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NSI, Commerce wrangle over domain site

The Commerce Department says there may be an announcement as early as tomorrow regarding talks with NSI and the management of its controversial InterNIC site.

As discussions continue between Network Solutions and government officials on a wide range of issues, NSI is expected to yield some ground over the controversial InterNIC Web site the company recently took over, people familiar with the matter said.

As reported yesterday, at a meeting Monday with the Commerce Department, NSI indicated that it would further modify the InterNIC site, according to two knowledgeable sources. Last month, NSI was heavily criticized after it began sending InterNIC visitors to its own home page.

The move, made just weeks before NSI was to face competition for the first time in domain name registration, prompted rivals to complain bitterly that NSI was using an exclusive government contract to compete unfairly. Commerce Department officials said NSI provided no warning that it was making the change and vowed to inquire whether it violated a 1993 contract that gives NSI sole authority to register the most popular form of domain names.

A Commerce Department official said there could be an announcement regarding talks with NSI as early as tomorrow. "We are in negotiations with them," the official said.

One source close to the resulting negotiations called the change "a violation of the spirit" of its revised agreement with the Commerce Department to administer domains until 2000. The domain name registrar is planning to take steps that will quell some of the criticism, sources said, though it remains unclear what those actions will be. A plan is expected to be announced this week.

Under the 1993 contract awarded by the National Science Foundation and later transferred to the Commerce Department, NSI has enjoyed a monopoly on the registration of domain names ending in ".com," ".net," and ".org." Those extensions grace an estimated 75 percent of the world's domain names and were responsible for the bulk of NSI's $93 million in revenues last year.

Critics say the exclusive arrangement has allowed NSI to reap a windfall while providing poor service. NSI says it delivers good service and that would-be competitors are exaggerating isolated problems.

Under the arrangement, NSI also is responsible for maintaining InterNIC, a scaled-down registration service owned by the government. Last month, users who pointed their browsers to the site were redirected to Network Solutions' home page, which was revamped to incorporate the bare-bones service offerings. NSI said it made the change to better serve its customers.

An NSI executive said all parties were "cooperating" to resolve the dispute, but a company spokesman added that the registrar would not reverse its decision to redirect to its home page.

"Our home page and Web site will be tweaked based on consumer feedback, and that may include information to clear up any misperceptions about the InterNIC site for people who were familiar with the old page," NSI spokesman Chris Clough said today.

"We've been in a range of discussion on a lot of different issues, going over how this was handled and any concerns," he added.

The controversy is only one of many points being negotiated by the company and the federal government. Chief among other issues being discussed is the price NSI can charge competing registrars for the software they will need to connect to its database.

The nonprofit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which was charged by the Commerce Department with opening the registration process, expects to name five registrars that will compete with NSI by the end of this month. After a trial run, ICANN is expected to authorize an unlimited number of accredited registrars.

If NSI and the Commerce Department cannot reach agreement on the price of the software and other issues, the schedule laid out by ICANN might be delayed, sources said.

Another issue under discussion is public access to a master list of domain names. NSI maintains that it owns the rights to the so-called zone files, while critics argue that the company merely maintains them for the government.