A bizarre legal drama is over: No, you can't compel a country to give up their top level domain names (that's the .us, .co.uk, .jp, .de, etc) because they are technically not property that can be seized, a DC federal court ruled this week.
As I said, this case is certainly very weird, but I'll try to bring you up to speed as quickly as possible. Back in 1997, four Americans were injured in a suicide bombing terrorist attack in Jerusalem that was later tied to Hamas, which receives support from the Iranian government. Those Americans sued the Iranian government and actually won a judgment of $109 million (Iran did not respond to the lawsuit at all). Since then, the plaintiffs have been trying to collect that money, and one of the ways they tried to do it was to force ICANN—the nonprofit group that runs the registration of the internet's domain names—to surrender all of Iran's .ir domain names and websites.
governments, not some random Americans, should probably control their own domain names
For reasons unknown, the plaintiffs (Seth Haim, Jenny Rubin, Susan Weinstein, and Shaul Stern) also tried to seize all North Korean and Syrian domain names (.kp and .sy). As absurd as it is to wonder what Americans would do with a bunch of Iranian, North Korean, and Syrian domain names, it actually turned into a fairly important, precedent-setting case.
"The court's ruling demonstrates a technical understanding of the DNS, and the role of ccTLDs in the single, global, interoperable Internet," John Jeffrey, ICANN's general counsel said in a statement. In other words, if country level domains could be won in court battles, chaos would probably ensue.
United States District Court Judge Royce Lamberth ruled that "the country code Top Level Domain names at issue may not be attached in satisfaction of plaintiffs' judgments because they are not property subject to attachment under District of Columbia law."
That doesn't mean that they're not property altogether. There's a legal distinction between "property" and "attachable property," the latter is property that can be seized in a lawsuit. An imperfect but somewhat relevant comparison is the distinction between your job and the money you make at your job. If you're sued and lose, the court can't compel you to give your job to the plaintiff, but it can compel you to give them the money you make doing it, presumably because your job is something that is only really useful to you (not that your job is property—like I said, imperfect comparison).
In that way, country code top level domains are the same way: An Iranian country code is only useful to Iran and the people there.
"The ccTLDs only have value because they are operated by ccTLD managers and because they are connected to computers around the world through the root zone," Lamberth wrote. "A ccTLD, like a domain name, cannot be conceptualized apart from the services provided by these parties. The Court cannot order plaintiffs' insertion into this arrangement."
He agreed with a previous court's decision that, if he compelled ICANN to give the plaintiffs the domain names, then "practically any service would be tarnishable."
The decision doesn't exactly open up a can of worms, but it does create a can of worms that might be opened sometime far in the future. As far as I can tell, the decision places the fate of ccTLDs in solely in ICANN's hands, not the hands of the countries themselves. If, for some reason, ICANN were to cease to exist or randomly become a nefarious organization (neither of which seems likely), it could potentially leverage that power in predictably controversial ways (forcing payments, deciding what is and is not a country, etc).
But, well, that outcome seems unlikely, and far preferable to letting anyone sue countries for domain names. In the end, it appears that common sense won out. Say what you want about Iran, Syria, and North Korea (and there are plenty of things to say), but those governments, not some random Americans, should probably control their own domain names.