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Internet jam tip of iceberg?

Yesterday's Net slowdown is the last thing Network Soltutions needs as it prepares to go public.

4 min read
Yesterday's Net traffic slowdown couldn't have come at a worse time for Network Solutions. The company, which caused the backup in email and Web service, doesn't need any more bad publicity as it tries to go public.

The glitch resulted in a day of connection problems throughout the world. It wasn't the first time that Network Solutions (NSI), which runs the InterNIC for the federal government, has had problems.

In recent weeks, NSI has come under intense scrutiny over its business practices and the way it handles its awesome responsibility of managing the Internet's naming system.

Yesterday's snafu was not an isolated occurrence. In fact, a strikingly similar glitch with a much lower profile came to light July 3, the same day that NSI filed to go public. In its IPO, the latest in a burst of technology public stock offerings, the company plans to raise as much as $35 million.

The problem was caused when a database program ended up corrupting ".com" and ".net" zone files and a system administrator inadvertently sent out the bad files. As a result, millions of people seeking Web pages and email got back error messages saying that the addresses they were trying to reach simply didn't exist. It would be like the phone company losing the information that tells them how to connect phone numbers to their destinations.

Earlier this month, a similar problem happened, but the effect was not nearly as widely publicized and did not cause as many problems for Netizens, largely because it came on a holiday weekend. Network Solutions had made a change to its main server that caused the domain name information it sent out to be partially corrupt and unreadable.

Although glitches and errors are inevitable especially as the Internet continues to boom exponentially, the fact that they came in such close proximity to each other worries some.

"They need to do something about quality control," said Asim Mughal, who administers the E-root name server located at NASA Ames for the InterNIC. The problem "has happened for the second time in a very short period of time, and that's what concerns me. Things like this--small technical hiccups--occur, but there is not that much media attention and they are usually very far apart. Technically, it was not that big of a thing."

But, he added, "I'm concerned that this doesn't go on every few weeks."

According to Network Solutions, yesterday's problem was an singular event. "This is the first time this has happened during our four years of operation," said Aggie Nteta, a spokesman for Network Solutions.

But others--especially those who are trying to fight Network Solutions' claim that it owns the Internet's commercial domain names--see a pattern.

In its filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, NSI said it "believes that it has ownership rights in this database and is seeking to protect such rights."

But others dispute that claim, saying that the database--developed under a government agreement--belongs in the public domain. PGMedia is one such company.

The company is suing NSI, claiming that its exclusive agreement with the National Science Foundation creates a de facto monopoly. In a statement issued today, PGMedia said: "This and other recent troubles that NSI has experienced in its operation of the Internet's domain name system are textbook examples of a monopolist's inertia in developing new and more secure systems.

"In NSI's desire to protect its monopoly profits, particularly in view of its stated intention to offer public stock based on that artificially inflated cash flow, NSI has placed the entire Internet at risk."

Although not all of NSI's detractors are as critical, several--from individuals to Internet service providers-- have been critical of the registry.

In fact, NSI has taken several publicity hits in the last few months. Two days ago, an ISP complained that the InterNIC canceled its domain name without warning; on Monday, InterNIC's rival domain registry, AlterNIC, redirected users from "www.internic.net" to its own site last weekend in what it called a "protest."

On the legal front, NSI is facing intense scrutiny from both would-be competitors and public agencies alike. In addition to being sued by PGMedia, NSI has come under scrutiny of the Justice Department for suspicion antitrust violations. In addition, the company is facing widespread criticism about other issues, such as the way it assigns and manages domain names and its billing and collection methods.

Some people complained that they were cut off even after they paid, while others thumb their noses at NSI and claim they've never paid their bills but continue to get service.

An NSF internal report released in April said the company had failed to collect as much as half the fees it was owed. Furthermore, the generally critical report spurred the NSF to relinquish control over the domain name system, causing a scramble for control over the domain names.

In fact, a committee backed by the nonprofit Internet Society is threatening the future of NSI's business with a proposed plan for privatizing the domain naming system after the NSF pulls out in March 1998. The plan would open up Network Solutions' exclusive registries to competition. And there are others, including AlterNIC, who want a piece of the naming pie.

NSI has registered over 1.3 million domain names and collected almost $80 million during the term of its agreement. The White House has assembled a task force to look at the handling of domain names.