Internet Domain Name Game Heats Up

Internet Domain Name Game Heats Up

By John Makulowich, Senior Writer

As momentum builds for the new private organization that likely will oversee the Internet's critical domain name system, problems loom that could make the transfer of oversight from the government to the private sector even more troublesome than the sticky transition process of the past year.

Those problems center on the registry, which is basically a database of domain names, and the organizations authorized to register those names, known as registrars, according to key players on both sides of the issues.

Currently, Network Solutions Inc. of Herndon, Va., has the exclusive contract to maintain the registry and serve as registrar. But that is set to change in March as five other contractors are to be selected to register names in order to encourage competition.

And it now appears more likely than ever that the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and Network Solutions are on a mild collision course, with the next scheduled meeting for ICANN planned for March 1-3 in Singapore.

Network Solutions executives consider the registry their intellectual property, but officials representing ICANN, the new nonprofit corporation likely to coordinate a host of domain naming functions, said this point is not cut and dried.

"We have a responsibility to carry out the mandates of the White Paper. I would say the registry is not a settled issue," Michael Roberts, ICANN interim president and chief executive officer, told Washington Technology this week. "I know NSI [Network Solutions Inc.] has a very definite view about that. But no one could draw the conclusion that the registry issue has been settled."

The charge by the Clinton administration to privatize the domain naming system goes back to July 1997. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, an agency of the Commerce Department, first published a proposed rule making, known as the "Green Paper," in the Federal Register Feb. 20.

To address the 650 comments received on the Green Paper, a second publication, "Management of Internet Names and Addresses," was issued June 5. The creation of ICANN evolved with significant fits and starts from this second document, the so-called White Paper.

At a hastily convened open meeting Nov. 14 outside Boston, officials connected with the new private corporation presented revised bylaws to an international audience of several hundred people and tried to answer skeptics who questioned a range of its decisions and actions.

ICANN, which just released the first working set of its bylaws Nov. 5 and sent them to NTIA for review, now awaits an agreement with the government to take over the role of oversight of the domain name system (DNS).

But Esther Dyson, interim chairman of ICANN and chairman of New York-based EDventure Holdings Inc., said in an interview this week such an event would be something to be very thankful for if it occurred by Thanksgiving.

To make things more interesting, Network Solutions Inc. ? the only company currently charged with registering Internet addresses ending in top level domain names such as .com, .net, .org and .edu - saw its CEO, Gabriel Battista, abruptly announce his resignation Nov. 16 to join Tel-Save Holdings Inc., a long-distance telephone company in New Hope, Pa.

The timing of Battista's departure only accentuates the general messiness of the government's transfer of oversight to the private sector of the domain name system, which governs the routing of Web pages, electronic mail and other communications over the Internet.

Roberts said the session in Cambridge was held to satisfy corporate requirements that an open meeting be convened as soon as possible. By his count, there were 270 to 280 people at the meeting. Roughly one-third came from the Boston area, one-third were from the rest of the nation and the remainder from overseas, he said.

"One reason for convening the meeting was to set a standard for open meetings for the stakeholders in this organization," Roberts said. "Another was to directly address the issues of accountability and transparency. We felt we owed the community an opportunity to address the issues, to offer a forum in which key questions could be addressed."

Many of the meeting sessions at the Cambridge Marriott were for clarification and details, he said, to explain the role of the new organization and the approach it intended to take in addressing key DNS issues, such as addresses, Internet Protocol numbers and protocols.

"Among the messages I came away with from the meeting were a libertarian thread, a stable feature of the Internet community, that the government should not try to run the Internet," said Roberts. "A more subtle message that came across was, 'You are not going to have the trust of this community until you have a track record of success.' And we are fine with that."

Both Dyson and Roberts, long and respected members of the Internet community, noted that very few attendees criticized the makeup of the board, even though there was criticism of how it was selected.

Based in Los Angeles, ICANN told the National Telecommunications and Information Administration Nov. 6 that it was ready to negotiate the agreement to transfer DNS administration from U.S. government control. The transition is expected to take a year. During that time, ICANN will create a governing structure with members and member-elected directors.

In a letter last month to ICANN from J. Beckwith Burr, acting associate administrator of NTIA, said the Commerce Department, with qualifications, recognized ICANN as the organization with which to negotiate a transition.

On Oct. 6, Network Solutions signed an agreement with NTIA for a two-year extension of their cooperative agreement. It calls for a transition of U.S. government authority to coordinate a variety of domain name system functions.

"We realize ICANN is the definitive source around setting standards," said Bob Korzeniewski, chief financial officer of Network Solutions. "We would look to ICANN and its subgroups - naming and numbers organizations - to further standards on domain naming. With the expected overall growth of the Internet, the naming space will probably grow faster."

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