21st: The Net's new turf wars

In the struggle to control domain names, mavericks get their moment in the Washington sun.

Published February 4, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Remember the notion of the Internet as a Wild West frontier? It seemed to give way a while ago to a more jaded consensus that the Net is nothing more than a virtual corporate theme park.

But the current debate about expanding authority over domain names -- the addresses (like "salonmagazine.com") that tell your browsers and e-mail where to go -- has given new life to the Gold Rush analogy. A good number of online buccaneers have played a part in the evolution of the Clinton administration's new proposal on opening up domain name registration to competition -- and they hope to play a bigger role if the policy is enacted.

"There are still a lot of cyber-cowboys out there," admits Larry Irving, assistant secretary of commerce and head of the National Telecommunications Information Administration, which advises the White House on telecom issues and last Friday rolled out a new plan to administer the domain name system. "And we're trying to be an arbitrator to them, not a dictator."

The administration's proposal, among other things, calls for a governing body to administer the domain name system -- a group made up of consumer representatives, small businesses, registrars of country domains (like ".uk") and, of course, the big telecom companies. Basically, anyone who wants to sell domain names and proves basic technical know-how would be given an opportunity to do so. The registrars would need the governing body to ensure equal access to the "root servers" -- the computers at the heart of the Net that apportion Internet address information.

This system would replace the current monopoly on domain name registration by Virginia-based Network Solutions. Through a five-year agreement with the National Science Foundation that ends in March but will likely be extended through September, Network Solutions has gotten rich charging the millions of people using the Web $50 per year for Internet addresses in the popular top-level domains .com, .net and .org.

The plan (or "green paper," as the administration calls it) is still provisional; it must go through a comment period and subsequent fine-tuning. What's striking is that corporate America was, for the most part, absent from the negotiations that hashed it out. Instead, it was the "cyber-cowboys" who rode into Washington, D.C., and helped government officials formulate the first test of the administration's plan for electronic commerce.

Last Monday, senior White House adviser and electronic commerce architect Ira Magaziner met with a few of those entrepreneurial cowboys in New York City to, as one official said, "get them on board" the plan's final draft. Those who attended the Magaziner briefing represented obscure companies that are hoping to see a cut of Network Solutions' profits.

"The Net gives small businesspeople like me a voice where we otherwise would not have one. That is the reason this has been such a passionate debate," says Jay Fenello, president of Iperdome, who was at the Magaziner meeting and soon hopes to administer the new ".per" domain. Through his Atlanta company, Fenello plans to provide Net users with personal domain names that, he says, will help people remain online if they change jobs or ISPs. ("If your name happens to be John Smith, please hurry," Iperdome's Web site reads.)

And Fenello, a relative Net newbie, has taken his campaign not just to Magaziner but to other Internet users though multiple e-mail lists on the domain name issue, like gtld-discuss@imc.org, that offer vigorous debate and frequently ruffled feathers. Broadcasting his opinions about the domain name process to whoever will listen undoubtedly helped Fenello and others bend the administration's ear.

"I don't know what Jay Fenello tells Ira Magaziner," says Don Heath, president of the Internet Society -- the self-described "non-governmental international organization for global cooperation and coordination for the Internet" that includes many of the Internet's founders and builders. "Most of us are standing around saying, 'Who is this guy? Should he be treated equally in this debate?' I don't think so," Heath says.

But Heath and the Internet Society have approached this issue with a slightly renegade spirit as well. The Internet Society is proceeding with its own plan to open the domain name system to competition without the government's support. Along with Jon Postel -- a professor at the University of Southern California and unofficial Net godfather who administers the numbering system that makes Internet addresses work -- Heath has signed up more than 80 small businesses as registrars to seven new top-level domains such as ".store" and ".firm."

Those small businesses -- ranging from a translating service in Japan to a small Internet service provider in Australia to a sunscreen manufacturer in Los Angeles to an individual living in New Jersey -- have paid the Internet Society $10,000 a pop to join the illustrious-sounding Council of Registrars, or CORE. Shortly after Heath and Postel announced their plan to start the seven new top-level domains in Geneva last year, the White House chose not to endorse it, and instead called on Irving and Magaziner to find a suitable alternative.

