The National Science Foundation (NSF) has announced that it has approved a plan that establishes a new nonprofit organisation to handle Internet Protocol (IP) number assignment, calling it a step toward the privatisation of Internet administration.
The plan, which establishes the American Registry for Internet Numbers (ARIN), will go into effect no later than March 1998, and was proposed by Network Solutions Inc. (NSI), which until now had handled both IP numbers and domain name registration.
The NSF has official responsibility for domain name and IP number registration and management in the US, but has contracted that responsibility out to NSI.
The administration of domain names, such as IDG.com or nsf.gov, is still being handled by NSI until the current debate over how to privatise the domain-name assignment business is resolved, according to NSF officials.
ARIN will hand out IP numbers in large batches to large Internet Service Providers and corporations. The ISPs will do the work of doling out the numbers to clients, and work with NSI to match the numbers to domain names. Domain names must correspond to underlying IP numbers, which Internet servers use to route messages.
Although the establishment of ARIN does not resolve the hotly contested issue of how to privatise the domain name management business, it is a step in that direction, said NSF officials.
"It takes the government out of assigning the IP numbers, and puts members of the Internet community on the board of the organization that does that - it's a kind of self-management," said Beth Gaston, a spokeswoman for NSF.
One critic of the current domain-name registration regime applauded the move, but said it is only a first step in allowing private competition in the domain-name assignment business.
"We have supported it (the idea for ARIN) all along," said Michael Donovan, outside counsel for PG Media Inc. of New York, which has a lawsuit pending against NSI. "We have thought that there needs to be an independent group managing IP numbers."
However, Donovan said, companies like PG, which seek to get into the business of domain name registration, will not be able to do so unless they are assured that the names they assign get included in the configuration files of the small number of Internet root servers around the world. Only then will domain names assigned by private businesses be globally recognized and have real value, Donovan said.
And for now, NSI still has a monopoly on assigning domain names that are globally recognised, he noted. PG's lawsuit against NSI claims that the company, along with other Internet-related organizations, is violating antitrust laws by exclusively controlling the assignment of domain names.
In April, the NSF said it would bow out of administration of domain name issues, and said that its contract with NSI for domain-name assignment would not be renewed after March 1998. But NSF officials said that Internet bodies, the NSF, NSI and various government officials are still debating what to do after March next year.
The NSF in Arlington, Virginia, is at http://www.nsf.gov/.