The House Science Basic Research Subcommittee held the fist of two hearings on the future of the Net's domain name system (DNS) today to decide whether the National Science Foundation (NSF) is ready to relinquish its role in the DNS when its five-year contract with Network Solutions expires next March. Network Solutions administers the official registrar, InterNIC, doling out names for top-level domains, such as ".com," ".edu," ".org," and ".net."
The Science Committee, which oversees the NSF's activities, wants to know what will happen to the Net when NSF pulls out and other private companies jump in to register domain names alongside Network Solutions.
"We are unsure of when the administration is coming forward with a transition plan. The uncertainty in this sequence of events seems to counter the purpose of assuring Internet stability," said vice chairman of the House subcommittee Rep. Chip Pickering (R-Mississippi) in his opening statement.
"We need a transition plan first and then have contracts expire in a deliberate, step-by-step process that facilitates the transitioning of the DNS to the private sector," he added.
Congress members also asked what will become of the NSF's "intellectual infrastructure" fund to which Network Solutions was required to contribute 30 percent of its domain registration fees. The fund now sits at $30 million and is growing at the rate of several million dollars per month, according to the NSF. The fund was to be used to improve the DNS infrastructure, but the NSF has yet decide how the money should or will be used.
"With respect to the disposition of the funding set aside for intellectual infrastructure, several approaches for utilizing these funds have been suggested, and each comes with its own set of legal, ethical, policy, and/or financial issues that have to be thoroughly considered," said acting deputy director for the NSF Joseph Bordogna in testimony submitted at the hearing.
In addition, there are questions concerning the ownership of the registration database. Networks Solutions has made claims in the past that it owns the names database and the top-level domains, such as ".com." But Larry Irving, assistant secretary of the Commerce Department, challenged that assertion today.
"We also believe that the government should, if necessary and in accordance with the provisions of the cooperative agreement, receive a copy and documentation of any and all software and data generated by Network Solutions under the cooperative agreement in such form and sufficient detail as to permit shared registration in the '.com' space," Irving told the committee.
Various scenarios were offered today as to how oversight of domain names could be transferred from the NSF to private sector. Network Solutions stuck to its long-standing proposal that an interim U.S. agency manage a predefined transition period.
"There should be criteria governing how competitors around the world provide domain name services--whether they do so by providing new top-level domains or by acting as new registrars within existing domains," Network Solutions CEO Gabe Battista stated in testimony.
Irving presented a summary of 430 public comments on the issue submitted this summer. "Let me start by saying that the comments we received reflect overwhelming support for two things: private sector governance of, and increased competition in, domain name systems."
He said the government should consider extending its contract with Network Solutions in order to provide time for a Commerce task force to release its proposed transition strategy. "We also believe that the government should, if necessary, utilize the Network Solutions ramp-down option in the cooperative agreement, providing the option to rely on the current system through fiscal year 1998."
Although Commerce hasn't made final recommendations on a transition strategy, Irving's written testimony offered some insight into what the department may suggest based on its request for public comment:
Next Tuesday, the hearings will continue with more witnesses from the private sector, including Anthony Rutkowski, director of World Internetworking Alliance; Andy Sernovitz, president of the Association for Interactive Media; Donald Heath, president and CEO of the Internet Society, and Barbara Dooley, executive director of the Commercial Internet Exchange.
Later today, democrary.net, which Netcast the proceedings live, will make available live audio of the hearing. It will also broadcast Tuesday's hearing online starting at 10 a.m. ET.