Whether any of those 80-odd companies who make up Heath's CORE ultimately will register domain names or see a return on their $10,000 investment remains to be seen. In the meantime, some are already running ads on such high-trafficked sites as Pathfinder, urging consumers to be the first to claim their new domain names.

Heath's brazen tactic of creating seven new top-level domain names with no support from the U.S. government and minimal support from international authorities is exactly the reason why Magaziner has gone out of his way to meet with anyone with an opinion and a server. Diverging views about how the domain name system should be run could lead to a fragmentation of the Net and disruption of Net service.

We've already caught glimpses of such a future. Last summer, Eugene Kashpureff, a 33-year-old engineer and towing-service operator from Washington state, rerouted service for the .com top-level domain from Network Solutions' server to his own, disrupting Web and e-mail service for several hours. Although Kashpureff settled out of court with Network Solutions and issued a written apology, he now faces FBI charges of computer and wire fraud for his antics. Kashpureff was extradited back to the United States from Canada on Christmas Eve, released on a $75,000 bond and is awaiting trial.

Then there is Paul Garrin, founder of an Internet name-space company called pgMedia who filed an antitrust suit against Network Solutions and flooded the Commerce Department with more than 100 petitions against the domain name registrar last summer. Garrin describes the administration's green paper as a plot to keep Network Solutions in control of their monopoly, and the U.S. government in control of the Internet. In a recent e-mail, he said the plan amounts to a diversion tactic "sprayed out in anthrax-like fine aerosol mist into the ether of the media and the Net, silently closing in to be inhaled inconspicuously as all eyes are on the bombs falling on Iraq."

And there is the more reasonable but potentially more damaging Christopher Ambler, president of Image Online Design in San Luis Obispo, Calif. Ambler, who has claimed the domain ".web," also met with Magaziner at the meeting in New York last week, and says he is cooperating with the administration's plan and is ready to start registering addresses.

Despite this very real threat of what one administration official involved in the discussions describes as "a bunch of guys playing G.I. Joe," the big corporate players have remained oddly silent. While more than 200 companies responded to a request for comment last
summer by the Commerce Department, many have since been silent on the issue.

"I think there was a feeling after the request for comment that this was
the end of it," says Brian O'Shaughnessy, director of public policy for the
Interactive Sevices Association, which represents more than 300 companies
such as AOL and AT&T. "I think that because this issue is so complex, everyone is
waiting to get educated on it before coming down on either side."

In fact, corporate involvement in domain name issues has more to do with brand preservation than electronic commerce. Members of the administration's inter-agency task force on domain names say that though AOL, AT&T, Bell Atlantic and IBM attended some meetings, their interest was mostly from a trademark perspective. Would ibm.com be guaranteed the domain name ibm.web, for example? The administration invited Microsoft lobbyists to put in their two cents but got the cold shoulder. And though the Information Technology Association of America, the Washington trade association that represents most high-tech corporations (like Netscape and Boeing), sponsored a two-day conference on domain names last summer, it later dropped out of the discussions.

One trade organization vigorously involved in the government discussions last fall was the Association of Interactive Media, which claims to represent 300 companies, including Citibank and AOL. AIM's president, Andy Sernovitz, rails against Heath's Internet Society and its CORE registry plan. When testifying before the House science subcommittee on basic research last September, Sernovitz went so far as to accuse Heath of being a "puppet" of the Swiss government and of conspiring with Libyan nationals. Today, he says that the Internet is in danger of becoming fragmented not because of the Eugene Kashpureffs but because Heath's CORE registrars "have all gone cowboy."

Despite the possibility that the transition from monopoly to competition in domain name registration will be rough, leaving us with interruptions in e-mail or Web access, we'll all be better off in the long run: We'll have the options of lower prices and more choices in where we plant our stakes in cyberspace.

As David Johnson, director of the Aspen Institute's Internet policy project and outside adviser to the administration in the domain name debate, says: "The most interesting question is not whether we have chaos on the Internet, but where order will come from -- the top down or the bottom up. I think we are learning that the bottom up is better, though that concept is new to Washington."

By Rebecca Vesely

Rebecca Vesely writes frequently about technology and politics.

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