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Back rent may be due on domains

When the National Science Foundation closes up shop on the Internet next year, it may be looking to collect some back rent.

When the National Science Foundation closes up shop on the Internet next year, it may be looking to collect some back rent.

As reported earlier, Network Solutions, the company in charge of assigning domain names on behalf of the federal agency, has not collected all the registration fees it could have. Now, the foundation's Office of the Inspector General has begun an audit to determine how many names the company did register and how much money it should have collected for those names.

Thirty percent of those fees belong to a foundation trust fund, which wants the money when the company's agreement ends next March. Each domain name costs $100 for the first two years, then $50 annually thereafter.

Network Solutions claims that it has registered 1.2 million domain names under the cooperative working agreement, contributing a little more than $68 million to the trust fund. If each domain name brought in $100, the fund would represent a pay rate of slightly over 50 percent. Yet it's probably not that simple an equation.

For example, the company offers offenders up to 180 days to pay their fees late, and some names may have been cut off for nonpayment or may have been obtained as $50 renewals of previously registered names.

There's no way of knowing whether Network Solutions will owe any money at all until after the audit is complete. However, the company has acknowledged difficulties in collecting fees, which it has attributed to the explosive growth of the Internet.

Some Internet service providers even brag that they've registered hundreds of names in the company's seven top-level domains--including ".com" and ".net"--for which they say they've never paid and never will.

But if the inspector general's report is any indication, Network Solutions' problems won't get much sympathy. "If a person or entity registered or renewed a domain name, then it is obligated to pay, and under the terms of the cooperative agreement NSI is obligated to collect," the report stated. "Accordingly, this revenue is owed to the pool."

The report recommends that the funds in the pool be returned to the National Science Foundation rather than awarded to Network Solutions, which has already submitted a plan to use the funds in creating a nonprofit registry for the network addresses that reside behind domain names.