Domain system's test phase could be extended

As the "test bed" phase of competitive registration is set to expire, the Commerce Department and Network Solutions give few details of attempts to settle issues holding up the jump to full-scale competition.

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As the period for testing a new registration system for Internet addresses was set to expire, officials from the Commerce Department and the dominant registrar gave few details about their attempts to negotiate set of contentious issues holding up full-scale competition.

Meanwhile, Capitol Hill signaled its growing interest in the stalemate by firing off two more letters criticizing various players for allowing personal agendas to threaten the future stability of the system.

Tomorrow is the scheduled end of the "test bed" period for a shared system for registering the most popular form of domain names. The test period, which began on April 26, has been extended twice before, and two sources said privately that it likely will be again.

Under the shared registration plan, being administered by the Commerce Department and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), five registrars were appointed to test the system for registering domain names ending in ".com," ".net," and ".org." Until recently, Network Solutions Incorporated had sole authority to register the names, which account for about 75 percent of the Net's addresses. Another 52 registrars are in line to tap into the system once the trial period ends.

The delays have come as NSI and Commerce officials try to settle their differences on a host of complicated issues.

Under the shared registration system, NSI will continue to administer the master registry of addresses that each new registrar must plug into in order to issue domain names. NSI and the Commerce Department are sharply divided over what NSI's rights and responsibilities should be under the arrangement.

For example, NSI says that it has proprietary rights to the information behind more than 5 million addresses it registered as a sole government contractor. Critics, including Commerce Department officials, say that would give NSI an unfair advantage over its new competitors-- a circumstance barred by a cooperative agreement NSI signed in 1992. NSI and Commerce officials are also clashing over the fee registrars must pay to access NSI's registry, as well as the terms the new competitors must adhere to.

"We're having very productive conversations," a Commerce official said, declining further comment. An NSI official agreed that the parties, which have met every day since last Friday, are making progress, but also declined to elaborate.

Separately, Capitol Hill sent two new letters taking various players to task for their various roles in the stalemate. In one, Mike Dewine (R-Ohio) and Herb Kohl (D-Wisconsin), the chair and ranking member of the Senate subcommittee on antitrust, respectively, chided NSI, ICANN, and the Commerce Department for not resolving the issues, saying the "feud has the potential to seriously damage the stability and proper functioning of the Internet."

The letter was especially critical of NSI's claim that it owns the information behind the domains it has registered: "It raises serious questions regarding whether NSI is attempting improperly to use its pervious monopoly position to disadvantage competitors," the letter stated.

The letter also criticized ICANN for not electing a "permanent board of directors representative of the Internet community" and its now abandoned decision to impose a $1 annual fee on every domain name. "ICANN must remain focused on its core mission--ensuring competition in domain name registrations, and maintaining uniform and efficient technical standards for the operation of the Internet," the senators wrote.

In a separate letter, Rep. Tom Bliley, a frequent ICANN critic who hails from Virginia, where NSI is located, raised the possibility that a senior White House official improperly raised money to fund the nonprofit, which faces about $800,000 in debts. Bliley's letter, addressed to Clinton counsel Charles Ruff, included an email that recounts a conversation in which the official, Tom Kalil, supposedly promised to encourage private companies to donate money to ICANN.

Bliley raised the possibility that such activities might violate federal law. White House officials did not return a telephone call seeking comment.

The letters represent only the latest interest shown by Capitol Hill in the conflict. In addition to other letters sent recently about the issue, two House subcommittees in as many weeks have held hearings. The Senate, meanwhile, is also considering a bill that would prevent "cybersquatting," in which a person registers trademarked names as domain names and then sells them back to their rightful owner at a steep profit.