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Network Solutions sued

The Internet group is accused of violating antitrust laws through its exclusive sale of commercial domain names.

Network Solutions has been accused of violating antitrust laws through its exclusive sale of commercial Internet domain names.

PGP Media today filed a suit in a New York court alleging that the partially government-funded Network Solutions has conspired with several other Internet groups to set up artificial barriers to competition in the selling of Internet domain names in order to maintain monopoly control of the market. The International Ad Hoc Committee, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) and its director, Jon Postel, the Internet Society, and unnamed "control persons" are named as "nonparty coconspirators" in the complaint.

According to the complaint, which has yet to be served on Network Solutions, the company is using its historical control of Internet "root servers" to preclude competition in domain name service. Root servers are computers that act like switchboard operators, matching up familiar network names, like "cnet.com" with the location of that Net resource, like a Web site, email server, or gopher server.

At issue is a small database file, the "config file," that resides on these 11 root servers scattered across the world. The first step in "resolving" a domain name system address, the config file acts something like a directory of area codes. It contains a listing of every officially sanctioned top-level domain, the usually three-letter suffix on a domain name. Network Solutions issues names in several top-level domains, including ".com," ".net," and ".gov."

A top-level domain not listed in the official root servers is virtually unreachable. By refusing to list top-level domains of other domain registries, such as PGP Media's, Network Solutions keeps out competition, the complaint alleges.

PGP Media's own domain naming service, called name.space, can't successfully compete on the Internet without access to the config file on the Internet's official root servers, the complaint said. The company is asking that the court force Network Solutions to list name.space's top-level domains, such as ".camera," in the official root servers in addition to minimum damages of $1 million.

"The same as AT&T was forced to give MCI access to its phone wires, Network Solutions should be forced to give us access to the config file," said Michael J. Donovan, the attorney representing PGP Media in the case. "It's property my clients need access to in order to compete. We can't recreate this; to do so would mean we have to recreate the Internet."

PGP Media asserts that despite Network Solutions's InterNIC agreement, an exclusive cooperative agreement and grant with the National Science Foundation, the company has no authority to limit or control the growth of the domain naming system.

Network Solutions has said in the past that it does not control the root servers but that the IANA does. Donovan, however, said that Network Solutions, not IANA, is the responsible party because it was granted the exclusive registry for domain service from the government. "We've been through every document we can find and nowhere is IANA named as a government contractor," he said. IANA is, however, named as a subcontractor to Network Solutions as part of the InterNIC agreement and grant.

The complaint also said PGP Media reserves the right to challenge the recent change to the original 1993 National Science Foundation agreement. Forged in 1995, the modified agreement allowed Network Solutions to start charging $100 fees for two-year name registrations with $50 per year annual renewals. Free registrations were previously supported by a $5 million NSF grant. The current suit does not address the agreement, but suggests PGP Media could in future challenge it on grounds of price-fixing and restraint of trade.

The IANA was sued earlier this month by Image Online Design. The company accused IANA of reneging on a deal to grant it a new ".web" registry.

Network Solutions officials were unavailable for comment.