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Domain white paper comes up short

The long-awaited white paper on how to transfer control of top-level domains leaves many unanswered questions.

The long-awaited U.S. government "white paper" on how to transfer the Internet's domain name system to the private sector appears to resolve nothing.

But within hours of its release, various sides applauded it while at the same time pondered what it would mean for the future of the domain name system (DNS).

The precursor to the white paper, the Commerce Department's so-called green paper, was long on details about how to pass control over the most popular top-level domains--including ".com," "net," and ".org"--should be handled, including calling for the creation of five new generic top-level domains (TLDs).

Today's white paper is Dueling domains presented as a policy statement from the Clinton administration, however, with all major decisions to be made by a yet-to-be established nonprofit corporation with wide representation from all parties interested in the domain naming system.

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It is unclear whether today's policy paper will resolve the issues or, in the end, create even more conflicts by calling for the Net community to do something it has had trouble doing in the past: reaching consensus. And it calls for the transition to be completed by September 30, 2000.

The paper calls for the new corporation to focus on principles on which most can agree--competition, fair play, and an international solution that takes into account interests that vary from private businesses to governmental bodies. But it doesn't establish just how that corporation will be established.

While consensus is never easy to reach, in this case the task is even more daunting in light of the array of competing interests and individual cultures involved.

"It's almost like the beginning of the universe," said John Wood, senior Internet consultant at IT service provider Prince PLC. "The competing groups need to melt down their swords into plowshares. The absolute critical solution is the composition of the board. He who controls the board is the whole nine yards."

The government's green paper also recommended that a nonprofit corporation, led by a 15-member board, be established to oversee the system. But that paper, released January 30, went much further, giving specific recommendations for how power should be transferred and who should run the DNS, for example.

Since then, the agency received 650 comments on the plan, many of which were highly detailed.

Those comments weighed heavily on the government's decision to turn the plan over to the private sector, said Becky Burr, senior Internet policy adviser for the Commerce Department.

"We got a lot of comments and we read them all very carefully," she said. "One of the main messages was, 'You're calling for private-sector leadership--let the private sector lead. There is no need [for government] to make a significant number of decisions in the interim.' After listening to those comments, we agree."

Today's paper stated, "In response to the comments received, the U.S. See related story: Domain draft proposal released government believes that the new corporation, rather than the U.S. government, should establish minimum criteria for registrars that are pro-competitive and provide some measure of stability for Internet users without being so onerous as to prevent entry by would-be domain name registrars from around the world. Accordingly, the proposed criteria are not part of this policy statement."

The question of who controls the domain name system and how it is operated is no small matter. The function of the entire Internet rests in the way the domain name system is handled. Currently, a few players control the system under a U.S. government contract.

Privately held Network Solutions registers the most popular top-level domains under the U.S. government contract. And the system is run by the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA).

Network Solutions' contract is scheduled to run out in September, however--although the company probably will remain at the helm during the transition.

Without a clear set of guidelines regarding who has authority to issue domain names and solve disputes, the Net could--and most probably would--fall into chaos. The DNS acts like the central post office through which all the millions of daily requests to get to Web pages or to send email get routed. If the DNS breaks, so does the Net.

By extension, the players that control the DNS also control much of the Net's infrastructure.

But control and power over the Net aren't the only factors at stake--money is also a key issue. Registrars stand to earn significant sums from the fees they charge for registering domain names.

The policy outlined on the white paper means the emotional and high-stakes battle over control of the highly lucrative DNS is handed back to the private sector, including a vocal international community that so far has been angry about the United States having so much control.

How the varying parties will get together to establish the board is unclear, however.

"That is going to have to be done by the private sector. I imagine that we'll be hearing a lot from the private sector in the next few days," Burr said. "We are prepared to facilitate that, but we will not be organizing it."

She added, however, that once the board is established, the U.S. government will be able to determine whether the new organization meets the criteria set out in the white paper. "If our answer is yes, then we would want the new entity to assume responsibility for the domain name system," she said.

When asked what the government would do if the answer was no, she responded, "There's a huge incentive for the Internet community to work this out."

The government will help to prepare See related story: 
NSI could see downside Network Solutions for the transition, a move applauded by at least some who have long complained that NSI has an unfair monopoly that allows it to profit handsomely. How that transition will take place and what will happen to NSI after the transfer of power remains up in the air.

Whereas the green paper had given NSI the authority to continue running the most popular top-level domain name, ".com," the white paper leaves the issue up to the new corporation. And NSI's future becomes a bit more nebulous.

"Network Solutions is going to have the transition from being the sole registrar in the top-level domain space to being among a bunch of competitors," Burr said. "NSI needs to acknowledge the authority of this new entity."

NSI chief executive Gabe Battista today said that NSI was ready for competition and applauded the plan. He added that, "The white paper appears to be a policy follow on the green paper," and that there was an "implication" that the same plans in which NSI would run the registries for ".com," ".net" and ".org" hold true with this plan.

Many of those heavily involved in the process, spearheaded by President Clinton's Internet policy adviser Ira Magaziner, applauded it, saying the government did the right thing by relinquishing power.

But those same parties also had tried to resolve the issues among themselves and had failed to come to a consensus.

However, some of the most contentious rivals applauded the process and said they were confident they could reach an agreement.

"I viewed it as a victory for the Internet, and a victory for Internet self-governance," said Don Heath, president of the Internet Society, which had backed a position that was not held up in the green paper, but which now has the opportunity to gain ground many thought it had lost.

"There are those who would say the U.S. government has shirked its responsibility," he added. "But I honestly believe that they listened to the international community, heard them, and have responding accordingly. It's clear that the NSI doesn't own the top-level domains. They are not going to be a monopoly, but they will be the dominant market-share holder. I think it is going to open up competition. Service should be improved and costs should go down. People will have a richer array of domain names to register."

"We have a long process ahead of us and that's fine, because we want the best solution for the Internet," said Jay Fenello, president of Iperdome, whose plan was seen as a winner in the green paper. "On the flip side, it's going to take a long time and there's probably going to be a lot more debates ahead.

"I think its a very strong first step and I have concerns about some of the potentials for this process to be hijacked at this point," he added.

Others were concerned about the way some of the thorniest issues would be handled, such as trademark violations. Companies are constantly fighting each other and individuals for ownership of certain domain names, citing trademark. However, because the Net is international and trademark laws are generally national, inherent conflicts arise when more than one party claims ownership of a name.

The paper calls on the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) to oversee the process.

"The U.S. government will seek international support to call upon the World Intellectual Property Organization to initiate a balanced and transparent process, which includes the participation of trademark holders and members of the Internet community who are not trademark holders, to (1) develop recommendations for a uniform approach to resolving trademark/domain name disputes involving cyberpiracy (as opposed to conflicts between trademark holders with legitimate competing rights)," it states.

Some criticized the white paper for not doing enough on the copyright front.

"The provisions intended to help trademark owners are largely unchanged, but the paper fails to address the Network Solutions policy that punishes innocent domain name owners," said Carl Oppedahl, a trademark dispute attorney. "It should be handled the same way most registrars around the world already do it--mainly that registrars don't sit in judgment, but instead [freeze] domain names only when ordered to do so by competent courts."

Currently, instead of waiting for a court order, NSI puts domain names on hold when disputes arise.

"The plan basically passes most of the difficult decision to an as-yet-unformed corporation," Oppedahl. "A year ago the Internet community spent a lot of energy and time trying to plan for the future of the Internet, and the green paper process seems simply to have delayed things and caused a long period of uncertainty for the Internet community."