The Future of Internet Domain Names: As the U.S. Government Pulls out, a Breach in Responsibility May Result

Article excerpt

Who has the responsibility and authority for assigning Internet domain names? Well, right now, this issue is a very big deal.

Network Solutions (http://www.netsol.com), a private company based in Herndon, Virginia, is the current Keeper of the InterNIC (http://rs.internic. net). The company benefits from an exclusive contract from the U.S. government to register names in the most popular top-level domains: com, .net, and .org, as well as .edu. But Internet users have groused constantly about poor customer service as well as the domain registration fees--$100 for the first 2 years and $50 per year thereafter--that Network Solutions began charging in 1995.

More importantly, the U.S. wants out of the domain name business; the Clinton administration is interested in turning over this function to the private sector. The contract with Network Solutions was set to expire at the end of this month, although an option to extend it for another 6 months has been exercised. Ira Magaziner, President Bill Clinton's Internet policy advisor, wants to make sure that the government relinquishes its control over the domain name system "in a responsible manner."

A "green paper (draft proposal) issued January 30 by the U.S. Department of Commerce calls for the government to transfer control of the domain registration process to a new, private, nonprofit corporation by the end of September. According to the proposal, this corporation would be composed of representatives from various Internet stakeholder communities-domain registries, technical folks, and just plain users. To ensure stability, the government would continue to oversee policies until September 30, 2000.

The green paper recommends adding "up to five" new top-level domains, although it did not specify exactly what these would be. Meanwhile, a Geneva-based organization called the Council of Registrars (or CORE, at http://www.gtld-mou.org) had planned to implement its own scheme to register companies in seven new generic top-level domains: ".firm for businesses or firms; .shop for businesses offering goods to purchase; web for entities emphasizing activities related to the World Wide Web; .arts for entities emphasizing cultural and entertainment activities; .rec for entities emphasizing recreation/entertainment activities; info for entities providing information services; and .nom for those wishing individual or personal nomenclature, i.e., a personal nom de plume." The Commerce Department's draft proposal appears to throw this scheme into limbo.

The draft proposal makes some important distinctions between a registry and a registrar. A registry operates a domain database and adds/authenticates names to it. A registrar deals with customers/users and submits names to the registry. According to the draft proposal, both registry and registrar functions would be opened up to competition with any new domains to be controlled separately by single registries. For the time being, Network Solutions--which has been serving as both registry and registrar for .com, .net, .org, and .edu--will continue to act as registry for .com, .net, and .org, while the registrar function for these domains will be opened up to competition. Operation of the .edu domain will shift to a nonprofit organization.

One major concern expressed almost immediately after issuance of the green paper was that privatizing the domain name system and creating new domains would make it difficult for organizations to protect their trademarks across the Internet. Since commercial popularity of the Internet has mushroomed, there have been several celebrated cases of "cybersquatters" registering domain names corresponding to well-known brand names and trade-marks, hoping to cash in when corporations seek to buy the names. Adding top-level domains may force trademark holders to spend big bucks registering relevant domain names with each new registry. (To get some idea of the scope of this problem for multinational conglomerates, go to the InterNIC database search page at http://rs. …