In the face of an impasse, the Commerce Department is asking for public input on the future of the Internet's domain name system, releasing a request for comment on how the administration of the Internet's naming system should be handled.
The government is slated to withdraw its support for the process in March of next year.
With an eye toward transforming the former research and academic network into an engine for commerce, the National Science Foundation (NSF) began privatizing the Internet in the early 1990s when it gave up ownership of a large portion of the Internet's infrastructure. But the agency has found it more difficult to let go of Internet's logical infrastructure, such as the assigning of domain names.
The Internet's domain name system helps route data over the global network using familiar names, such as "news.com." The most commercially desirable Internet names are registered by the world's largest registrar, the InterNIC.
Run by Network Solutions under agreement with the NSF, the InterNIC has registered almost 1.3 million domain names since 1993. This agreement, which runs out in March of 1998, will not be renewed, yet the NSF has made no plans for what happens next. In the meantime, a struggle has ensued over who will control the Internet domain name system.
An ad hoc committee, sponsored in part by the Internet Society, proposed a plan last year for taking over and expanding Network Solutions' role. But that plan, which was ratified by 80 individuals and organizations in Geneva, Switzerland, in May, has come under fire from several different groups. Some organizations, such as the members of the enhanced Domain Name Services coalition and the AlterNIC, envy the approximately $78 million in registration fees collected by Network Solutions and question what authority the volunteer committee has to dole those lucrative contracts out to registrars.
Others, including the leadership of the Association for Interactive Media, accuse the ad hoc committee of conceiving and executing its plans without adequate public input or debate. Still others that accepted the governmental role of a United States agency, such as Internet service provider PSInet, question the statutory authority of the committee and say it is rushing its plan as a power grab. Internet Society president Don Heath denies these charges.
In addition, an informal White House task force, chaired by the Office of Management of Budget, is leery of the ad hoc committee's use of United Nations' intergovernmental bodies to implement the plan, fearing their involvement could open the door for Internet regulation. The White House will release guidelines tomorrow that say Internet regulation could devastate the commercial potential of the nascent network.
But while the ad hoc plan has been controversial, it's the only plan that seems to have garnered serious and widespread consideration. Different groups have begun setting up private name services to extend or replace the existing domain name service, including the enhanced Domain Name Services coalition, AlterNIC, and PGP Media's name.space. But these serve only a fraction of a percentage of the Net and don't enjoy any sort of broad support.
The government has clearly indicated that it wants out of Net administration and would prefer to see a private-sector solution. However, after watching the warring factions spin their wheels for months, the administration has said it will help facilitate the discussion.
The Commerce Department's request ignores the ad hoc committee plan and starts from scratch by asking basic questions about what purpose the naming system should serve and who should control it. The public can submit comments via email to firstname.lastname@example.org, as well as by mail and fax, before August 18.