Domain Games: Internet leaves the US nest

The United States government gave birth to the Internet nearly 20 years ago and is finally pushing it out of the nest. But determining how it will fly on its own is opening up a can of worms. The US Department of Commerce is currently considering how to mesh together several proposals for a new non-profit corporation to oversee the Internet's growth, including how to manage domain names and addresses. A public comment period for the proposals ended this week and the government should be prepared to make an announcement on the outcome within a week or two.

The United States government gave birth to the Internet nearly 20 years ago and is finally pushing it out of the nest. But determining how it will fly on its own is opening up a can of worms.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) within the US Department of Commerce is currently considering how to mesh together several proposals for a new non-profit corporation to oversee the Internet's growth, including how to manage domain names and addresses. This is an increasingly lucrative area, particularly as URLs and e-mail addresses become as common as phone numbers and serve as important branding devices.

"Our goal is to try to broaden consensus as much as possible ... to effect a compromise," says Ira Magaziner, President Clinton's senior policy adviser. "The areas of disagreement can be bridged."

A public comment period for the proposals ended this week and the government should be prepared to make an announcement on the outcome within a week or two, according to Magaziner.

Currently, the Internet Assigned Names Authority (IANA) oversees Internet names, addresses and protocols and Network Solutions Inc. (NSI) hands out names in the four global generic top-level domains of .com, .org, .net and .edu., both under contract with the U.S. government. Last week the NSI contract was extended for two years and NSI, while it will continue to serve as registry, agreed to share registration of those domains. A registry administers and allocates domain names, while a registrar signs up customers.

IANA and NSI, the two biggest players in the arena now, are hardly the only ones. They are among a diverse group of interested parties, representing different countries as well as different facets of the Internet industry.

"There really are a huge number of different stakeholders, some with complementary, most with conflicting, requirements -- the old Internet guard, the trademark lobbyists, those that see the DNS (domain name system) as a license to mint money, those that see NSI as bogey men, the freedom fighters trying to build a whole new world wide government (yes, government) through this process, oh, and don't forget the 240 plus country registries trying to deliver service to their nation states," said Patrick O'Brien, chief executive officer of Domainz, the registrar for the .nz domain, the top-level domain for New Zealand, in an e-mail response to a reporter's questions.

Existing Internet leaders want to preserve the status quo while startups want to get a piece of the action, agrees Jay Fenello, president of Iperdome, which offers personal domain names and is seeking to offer .per as a top-level domain. "On one side of this debate are entrepreneurial companies, trade organisations, governments," and NSI, Fenello wrote in an e-mail column of his own. "On the other, a small group composed of the Internet old guard and some regulatory agencies of the United Nations ... Their goal is to preserve their long-term status on the Internet. In the middle is the US government."

To get out of the hotspot, the US government is looking for a new body to assume responsibility for managing the Internet. As with industries and infrastructures in many emerging markets, officials are turning toward privatisation of the Internet. Following the release of a much-criticised green paper early this year, Magaziner issued a white paper in June that went further in suggesting a more global approach to Internet management. The white paper (http://www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/domainname/domainhome.htm#3/) asked the private sector to come up with a new governing body to replace IANA.

The goal was to create a body to govern the Internet that would be global, and end complaints that Internet oversight is too U.S.-centric, as well as an organization that would be self-sufficient and that would work in an open way. The other major requirement was that Internet stakeholders reach a consensus on a plan.

Things were looking up as individuals from around the world converged at meetings in Reston, Virginia; Geneva, Singapore and Buenos Aires to discuss their ideas as part of the International Forum on the White Paper (http://www.ifwp.org/).

Following the fourth meeting in late August things apparently fell apart. After participating in all the meetings up to that point, IANA withdrew from the process and skipped a fifth meeting that was held in Boston on Sept. 19 designed to wrap-up the IFWP meetings, according to O'Brien of Domainz in New Zealand.

IANA continued on its own and issued a proposal on September 17. Joining IANA in releasing that draft was NSI, whose contract was due to expire at the end of September. The government's deadline for a proposal on a new Internet governing body was scheduled to coincide with the expiration of the NSI contract.

Complaints that the proposal appeared to protect NSI's top-level domain monopoly prompted IANA to release a fifth and final proposal (http://www.iana.org/bylaws5.html/) nearly two weeks later in which NSI was not involved. IANA also submitted to the government a list of nine people it recommends appointing to the interim board.

Meanwhile, attendees of the September meeting in Boston -- calling themselves the Boston Group -- released their own proposal (http://pax.cavebear.com/bwg/) which draws heavily on the IANA plan for creating a for-profit corporation. However, it requires that at least one board member should come from each of the main geographic regions and specifically states that the corporation will have a membership -- a matter that is left open in IANA's proposal.

