September 29, 1998


by Andy Oram
American Reporter Correspondent

CAMBRIDGE, MASS.—Racing toward a September 30 deadline, Internet users around the globe are investing their passion and talent in developing an international system for administering Internet domain names. A glittering chandelier of proposals circles above the participants who have shown the stamina to follow the dance through an exhausting grass-roots discussion.

The center of the final discussion is a joint draft from two of the major organizations in the administration of Internet names and numbers, the Internet Assigned Number Authority (IANA) and Network Solutions, Inc. A group of lawyers and engineers met in Boston a week ago to critique and fix what they saw as holes in the proposal.

Given the rush, it has not been difficult to find weaknesses in both proposals, so suggestions from many other groups and individuals have been thrown onto Web sites and email lists. Even the Electronic Frontier Foundation has gotten involved. IANA revised its draft one more time yesterday to include some of the comments from all these quarters.

None of the proposals could have happened without the open, come-one-come-all consensus process started earlier this year by a White Paper from the U.S. Department of Commerce. It called for an organization and a process that are “fair, open and pro-competitive.”

Contending parties quickly coalesced around a group called the International Forum on the White Paper, which held several meetings and agreed on key principles that have made progress possible so far. Among their principles are that:

Toward the end of the process, IANA and Network Solutions returned unexpectedly to the stage, like the dwarves in Wagner’s Ring operas. Their draft proposals, amended time and again to reflect criticisms on open email lists, clearly reflected the IFWP consensus.

When they announced their joint draft on September 17 to media fanfare, many observers advised the quarrelsome types on IFWP to pack up and go home. They refused to do so, however, continuing to probe at the inadequacies and insufficient safeguards in the draft.

Five dissenters with a variety of strong backgrounds in law and engineering met in Boston over the following weekend. Shrewdly, they presented their implementation of the IFWP points not as a competing draft, but as a set of changes to the September 17 draft. These changes have won widespread support among IFWP participants and had a noticeable impact on the latest IANA draft.

The Boston Group (as the dissenters came to be known) focused on making the company administering the domain names more accountable. They added many clauses giving members more control over the activities of the board, called for increased publication of meetings and results, and removed a passage that would preserve Network Solutions’ much-hated monopoly over the .com domain.

The Boston Group’s most far-reaching change (not incorporated by IANA) dealt with the Supporting Organizations, where technical experts are expected to provide guidance for the corporation’s central board. The Boston Group removed a clause allowing the Supporting Organizations to elect half the board.

What underlying social conflict does this change reflect? Many people complained that an “old guard” of Internet technical pioneers had been dominating discussion in a new era where the Internet encompassed millions of people. Putting representatives from the Supporting Organizations on the board would presumably let the techies overrule broader interests championed by the Boston Group.

Now, one cannot wax too idealistic over the “broader interests,” which would probably come to mean big commercial Internet users. Nevertheless, one must recognize that the Internet is no longer a tiny technical community, and it is time to look beyond that community for governance.

The EFF also presented their proposal as a set of changes. These focused on the rights of Internet users, and overlapped the Boston Group in many areas related to openness or accountability.

Further suggestions from various quarters included ideas about how to “bootstrap” the board by picking initial members, and ways to finance the company without introducing conflicts of interest.

It may seem strange that people get so worked up over the question of who gives out names on the Internet. But it’s not surprising once you realize how much communication and commercial transactions have moved online.

So now one’s Web URL or email address becomes an extremely valuable piece of intellectual property. Since there haven’t been any other goods in the history of the world that work like domain names, quite arcane arguments have broken out over who owns them and should have a right to distribute them.

No one can predict whether the Internet community will pull together the various proposals this week, or how the Commerce Department will handle competing proposals. (Probably, significant disagreement will result in an extension of the deadline and a return to the table for more consensus work.) But already the process has revealed fissures in the old ways of running the Internet.

When the Commerce Department issued its White Paper, it implicitly overruled a process that had been guided and wrapped up by one of the leading Internet organizations, the Internet Society. This group had been started a full six years earlier by key Internet developers when they realized that the Internet had grown to the point where it needed firm legal and financial underpinnings.

Since promoting commercial use of the Internet was one of the explicit goals of the Internet Society, it is ironic that they were later accused of riding roughshod over the needs of commercial users. But certainly their process for fixing the administration of domain names was too narrow.

The result, called the IAHC or CORE proposal, met ridicule—sometimes quite abusive—from almost everybody outside the small set of organizations that drew it up originally. (To be fair, several European governments endorsed the proposal—but it was simultaneously rejected by actual Internet-related organizations in those same countries.)

The U.S. government ratified the critique by starting the White Paper process. Since then, open discussion has been irrepressible in both face-to-face meetings and email lists.

But to those who look to the Internet as a great force for democracy, I am forced to report that most progress was made in face-to-face meetings. Email lists, while certainly hosting insightful comments, have mostly ran rank with flames and complaints.

But the rejection of the IAHC proposal, like Siegfried’s slaying of the dragon in the Ring cycle, shattered the comfortable world of Internet administration and showed that a new force was on the scene. Whether this force will go on in the next act to shatter the staff that represents the entire current order is yet to be seen.

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