The brazen move by Network Solutions last week to reroute traffic from the InterNIC to the company's homepage and redirect the popular "whois" directory annoyed the government, prospective competitors and many others in the Internet community.
It also exposed potholes along the road to competition in the market for registering cyberspace addresses. The "whois" directory enabled anyone to check who owns a particular domain name. NSI's action means that the public and competing registrars can still check whether a name is in use, but now they must hunt for it at NSI's site. It also means the considerable "brand" equity of InterNIC now reverts to NSI.
March 29 was supposed to mark the deadline for applicants seeking approval of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers to compete with Network Solutions in the business of registering domain names for a two-month test. Even if NSI decides to reverse its position, ICANN President Michael Roberts said the deadline has been extended until April 8, and the decision on the five new registrars will be delayed until April 21 due to the questions raised by NSI last week.
The move by the Herndon, Virginia-based company, which has had an exclusive government contract to administer names in the popular .com, .net and .org domains since 1992, also sends a chill through would-be contenders only one month before competition is expected to be introduced.
Many players bombarded ICANN and the US Department of Commerce with questions about what was going on. If NSI, without prior notice to the US government, could boldly claim as company property what many have come to view as a public resource, what would prevent the company from taking other actions to thwart competition?
"It was a shot across the bow," says Rich Forman, founder of Register.com, which has become one of the largest registrars of cyberspace addresses and plans to apply to become an ICANN "test" registrar. "The InterNIC and the 'whois' database were almost like the U.S. Postal Service. It was quasi-public and had a lot of trust built up in it. It was a public entity that people had trust in, and now they've turned it into a private vehicle."
NSI said in a statement that the move was designed to "help customers more easily find the information, services and tools they need." NSI spokesman Chris Clough said the company's action was customer driven. "The intent was to make it simpler and easier and to consolidate the services we offer," he said. NSI combined the InterNIC domain-name-addressing site with its own homepage and said the new site was both faster to download and easier to reach.
But the rerouting of InterNIC also left potential competitors raising questions that US officials had failed to resolve during their own negotiations with NSI. Under a cooperative agreement signed in October, NSI basically consented to operate the registry system for the most popular domains until 2000.
The registry function is akin to a wholesaler. Competition is being introduced initially by ICANN on the retail side, where registrars -- including NSI -- will compete for customers.
But the cooperative agreement left open certain issues, even though the countdown to competition has already begun. In particular, compa- nies that are considering entering the field still don't know what price the registry will charge registrars for each domain name sold. Another outstanding issue is the technical specifications for the electronic interface between the registrar system and the NSI system, as well as the terms of the contracts that will be entered into between registrars and the registry.
"From our position, we have to depend on the DoC and ICANN to work out what is the ongoing relationship," says Sean Brophy, VP of corporate development at Verio, NSI's largest customer and a major Web-hosting company. "This has not been terribly smooth," Brophy adds. "We are now seeing a set of actions by people who are trying to position themselves very strongly."
Verio has not yet publicly announced whether it will apply to be a test registrar, but it is considered a likely candidate. Among the big-name companies that have inquired about entry to the domain-name marketplace, although they may not submit applications for the test, are MCI-WorldCom, America Online, Deutsche Telekom, France Telecom and even AT&T.
Meanwhile, smaller companies that have been acting as intermediaries between NSI and consumers fear they will lose out as InterNIC becomes associated with NSI's brand. "It's like being channel 3, 6 or 10 as opposed to 57," says Larry Erlich of Domainregistry.com.