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New domain names afoot

The Internet Council of Registrars unveils plans to compete with the InterNIC and to allow Netizens to sign up for seven new top-level domain names by March 1998.

By March 1998, Netizens should be able to sign up for seven new top level domain names and the company running the InterNIC will face some competition, according to a plan unveiled today.

At first blush, the plan sounds straightforward. But when it comes to domain name issues, things are rarely simple, and this case is no exception. Despite the confidence of the planners, it's still not clear whether they have the clout to pull it off.

Interim Policy Oversight Committee (IPOC) has been working on an alternate system that would compete with Network Solutions.

Today, the Internet Council of Registrars (CORE), born out of IPOC, outlined plans to introduce seven new top-level domain names: ".arts," ".firm", ".info," ".nom," ".rec," ".shop," and ".web." Emergent Corporation, a United States-based company, has signed a contract to develop and operate a new Internet Domain Names Shared Registry system.

The plan calls for Emergent to develop the database. Netizens would be able to register the new names with one of many CORE registrars (currently there are 89).

But at this point it is unclear who would need to approve the additional domain names and exactly how the plan would be implemented.

Members of CORE and Emergent said today they are confident that they can overcome all hurdles in time to actually register new domain names. In fact, some of the members of CORE already are preregistering names.

"This is no longer just talk," said Ken Rudin, chief executive of Emergent. "This is actually happening. Investments have already been made. Implementation on this system has actually begun."

The idea behind the new registry is to bring competition to the domain name system. Currently, Network Solutions has a contract with the National Science Foundation until March 1998 to run the registry of the most popular top-level domains, such as ".com," ".edu," and ".net."

Under that contract, Network Solutions operates the main root name server that acts as a master directory to all domain names on the Internet. For a domain name to work, it has to be included on the root server.

And therein lies the heart of the matter.

Getting included in that server is not simply a matter of making a request.

In fact, it is not entirely clear to players deeply involved in domain name issues who has ultimate authority over the server.

"That's the million-dollar question," said Jay Fenello, president of Iperdome, a company also involved in the domain name game.

At least one company, PGMedia, has sued for the right to have its domain names included in the server.

Chris Clough, a spokesman for Network Solutions said that the decision to add new domain names is not up to it. Rather, he said, that decision ultimately lies with the National Science Foundation.

"We don't add anything without a directive from the National Science Foundation," said Clough.

In fact, an attorney with the National Science Foundation has specifically told Network Solutions not to create new top-level domain names. The NSF is in discussions with several government agencies about the governance and authority over the Internet naming system.

"It is generally felt that the addition of any new TLDs [top-level domains] at this time would be destabilizing and premature," wrote Donald Mitchell of the NSF in a letter earlier this summer to Network Solutions. "The National Science Foundation specifically requests that NSI take NO action to create additional TLDs or to add any other new TLDs to the Internet root zone file until NSF, in consultation with other U.S. government agencies, has completed its deliberations in this area and is able to provide further guidance."

John Gilmore, president and cofounder of Top Level Registries and one of the CORE registrants, said that political pressure to allow more competition in the Internet space will work in CORE's favor.

"It's pretty clear this plan is the only major game in town for providing competitive access to domain name registration," Gilmore said. "I can't see there being too much opposition to it. We don't see too much problem with having that addition being accepted by the government the same way [it's] accepted by the Internet community."

In fact, he said it will probably take longer to build the actual database than it will to get approval to be added to the main name server.

While "single entrepreneurs" have had difficulty getting onto the root server, Gilmore said his group will be treated differently because it is such a widespread cooperative effort with so many companies behind it.

"The government's made it clear that it doesn't think there's room for a monopoly," he said. "They want there to be competition."

If the plan is implemented, it will provide serious competition to the domain name space. Registrars, which go through a screening process, will compete with each other not only by offering different pricing but also by offering services.

For instance, some will offer domain name registration along with Web hosting services. Others, no doubt, will offer the lowest prices with bare-bones support.

The plan also includes provisions to resolve what has been one of Network Solutions' thorniest problems: trademark controversies.