September 8, 1998

HAND-SHAKE OR HAND-DRAWN GUN BATTLE APPROACHING ON INTERNET DOMAIN NAMES

by Andy Oram
American Reporter Correspondent

Note: after I finished this article, the Harvard Berkman Center meeting that served as its hook was abruptly canceled. However, the issues discussed by the article are quite relevant. The reason for cancellation was that the two organizations who produced draft proposals decided to meet and resolve differences themselves instead of attending the more public meeting. Jonathan Zittrain, one of the organizers of the meeting, told me: "The meeting at the Berkman Center was to serve two purposes: to bring together groups that were not talking directly to each other, and as a means of closure for a process that would meet the goals of the White Paper—a process that was to be open, transparent, and not behind closed doors. Now that two parties are talking, the first goal may be less important, but the need for the second has not been removed.

CAMBRIDGE, MASS.—A climax in Internet policy-making is scheduled to occur this coming weekend in a closed room at Harvard University. Here, invited representatives of organizations concerned with the administration of domain names and numbers on the Internet will meet and be asked to come to consensus on a new administrative organization.

During the tense days leading up to this event, old enemies have made temporary peace while new accusations fly. Some of the original players think that the process is succeeding splendidly and will produce a last-minute consensus. Others detect persistent bad-faith in their opponents and believe that someone will have to force a solution.

Much more is at stake than the purported subjects of debate, which include who gets to hand out IP addresses and other numbers, how domain names like american-reporter.com are granted, and how work proceeds on related protocols. A whole industry in domain names may be created and regulated by the emerging organization. Furthermore, the choices made now will be a model for future Internet administration.

Debate has been carried on over the past year through position papers—published as proposals, comments, and a White Paper from the U.S. Commerce Department—Congressional hearings, and consensus-building meetings held in the U.S., Switzerland, and Singapore. The White Paper, released in June, established a principle of open, inclusive decision-making and formed the structure within which further debate evolved.

Two draft proposals have been presented to those participating in the grand experiment. Some people think that the group will pick the best of each and come up with an organization that meets with everyone’s approval. According to Anthony Rutkowski—an engineer and lawyer with widely recognized authority on the Internet—the drafts are not that far apart.

Others vehemently disagree. Einar Stefferud, an Internet pioneer who has founded two companies, says "the legal differences are huge and unbridgeable."

To understand the problems of creating a new administrative organization, one must look at the question uppermost on everyone’s minds: who are the members or constituents? Who, in short, has the right to participate in the creation of the organization or choosing its officers? Much of the talk about "openness" and "accountability" revolves around this question.

The Internet is not a geographic entity whose inhabitants can be polled. Nor is it a commercial association. While some people would be happy leaving all decisions about domains in the hands of organizations that administer them, others would consider such an outcome to be a power grab with disastrous results.

The potential constituents of the domain-name organization go even beyond domain holders, perhaps even beyond the collection of all Internet users. According to Karl Auerbach, who holds a law degree and has participated in much networking technical development, a "stakeholder" includes "everyone who is some way affected by the Internet today or will be in the next few years—in other words, everybody."

The first proposal comes from the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, an old organization (going by Internet time) that manages IP addresses. Though its founder, Jon Postel, has long been one of the heros of the Internet community, his role in the domain-name debate proposal has aroused a great deal of resentment.

While Rutkowski considers the IANA proposal a flawed document that is improving over time, a less charitable point of view comes from Stefferud. "The language is very legalistically tricky. The greatest differences [from the alternative proposal] are deeply embedded in well polished legal phrases in the IANA drafts that appear to say that things must be open, but in fact give the Board the power to become extremely closed and opaque to any oversight by anyone."

The other draft comes from Network Solutions, which administers the highly-coveted .com domain. It is one of the surprising turns in the process that this player, considered an enemy by many participants, has been praised for its positive contribution in this draft.

Anger at Network Solutions was in many ways the source of the entire debate. The Domain Name Rights Coalition was formed to fight Network Solutions practices. These include fees considered by many domain holders to be excessive, and a dispute-resolution policy that allows the company to strip any client of a domain. The first proposals to create a new administrative system were also aimed directly at ending Networks Solutions’ control over key domains like .com.

But Mikki Barry of DNRC praises the recent Network Solutions draft because it makes a good stab at defining membership of the new organization. She says that participants should look at the draft objectively. "Anger at Network Solutions is so strong that anybody defending the draft gets attached and asked whether Network Solutions funded their participation."

In regards to the membership issue, the question becomes that of prime mover—the organization can be set up by an interim board, but who chooses this interim board? Total inclusion (one vote for every interested person) is impossible. Rutkowski believes that the Harvard meeting will bypass the question and simply choose a set of individuals who will be accepted as broadly representative, and none of whom are key leaders in the current debate.

Auerbach, more demanding than Barry or Rutkowski, argues that "both proposals skip around the notion of who can be a ‘member.’ And both allow individual people to obtain multiple votes by linking up with multiple ‘organizations.’"

Clearly, events are moving so fast that few people have time to consider deeply the implications of each proposal. Some have circulated valuable insights, while too many prefer to spend their time demonizing opponents. But everyone continues to hope for a resolution next weekend.


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