Network Solutions Inc president and chief executive Gabe Battista summed up the mood at the specially convened internet domain names conference in Washington DC last week by quoting Charles Dickens: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Things are not likely to get as hairy as they did during the […]
Network Solutions Inc president and chief executive Gabe Battista summed up the mood at the specially convened internet domain names conference in Washington DC last week by quoting Charles Dickens: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Things are not likely to get as hairy as they did during the French Revolution, to which Dickens was referring, but the warring factions in the net’s internecine war which, as we have seen in the past, can get pretty nasty.
By Nick Patience
Exactly for who it was, or is the best of times and for who it was or is the worst is hard to say. But if those hundred or so internet heavyweights don’t get their act together over domain name allocation and registration fairly soon it will surely be the likes of you and me that will be having the worst of times on the net. In theory there are as many domain names as there are IP addresses, but in practice no company, organization or individual is going to put up with a domain name that doesn’t reflect its identity. Because after all, what are domain names if not, to use yesterday’s vernacular, vanity plates for the information superhighway? The meeting was brought together by a combination of the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA), the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) and the Interactive Services Association (ISA), which did well to bring so many important players together at such a crucial time in the life of the internet. The 18th of this month sees the deadline for comments to the US Department of Commerce Notice of Inquiry (NoI) on domain names; September 1-2 is the date for a consultative meeting at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) in Geneva; the Organization for Economic cooperation and Development (OECD) is due to complete its report on domain names next month and while this is going on, the process to add seven new generic Top-Level Domain (gTLDs) names is underway. That process is at the core of the controversy at the conference and in the internet community at large.
Seven new top level domain names
The situation as it stands is this. Network solutions Inc, of Herndon Virginia has the exclusive right to register the three most popular gTLDs; .com, .net and.org. It can also register the other gTLDs, such as .edu and .mil, but other registrars can do that also. NSI was granted the contract in 1992 when the federal National Science Foundation (NSF) took over from the Department of Defense (DoD), which had taken over Arpanet, the internet’s predecessor in the late 1970s. NSI’s contract is up at the end of March next year. There are an estimated 200 or so other registrars of other TLDs around the world, such as .web and .per, plus those that register the ISO’s country code, such as .uk and .jp. The seven new names, and plans to introduce 28 registrars to administer the names were put forward by a core group of internet heavyweights, formerly called the International Ad-Hoc Committee (IAHC), but now renamed the interim Policy Oversight committee (iPOC). The then-IAHC came about in part as a reaction to the internet community’s revolt when the NSF gave NSI permission to charge for its registration services in September 1995, which meant that not only did NSI have a monopoly on registering the popular names, but it could now charge people to use that monopoly. The IAHC’s plan may seem reasonable enough to most – after all who in their right mind wouldn’t want to break up a private monopoly? Nobody it seems, including NSI, insists Battista. But what do you put in its place? NSI and a few other registrars try to paint the iPOC group, which comprises representatives from the Internet society (ISOC), IANA, Internet Architecture board (IAB), WIPO, International Trademark Association, International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and the NSF, as a throwback to the days of centralized bureaucracy akin to that found in the old Eastern Bloc countries. The plan calls for a Policy Oversight committee (POC) comprising the above bodies minus the NSF – the government’s on
Non-profit council of registrars
In addition to the seven new TLDs, the group’s plan calls for a non-profit council of Registrars (CORE) comprising the registrars, with which users register their domains. It also caters for trademark dispute resolution. Some 151 entities have signed or indicated their intention to sign a memorandum of understanding supporting the plan as of yesterday (see http://www.itu.int/net-itu/gtld-mou/signat.htm for the latest list). But the make-up of the committee, the speed with which the plan has been implemented, the number of new TLDs planned plus a whole host of other issues have caused a rift to what can basically be described as the old and the new internet community. But despite some of NSI’s and its followers wide-eyed polemics calling up the ghosts of communism to describe iPOC, it appears to be winning the war of words over the brave new world of the commercial internet. Until this conference NSI had steadfastly refused to support competition in ‘its’ three gTLDs from April 1 next year, but in his speech to the gathering Battista gave in to the pressure and said the company was willing to share the registration of the three gTLDs, including the possibility of sharing its database with other registrars, which would be essential to avoid duplications.
