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NSF bows out of domain names

The National Science Foundation will stop assigning domain names no later than March 1998, the agency announces.

The National Science Foundation will bow out of assigning domain names no later than March 1998, the federal agency announced today.

In response to an internal report generated in February and made public today, acting deputy director Joseph Bordogna said the NSF will not renew its InterNIC agreement with Network Solutions, the private company that assigns global top-level domains such as ".com" and ".org". Network Solutions' agreement ends in March 1998, but the NSF said both parties could choose to end it earlier.

Instead, the NSF will "focus its attention on the challenges and opportunities of the next-generation Internet in support of education in science and engineering," Bordogna said in a prepared statement today.

Just what will become of the domain name-assigning business handled by the InterNIC, however, is unclear. Bordogna seemed to indicate that other than tying up details with Network Solutions, the NSF was washing its hands of the affair.

"The long-term issues raised by the report may indeed require additional government oversight. We are referring the OIG report to appropriate policy-makers in the Administration for consideration," Bordogna's statement read. "NSF is confident the Internet community and others will eventually develop mechanisms to handle Internet registration without NSF's involvement."

The White House last month assembled an informal interagency task force chaired by the Office of Management and Budget to study the domain name issue. However, the report's release and Bordogna's comments caught the White House flat-footed. The office of Ira Magaziner, who heads up President Clinton's policy on the Internet and electronic commerce, hadn't seen the report today. A spokesman said he couldn't comment until Magaziner and others had time to review the implications.

Underscoring the NSF's attempt to distance itself from the domain name fray, Bordogna avoided evaluating the internal report's conclusions. It suggested, among other things, keeping domain name oversight within the federal government and funding that oversight through excise taxes levied on domain name registrars.

In his reply, however, the NSF official mentioned two of the three competing plans to privatize domain name registration. Though he didn't say the NSF favored one plan over another, the International Ad Hoc Committee (IAHC) was described glowingly, Network Solution's recent plan was mentioned briefly, and the independent Enhanced Domain Name Service (eDNS) Coalition was left out altogether.

IAHC Chair Donald Heath took today's announcement as an endorsement of his committee's plans. "To me this says only one thing," said Heath, who is also president of the Internet Society. "This is NSF's way of saying that domain names should be handled by the IAHC."

If the White House or another agency fails to step in and regulate domain names, Heath reasoned, authority over the domain name system would fall to the IAHC, which includes the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA). IANA is a group of engineers who have historically cared for and fed the servers that make the Internet domain name system go.

However, Heath may be challenged. Network Solutions has indicated in the past that it believes that the databases underlying the domain name system are the company's intellectual property. The Federal Communications Commission, which has also begun studying the issue at the urging of Internet and telecommunications companies, may also step into the vacuum of authority created by NSF's projected departure. In that case, "I think the government's going to support the IAHC plan. They don't have any choice," Heath said.

Representatives from the FCC and Network Solutions didn't return telephone calls today.