October 14, 1997


by Andy Oram
American Reporter Correspondent

CAMBRIDGE, MASS.—The Domain Name System, which is usually buried discretely within the workings of the Internet, erupted into public view last summer. An inquiry by the U.S. Department of Commerce led up to hearings on September 30 before the House Science Committee, the testimony to which is online. This represented impressive attention for an issue that a leading Internet organization thought could be solved by a committee of 11, and whose only discussion in public simmered for months on a couple Internet mailing lists.

Technically, DNS works great. Thousands of systems around the world cooperate to provide Internet addresses that correspond to names like oreilly.com and cpsr.org. But the tremendous increase in corporate use of the Internet has led to pressure on the registration of names. Everybody wants a Web site named www.something.com, so conflicts naturally arise.

And a lot of users think the costs of keeping such a name—$100 to register for the first two years and $50 a year thereafter—are too high. Suspicion abounds that Network Solutions, the administrator with monopoly control over the .com domain and several others, is gouging Internet sites. Outside the U.S., other registrars are even more expensive and give poorer service.

Swirling around the problems of DNS administration are larger questions. Can we break up current monopolies and manage Internet resources in a competitive fashion? What Internet assets should be considered intellectual property, and therefore something requiring legal protection? What governing bodies should set rules for the Internet? And how do we move from U.S. federal control to truly international administration?

The Congressional committee and Department of Commerce had to deal with a full-fledged solution already on the table. This solution was the Generic Top Level Domain Memorandum of Understanding, whose awkward name is hardly improved by the common convention of reducing it to the initials gTLD-MoU. The Memorandum was the outcome of the 11-member committee mentioned earlier, the International Ad Hoc Committee, which had been appointed to the task of resolving DNS problems by a leading Internet organization, the Internet Society.

The intent of the Internet Society was admirable enough (though critics have leapt to accuse them of underhanded motives). Had the Memorandum been an elegant solution that clearly addressed all the concerns of the Internet community, it might have gained the widespread acceptance that the Internet Society hoped for. But it contained enough problems to bring down criticism, not only for its contents, but for the process used by its backers to attempt universal acceptance.

First, the Memorandum does not solve the pressing problem of the oversubscribed .com domain. The proposed solution defines seven new domains, such as .firm and .store, which are supposed to provide alternatives to .com. But the company that registers something.com is going to feel threatened when it finds another company registering something.firm. And who can anticipate which domain will go to which company? The seven new domains, which were fairly arbitrary choices in any case, just increase the current problem sevenfold.

Second, the solution proposed by the Memorandum to increase competition, while superior to the current Network Solutions monopoly, requires a lot of centralized administration. While supporters uphold this management structure as a guarantee of quality, free-market enthusiasts on the Internet find it simply burdensome.

Third, the Memorandum ties domain names tightly to trademarks. This is going in the wrong direction entirely. Companies should not feel that they have a God-given right to a www.something.com Web site. But under the Memorandum’s rules, if my company didn’t have a trademark on the name O’Reilly, we could be kicked off the oreilly.com domain (forfeiting all the benefits of heavy advertising) by a challenge from another company that trademarked, say, an O’Reilly Horseshoe or O’Reilly Pencil Sharpener.

Complaints about Web site names are not always limited to second level names. If O’Reilly decided to put a Web server on a computer named toucan, some pet store might complain that the name toucan.oreilly.com infringed on their line of bird feed products. Even more absurd examples can be found in real life. Sun Microsystems sued someone who put up a Web site with “java” in the name, while Radio Shack unloaded its legal baggage on a small, hapless pornography provider called the Smut Shack. The tyranny of trademarks has to be stopped before it suffocates everyday language.

The solution to the .com congestion is to provide robust worldwide indexes on the Internet. The exact name placed on a Web site or electronic mail address would not be so important if users could find a company quickly and with a substantial guarantee of success.

A fourth problem with the Memorandum was the process of which it was a part. The Commercial Internet Exchange (CIX), which is the world’s largest trade association of Internet providers, objected on several grounds, including that the IAHC “circumvents due process” and “does not necessarily include input of diverse interest groups.” Several public-interest groups followed suit.

The IAHC made a lunge for respectability through the involvement of two international organizations. One, the International Telecommunication Union, is a standards body for telephone companies. The other, the World Intellectual Property Organization, recommends laws governing copyright and other intellectual property. Few participants in either ITU or WIPO are familiar with Internet technical issues, and neither organization is seen by Internet users as a legitimate representative. Bringing these organizations in has produced a backlash of resentment.

The many problems with the Global Memorandum, along with the speed and heavy-handed process by which it was promoted, have widely discredited it. But we are left with pulling out the ideas that have merit and finding a new solution. Anthony M. Rutkowski, a communications engineer and attorney, contrasts the IAHC’s view of domain names (as a finite resource to be managed by a public body) with a more open view that permits a diversity of organizations to provide names. Challenging the legal right of the Internet Society and IAHC to create binding agreements, Rutkowski questions whether intergovernmental agreements like the Memorandum are needed at all for the Internet.

The process of developing a better system will have to take time and involve a wide range of groups. The U.S. government can play a useful mediating role at the beginning, although the system ultimately will have to be run through an international body.

A certain amount of central control is necessary for what are called the “root” or “dot” servers—the ones at the very tip top of the hierarchy. But everywhere underneath, there can be much more diversity and competition both in the names offered and the registrars maintaining them. The exact degree of freedom permitted can be determined only after a thorough examination of the technical means to disseminate names. But we can hope to emerge, not only with a more open domain system, but with a model for future Internet decision-making.

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