan, the executive vice president & chief technology officer at Afilias, told Moneycontrol.
According to the petition, the committee found both bidders equally technically qualified but Neustar’s bid of 70 cents per domain won against Afilias’ proposal of USD 1.65 per domain.
Moneycontrol has also learnt that the NIXI board also made objections to the way the RFP process was handled- without any meetings or board consultations.
One of the board members, who did not wish to be named, said that Neustar is not ready to take on a project of this magnitude and has no experience delivering IDNs in Indian languages.
“They (Neustar) have said they will be ready to deliver Indian language IDNs in a year, which is not acceptable. Some board members objected to this but they were overruled,” the board member said.
Between 13 July and 17 August, Afilias claims in the petition, it made several communications to the NIXI and the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, which oversees NIXI.
In these communications, Afilias said Neustar “has no experience or technical capability to manage and support IDNs in Indian languages and scripts and neither does it claim to have prior experience in Indian languages (other than Hindi, which is not proven); and that it has made numerous misrepresentations about knowledge and expertise in Hindi language names…” and has quoted “an incredibly low price” for the bid.
Questions have also been raised about Neustar's offers in its technical bid response, a copy of which was seen by Moneycontrol, to hold an annual meeting "at Neustar's corporate headquarters, at the expense of Neustar".
Emails and messages sent to the NIXI and Vijay Babu, Senior Director - Data Strategy, Neustar India, were not immediately answered.
Promoting the .in and other local language domains has been on the government’s agenda for two years now.
In July 2016, MeitY was working on a plan to promote the .in domain name, which is India's official website extension, and among other things, was also considering offering .भारत / (.bharat) complimentary to small businesses to popularise the use of local language website extensions.