Groups Vie Over Online Real Estate

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Groups Vie Over Online Real Estate

By Neil Munro
Staff Writer

The Internet is outgrowing its stock of online addresses, and the high-tech industry had better fix the problem before governments are tempted to intervene, warn industry officials.

"People in government are saying 'If they can't govern themselves, we'll have to govern them,'" argued Harris Miller, president of the Arlington, Va.-based Information Technology Association of America, which includes many high-tech companies, such as IBM Corp., Armonk, N.Y., and Washington-based MCI Communications Corp.

If industry allows the government's nose into the tent, government officials will increase their efforts to regulate the Internet, he warned. The ITAA helped host a Washington conference July 30-31 on the controversy.

But the U.S. government is trying furiously to get out of the dispute, said Brian Kahin, an official at the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy. Kahin is the chairman of a multiagency task force, which is scheduled to release a plan on Aug. 18 outlining the U.S. government's exit route from management of the Internet, including the management of online addresses.

"We'd love it if [nongovernment] groups could work it out," said Kahin.

Alongside Kahin's committee, the multinational Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the Brussels-based European Union, are considering what role they should play, warn industry leaders.

Industry officials said they hope that an answer to the dispute over addresses can be worked out during the next several months.

The controversy is a mixture of misunderstanding, personality conflicts, reluctance to accept other groups' ideas and "some monetary factors," said Harris. "There are no guarantees, but we'll at least try" to solve it by the end of March 1998, said Miller.

But others have a darker view: "The issue is power and control," said Harold Feld, a Washington-based representative of the Association for the Creation and Propagation of Internet Policies/ Domain Name Rights Coalition. Unless the right decision is made, a particular industry sector, such as intellectual property owners could dominate decisions over the domain names, said Feld, whose coalition includes smaller companies and Internet advocates.


NASA

An image of the Mars rover on the NASA Web site at www.nasa. gov. A very different image is visible at www.nasa.com.

Each computer that is linked to the Internet has its own numerical address. This numerical address has a matching name, within a particular domain, such as "NASA" or "Apple."

In turn, each domain is located within one of several generic Top-Level Domain names, dubbed a gTLD. These seven gTLDs include .gov, .edu, .com and .org. Thus "NASA.gov," is the location of the NASA domain within the .gov gTLD.

But the rapid increase in people and computers using the Internet is prompting legal and business battles over attractive online names. Also, numerous legal battles have broken out as companies try to control their trademarks. Thus
Apple Computer Inc., Cupertino, Calif., owns the Apple.com
address, but it does not own
"Apple" addresses at gTLDs that may be created by upstart Internet companies. If these are created, Apple executives may find themselves fighting to protect their trademark in new gTLDs such as "Cider" or "Computer" or "Corp." or "Inc."

This factor recently caused a headache for NASA, which is displaying pictures from its Mars spacecraft on its Web site, at www.NASA.gov. However, a commercial company has moved in next door, at NASA.com, where it has posted an advertisement for its stock of pornographic pictures.

Rival solutions are being pushed and debated by three or four factions within the sprawling community of Internet advocates, lobbying groups and major industry groups, such as the ITAA.


Internet Society photo

Don Heath, President of the Internet Society

One group, led by Don Heath, president of the Reston, Va.-based Internet Society, has drafted a plan that has won the backing of a variety of groups, including MCI and Digital Equipment Corp., Maynard, Mass. Under this plan, the authority to create gTLDs would be vested within a new organization, whose members would be drawn from existing groups that help manage portions of the Internet. Funding for the organization would be generated by fees levied on organizations for use of a particular domain name.

Only seven gTLDs would be created at first, although 30 or 100 more could be greater later if the network can deal with the extra complexity, he said.

"Stability is the No. 1 issue, but that does not prevent us from doing this [reform] as quickly as possible," said Heath.

A rival plan is being pushed by Network Solutions Inc., Herndon, Va., which now manages the assignment of most domain names. NSI was given this management task by the National Science Foundation under an agreement that expires at the end of March 1998. The agreement allows NSI to charge a $50 registration fee for the use of each lower-level domain name. NSI's proposal will ensure the stability of the existing management system, while allowing competition among companies that offer to create and manage domains, said Gabriel Battista, NSI's chief executive officer.


NSI photo

Gabriel Battista,
NSI's chief executive officer

A third plan, backed by a loose alliance of Internet advocates and smaller companies, calls for minimal rules governing domain names, arguing that independent companies should be free to create and manage gTLDs - and all addresses within them - with little interference from governments or international groups. Trademark disputes can be resolved through routine legal negotiations and lawsuits, say proponents, including Jay Fenello, president of Iperdome, a company that supports the creation of more gTLDs. Also, the Internet will not be damaged by increasing the number of gTLDs, said Fenello.

Industry officials and Internet advocates say they hope to work out a solution within the next three months. "I am optimistic that in the next three or four months this will gel," said Heath.

The government has already intervened when industry fails to come up with an answer to a public problem, warned Harris. That failure resulted in the 1995 Communications Decency Act, he said, which threatened to hobble the growth of the Internet industry with numerous lawsuits. That act was struck down by the Supreme Court in June.


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