Nervous about regulation
With that little hurdle cleared the question of how to open up the net presents a whole new set of problems. Almost everybody in attendance intends to submit something to the Department of Commerce’s NoI, which was actually penned by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) although everybody would deny this on the record because internet types get very nervous when the FCC is mentioned for fear of telecoms-style regulation. This fear of a US government clampdown and the role the government – any government – should play in the net’s expansion occupied more than a quarter of the time in Washington. The consensus was summed up early on by Robert Kahn – co-inventor of TCP/IP with his student Vint Cerf at Stanford and truly an internet pioneer, when he said the best way to keep the government out of the day- to-day running of the internet is to find a way to keep them in. In other words if it all falls to pieces, somebody must be there to pick up those pieces. If the government is not allowed to participate in any way and the internet is allowed to run completely free, its likely response is likely to be a sledge hammer, as in the case of the Communications Decency Act, which although overturned by the Supreme Court, has thrown up a plethora of pledges and software tools to shield children from obscene content. The feeling was that the internet community cannot go down that path again with domain names. Which is where the iPOC plan comes in, or so those who support it think. Brian Kahin of the government’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, and part of the government’s inter-agency task force on the internet emphasized that the government was a reluctant participant in the debate. But demonstrating the scale of the government’s current involvement, Kahin said that among the agencies involved are the Office of Management of the Budget, Patent & Trademark Office, State Department, Department of Energy, NASA, National Security Agency, the FCC and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
Most reluctant participant
Ironically enough, or perhaps because of its presence at the birth of the internet, DARPA is the most reluctant participant of all, said Kahin. So, what is the problem with the iPOC plan? It adds more names, it introduces competition, it sets some sort of structure in place and provides for resolution when disputes about domain names arise. Well, just about everything in that list is a problem to one faction or more. Adding more names was highly contentious within iPOC itself. The agreement to add seven names was a compromise, as some in the organization wanted no more names and some wanted unlimited amount
s. The original 1994 draft by IANA’s founder Jon Postel – the plan that the IAHC adopted and pushed forward – called for 150 new TLDs in the first year then 50 for each year after that. The main problem with introducing more names is that of further opportunity for cybersquatting – the practice of registering what are likely to be popular names in advance and then demanding money from the companies that want them. If you are a company that has registered a .com name, why wouldn’t you want a .firm and .info name as well, which are two of the seven new proposed names? The result will be a field day from trademark lawyers, critics argue. The iPOC says companies will be able to register across the board in advance to eliminate that danger. NSI’s Battista reckons there should either be no more gTLDs or an unlimited number, so no company is going to try and protect itself across hundreds of possible domain name conflicts. That of course would also reduce the level of competition to NSI, which is sure to have the lead early on given its vast experience of registering and maintaining names. Competition in becoming a registrar is a very hot topic right now, because prospective newcomers are being asked by the iPOC to cough up a $10,000 registration fee and demonstrate $300,000 in liquid capital. If they’re not chosen by the committee, they will get their money back, but many at the conference were critical of having to hand over money to such a select group and then wait months for an answer. But nobody could think of a better way to do it (prospective registrars can go to http://www.gtld-mou.org/docs/apply.htm). Resolving disputes between companies vying for very similar names overlaps with trademark law, which is local in its scope, while the internet is global in its scope.
Time is running out
There was a mandatory part of the iPOC plan whereby any registrar would have to wait 60 days after registering a name before using it to see of any conflicts arose, but that was made voluntary after howls of protest. The WIPO meeting in Geneva at the start of September will deal with the iPOC plan for dispute resolution and its Administrative Challenge Panels (ACPs), which were described by Albert Tramposch, the WIPO’s man on iPOC as a Band Aid for the big wound in the international legal system that is based on nation states. The whole issue of domain names and how they infringe on trademark law is another article in itself. In summary, the tide appears to have turned against NSI as it approaches the last six months of its monopoly. There is an overriding feeling that the iPOC plan is a fait accompli and will be rushed through. But as the iPOC members say, has anybody come up with something better? Not yet. The iPOC stake is in the ground and doesn’t look like budging. Adjustments will doubtless be made to the plan as they have been in the past, but time is running out and the community needs to act to avoid government intervention. The situation will become a lot clearer over the next couple of months.