Unraveling the ISSUES ACTORS, & ALPHABET SOUP of the Great Domain Name Debates

Article excerpt

These are turbulent times for Internet domain naming. Great debates swirl about three related, but difficult to separate questions.

The first question is, "Who owns the dot?"; that is, who regulates the Internet Protocol (IP) number space, which agency assigns those numbers, and where are the numbers assigned? The second question focuses on the expansion of the top-level domain (TLD) space and what those new types of domain name designations should be. These first two issues involve two separate sets of actors: the agencies -- today's and tomorrow's -- responsible for managing and assigning Internet number space, and those responsible for registering domain names.

The third question concerns who decides, approves, allocates, and finally gets the second-level domain names (2LD). The 2LD-domain name issue concerns an entirely different set of participants -- among them, national registrars and Network Solutions Inc. (NSI). Interest here focuses primarily on trademark or corporate identity questions.

This article will try to unravel the issues, actors, and alphabet soup associated with domain names and the current debates about them. The history extends all the way back to the development of the pre-Internet ARPANET to the recently created (October 1998) Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and its Domain Name Supporting Organization (DNSO), inaugurated at the Singapore Meeting in March 1999.

A number of important public policy and philosophical questions intertwine throughout the name debate: the appropriate role of government versus the private commercial sector, the young but threatened tradition of techno-guru leadership, and the place of other stakeholders in the establishment of Internet policy. The U.S. government played a most important role in establishing the predecessor to the Internet and in the Internet's maintenance and promotion. However, with its June 1998 White Paper, the federal government clearly signaled its desire to both privatize and globalize Internet management and maintenance. Both privatization and globalization issues entered the arena too. (By the way, statistically sophisticated experts tell us that sometime this year Americans will cease to constitute a majority of Internet users and slip to plurality status; the "test of the world" category will finally top 50 percent.)

The federal government came to the brink of a final withdrawal decision only to back away from it early in June 1998. The most recent federal decision softened its support for the previously proposed new TLDs as well as the domain naming and registry structures. Instead, the latest policy statement argued that the Internet has grown larger than any one government and its ability to regulate and that the private sector should determine and implement DNS issues. Existing organizations like the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (LANA) should either continue to implement and manage Internet concerns or evolve into new entities. The policy statement further suggested that the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), an international governmental organization, address and manage the trademark-domain name conundrum.

An important warning: These debates are not fully resolved and therefore outcomes are by no means certain. As this article was being written, new institutions arose to address these issues. We can anticipate that further refinement of existing institutions is likely and that more new policies and new organizations will emerge to address Internet management and regulation. Consider this article a work in progress about a work in progress.

Top-Level Domain Names Defined

What are domain names? Why are they so important? Domain names are a part of the Internet addressing system. The .com domain and to a lesser degree the .net and .org domains have taken on an international cachet, a cachet desired and sought after by companies and others doing global business. …