IANA unhesitatingly claims its proposal represents a consensus. The critics represent merely a "small fringe of extreme views," said IANA administrator Jon Postel in testimony he submitted in writing last Wednesday to the House of Representatives' Subcommittee on Technology.

The Internet Society and the Information and Technology Association of America (ITAA), which manages the Global Internet Project, support the IANA proposal. "We believe that the IANA proposal -- along with the agreement reached between the U.S. government and Network Solutions Inc. yesterday -- will ensure the stability of the Internet as it continues its dramatic growth," the ITAA said in a statement.

"I don't know if anyone could have devised something that was a truly all satisfying process," said Carl Oppedahl, a lawyer who has handled Internet trademark domain name issues. Oppedahl, who is a partner at Oppedahl & Larson in Frisco, Colorado, said the IANA proposal is the best offer.

"We're watching the birth of a new nation. It's just like Thomas Jefferson and other people writing the constitution, except instead of affecting one country on one continent it affects the world," he said.

But complaints have been loud and more widespread. The critics, many of whom participated in the IFWP meetings, are dissatisfied with IANA's vision of a board, which they claim isn't adequately held accountable for its actions. They also allege that IANA shut them out of the process of drafting the proposal and composing the candidate list for the initial, interim board.

"On IANA's side as far as building their proposal I liken it to a closed room with a sealed door with a letter slot in the door" into which suggestions could be inserted, said Karl Auerbach, an Internet technologist and member of the Internet Engineering Task Force who signed the proposal submitted by the Boston Group. When IANA releases its drafts "trumpets sound, a golden door opens and an announcement is made," he added.

"There's some serious concerns with the IANA proposal -- it's self-perpetuating, there's no accountability," said Ellen Rony, coauthor of "The Domain Name Handbook: High Stakes and Strategies in Cyberspace" who archived the IFWP documents and activities at http://www.domainhandbook.com/ifwp.html/. "I've been following this for two-and-a-half years and I fear that if the government doesn't listen and do something to make some broader acknowledgment for the other folk outside the IANA proposal then we're going to have more of this clamor for the next two years," Rony said.

Similar complaints about IANA's proposal came from Mikki Barry, president of the Domain Name Rights Coalition. "What is at stake is freedom of expression, due process, and accountability," she wrote in an e-mail in response to questions. "The new corporation, if taken from the IANA Draft 5 is not accountable to the Internet Stakeholders. There are no provisions for free speech, and very few for due process."

The Electronic Frontier Foundation also submitted complaints about the IANA proposal, making similar arguments. Their suggestions can be viewed on their web site at http://www.eff.org/pub/GII_NII/DNS_control/.

Meanwhile, the Open Root Server Confederation Inc. submitted its own proposal last week. The group, which favors adding new top-level domains and opening up the registry responsibilities of .com to competition, borrowed items from other sources for its proposal. It added fiscal accountability and due process requirements as well as protections for personal privacy and human rights and also specified a requirement that the corporation have a membership.

"The members of the Open Root Server Confederation (Open-RSC) believe that the process has gone astray," wrote Einar Stefferud, an Internet veteran and retired consultant who founded the group.

Stefferud traces the current problems between the stakeholders to the freezing of any additions to top-level domains. "It's not a problem of greedy people," he said. "It's a matter of regulation causing the monopoly. In the meantime, there's a backlog of people wanting to get into the root (where top-level domains originate and all servers point to access them) and there's no system for it.

"IANA did a good job for a long time, but it did not grow with the Internet and didn't adjust to the new effects of Internet growth and the fact that name space was too small," Stefferud added. "Everything is at this point a fine mess -- the DNS (domain name system) mess."

One of the people seeking to be able to offer a top-level domain is Bob Allisat, administrator of the Free Community Network domain name service provider. Like Fenello's Iperdome, Allisat is offering .fcn under the .net top-level domain and waiting for recognition of .fcn as a top-level domain of its own. Meantime .per and others are visible on alternate root servers that are not recognized by the official root servers of IANA.

"What they do in the big business world is fine but there's room for indies (independent registrars) and that's what we are," Allisat said. "It's our turn. We want our things in the same root servers around the world on our own terms."

Allisat said the stakes are high and that's why IANA doesn't "trust the newcomers" like himself.

"They want to control it all because if you control the names, the numbers and the machines you've got it. The potential for making money and influencing where that money goes is enormous," he said.

The entire debate is over who is going to control the Internet, said Fenello. "Cyberspace is going to become a new way for us to be in the world -- where we work, play, go to school, and we need protections for civil liberties and due process. We need to make sure we get these built into the system now before it's too late."

The president of .NU Domain, J. William Semich, criticized the IANA proposal for not addressing fiscal matters. He submitted comments to the government seeking to have the new organization publish an annual business plan that identifies funding sources and come up with a budget that its supporting organizations approve. Semich's suggestions are at http://www.nunames.nu/.

