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Domain transition said to lack plan

The government may not be ready to hand over control of the Internet domain name system to the public sector by next winter, according to testimony before Congress.

The U.S. government may not be ready to hand over control of the Internet domain name system to the public sector by next winter, according to testimony before Congress today.

Concluding two days of testimony on the future of the DNS (domain name system), many witnesses told the House Science Basic Research Subcommittee that it would be dangerous for the government to pull out of its role in administering the system by next March. That's when the contract is scheduled to expire between the National Science Foundation (NSF) and Network Solutions (NSOL), which runs the official registrar of top-level domains such as ".com," ".edu," ".org," and ".net."

Excluding testimony by an international ad hoc coalition (formerly known as the IAHC) that is going full-speed ahead with its own plan to replace or compete with Network Solutions, representatives from the online industry and government fueled the House committee's apprehension that the nation lacks a proper plan to get out of the domain name game.

"It may be helpful to examine the experiences during the first transition from [the government-operated Internet] to the current commercial Internet. Planning for that transition commenced in 1993 and the process was carefully managed by government, academia, and private industry through its completion in 1995," according to testimony submitted by Barbara Dooley, executive director of the Commercial Internet Exchange, a trade group for Internet service providers.

"Successful implementation may take several years and should not be expedited simply for the sake of speed," she added. "Maintaining network stability during the transition must have the highest priority."

Also creating controversy is a proposal to add new domains when the NSF contract expires. Others are calling for new procedures to settle domain trademark disputes and for more time to test proposed registration systems aimed at competing with Network Solutions. In addition, the committee questioned what will become of the NSF's $30 million "intellectual infrastructure" fund set aside to improve the DNS and whether a system built in part by U.S. tax dollars should be run out of Switzerland, as the ad hoc group is proposing.

The DNS works like a phone book for the Net, correlating site names such as "news.com" with a 12-digit Internet protocol address, which makes the information accessible on the Net. If the transition from the public to private sector is not handled meticulously, then the Net could face rampant instability, witnesses argued.

Over the past year, the ad hoc group, which was organized by the Internet Society and is now called the interim Policy Oversight Committee (iPOC), has been gaining momentum. It expects to be fully operational by September of 1998 when the NSF-Network Solutions' contract grace period ends. Today, the group's representative tried to convince Congress that it should get money from the NSF's multimillion dollar fund.

"What better place to allocate a fraction of the money in the fund than to the establishment of the system that meets the principles and requirements of the government as defined in the Commerce Department's request for comments," testified Donald Heath, president and CEO of the Internet Society.

"Funding to support the development of the intellectual infrastructure under the [ad hoc committee's] plan should be provided from the infrastructure fund made possible by the surcharge on registrations," he added.

But others used the hearings to derail the ad hoc plan. "To be clear, our members believe that the proponents of the IAHC are taking advantage of the transition period to acquire and secure total control over the Internet's domain name system," stated Andrew Sernovitz, president of the Association for Interactive Media, in written testimony.

"While the government is developing its transition plan, IAHC is opening up new domain name registries, hiring contractors to develop software, and is beginning full operations. IAHC is in the process of setting up a full administrative infrastructure for the Internet in Switzerland, entirely outside of U.S. oversight," he said.

Like other critics of the ad hoc committee's plan, Sernovitz claimed the self-appointed group will have too much control over the DNS. He also argued that the group's plan to add new domain names will devalue his association members' trademarks registered under ".com."

There is a chance that these issues will not have to be settled by March. The NSF has said it may use its option to extend its agreement with Network Solutions until September. The buzz among those who attended the hearings today was that NSF may work with Network Solutions for up to three more years. That could be good news for the Virginia company, as the domain name registrar launched its initial public offering Friday. (See related story)

The Commerce Department also has promised to release its transition proposal by November 1; the department requested public comment on the issue. Many who responded supported the ad hoc committee's plan to add seven new domains and approve an indefinite number of global registrars.

House Science Committee staff members said the committee will likely wait for the administration to release Commerce's proposal before holding a second set of hearings on the DNS or taking further action.