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Who's in charge of domains?

The power structure of the Internet has always been elusive, but these days, it's just downright baffling. On the Internet, everybody and nobody is in charge, and that's making it impossible to figure out what to do about domain names.

The power structure of the Internet has always been elusive, but these days, it's just downright baffling. Just yesterday one of the parties battling over the future of the Net's naming system announced it has hired a contractor to help bring online seven more "generic top-level domains" to compete with ".com."

The problem is, nobody really knows how much, if any, authority this committee-of-a-thousand-names has to make its plan stick.

That's because on the Internet, everybody and nobody is in charge. An alphabet soup of volunteer committees, U.S. government departments, universities, and self-appointed nerd-gods pretty well held the erstwhile military experiment together for years. Insiders liked to say that the Internet was governed by "rough consensus and running code." In other words, if you could get a few folks behind your idea and you had the computer code to make it work, then you were the authority. Oddly enough, it worked for about 20 years.

But as the Net grows in size and commercial importance, its old freewheeling structure is falling apart, the pieces showering down like so many hunks of Sky Lab. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Internet's Domain Name System (DNS).

The DNS is what allows ordinary Net users to find Web sites and email servers with familiar names like "news.com" or "apple.com" without having to memorize the 12-digit number the names hide. But as the Net has become so commercially popular, the ".com" category has started to fill up. As names ending in ".com" become more scarce, companies have begun fighting over them. Today there are more than 3,000 lawsuits pending over Internet domain names, according to Network Solutions, the company that registers Net names under an agreement with the U.S. government.

When the most popular Net names began running out, the Internet's "code and consensus" mechanism kicked in. Groups started discussing what should be done to alleviate the crowding. Out of this discussion grew the Internet Ad Hoc Committee (IAHC), sponsored by the Internet Society (ISOC) and the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA). The committee has since gone under several different names, including the Interim Policy Oversight Committee (iPOC) and now the Council of Registrars (CORE).

But the members of CORE (née iPOC, née IAHC) aren't the only ones who have ideas about how the DNS should be expanded or run. Individual companies and consortia have set up their own extensions to the DNS with only limited success. None of them have been able to force Network Solutions to incorporate their extensions into the DNS database under their keeping. In fact, Network Solutions is currently being sued by PGMedia under antitrust laws for that very reason.

From a political vantage point, CORE is facing steep odds. Both Congress and the Department of Commerce have held hearings on the future the Internet's Domain Name System and haven't come to any conclusions. In fact, the National Science Foundation, the agency now in charge of the DNS, has officially instructed Network Solutions to forbear making any changes to the DNS for now.

But on an operational level, CORE seems to think it has an ace in the hole.

From the start, the group has contended that the government "has no choice" but to comply with its plan. Now it looks like CORE is going to force the issue. Before the CORE registries can go online, they have to be integrated into the existing DNS. To do that, one of two things has to happen. Either Network Solutions must list CORE's new domains in its master "root zone" database; or CORE has to lobby every single one of the root server operators, 13 in all, to incorporate the seven simple entries necessary. The IANA, a group of engineers that has helped keep the DNS running for years under a grant from the Department of Defense, is part of the CORE. Presumably, IANA chairman Jon Postel will simply order the root zone server administrators to add the entries.

This group's gambit is risky. It will either crack wide open Internet governance or bring it firmly under the thumb of governments--U.S. and otherwise--that may not appreciate having the wiseacres showing off how easy it is to assume the controls of an increasingly critical information infrastructure. Imagine if a group of small countries, U.N. bureaucrats, and one major U.S. telecommunications company decided to annex a portion of the telephone system in order to add its own area codes because everyone else wasn't moving fast enough for them. That's pretty well what CORE seems intent on doing, but with the Internet.