Meanwhile, the Internet Service Providers' Consortium, a non-profit group with more than 230 members, also came out against the IANA proposal.

"The proposed DNS organization appears to be a monopoly in both literal and financial senses," Kevin Crocker, chief financial officer of the group, said in a statement issued on Saturday. "There are no checks and balances to ensure proper financial control, review and reporting. One decision by the new organization to raise the rates on a single service could easily send shockwaves through the entire Internet industry, raising the cost of services for Internet users everywhere."

Even an NSI spokesman said the IANA proposal is lacking.

"We have some very serious concerns about the process," said NSI spokesman Chris Clough. "In particular we're concerned about how comments will be treated and whether other drafts will be given due consideration."

Criticism to the IANA proposal and its process has come from international groups as well, besides O'Brien in New Zealand.

The Latin America and Caribbean Networks Forum, commonly known as Enred, sent a letter to Postel last week complaining about the lack of representation from the region on IANA's list of nine board nominees and in its proposal, which calls for at least one member from North America, Asia/Pacific and Europe but not Latin America and Africa/Middle East.

EuroISPA, the European Internet Service Providers' Association (http://www.euroispa.org/papers/icann.html/) also seeks more international representation in the new organization and an established membership.

The Japanese government also complained about the closed process that led to the IANA proposal and said the week-long comment period it offered did not provide adequate time for non-native English speakers to scrutinize the numerous documents. The government also raised questions about jurisdictional problems that could arise with the organisation being based in California as proposed.

"Furthermore, there are concerns that in the event that a party resident outside the U.S. should take the New Corporation to court in that country, that court's judgment may not be effective in the U.S.," the Japanese government statement said. "If cases must therefore always be brought to court in the U.S., there should not be the possibility that foreigners could be put at a disadvantage."

The Japanese government also asked that the definition of "geographic region" be determined on the basis of the future expected increase in population and the number of Internet users and that the Asia/Australia/Pacific region be further divided into two regions.

Izumi Aizu, principal of Asia Network Research SDH Bhd, echoed complaints that the IANA proposal lacks a defined membership and accountability and the process of nominating interim board members was not open.

There is "a strong need to have some kind of international forum that regularly addresses many Internet issues" beyond the domain name system issue, added Aizu, who also serves as secretary general of the Asia & Pacific Internet Association (APIA), a Singapore trade group of Internet companies. Aizu said was not speaking on behalf of the APIA, which has not made an official statement.

Of the detractors who complain that IANA's proposal was drafted behind closed doors, Joe Sims, an attorney for IANA, said "They're entitled to their opinion. It's a minority view and factually just plain wrong."

He too downplayed the breadth of criticism being leveled against the IANA proposal.

"There are very small numbers of people raising serious issues out there," said Sims, a Washington, DC, attorney who worked with Postel on the IANA drafts. "I'm surprised to see the depth of feelings some people have and the range of opinions. Some of the views are informed and rational and some of them are not."

Tony Rutkowski, who helped found the Internet Society and is the director of the Center for the Next Generation Internet, said he believes the proposal submitted by the Open Root Server Confederation is the "most carefully crafted and has the most overall consensus."

But Rutkowski said the domain name system is too often emphasized when actually the IP address system poses more challenging issues, "because IP addresses are truly a limited commodity. They're used for actually operating the Internet as opposed to domain names which are just a secondary lookup system."

IP addresses, which are distributed to Internet service providers in large, contiguous blocks for more efficient routing, are generally more expensive than domain names, according to Rutkowski. In Germany and Japan, for instance, domain names can sell for several hundred dollars while IP addresses can sell for thousands, he said.

However, the process of establishing a new organisation could serve as a model for how other Internet-related activities may be handled, Rutkowski said. "There are a lot of other kinds of conceivable web identifiers such as administration of authentication regimes, regimes associated with policing and enforcing activities on the Internet, and interconnection implementation arrangements, also known as peering," he noted.

Meanwhile, Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard University law professor and authority on cyberspace, argued in a speech on Saturday that privatisation is not the best way for the Internet to evolve.

Postel told the congressional subcommittee in his written testimony that "There was one issue on which there seemed to be almost unanimity: the Internet should not be managed by any government, national or multinational."

But Lessig said this move away from government guidance is counter to what the Internet community really needs, which is protection from special interests in the form of corporations.

"When government disappears, it's not as if paradise will take its place. When governments are gone, other interests will take their place," he said in his keynote address at the One Planet, One Net symposium in Cambridge, Massachusetts, sponsored by Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility.

"My claim is that we should focus on the values of liberty... If there is not government to insist on those values, then who?" Lessig questioned. "The single unifying force should be that we govern ourselves."

(Rob Guth in Tokyo contributed to this report)

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