The federal government today indicated it won't support a pact to expand the Internet's naming system because it might open the door for global Internet regulation.
Yesterday, 57 organizations signed an international Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in Geneva. The MoU sets in motion a plan to add seven new categories such as ".firm" and ".web" to the Net's store of global top-level domains, like ".com".
Proposed by the volunteer International Ad Hoc Committee, the plan aims to create competition in registering domain names, which are currently available only from a U.S. government-assisted monopoly.
Earlier this week, the State Department questioned whether intergovernmental bodies such as the ITU and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) should sign the agreement without the consent of member states, including the United States.
The U.S. government, however, took a neutral stance on the proposition until today. "We are explicitly saying that we are not supporting the ad hoc committee's plan in its current form," a member of the White House's interagency task force on domain names said today.
The opposition comes as the White House is asking governments to keep their mitts off the emerging network.
Though it likes some aspects of the plan, the United States government will not support the plan in its current form for several reasons, including the possibility that it might unintentionally create an intergovernmental authority that might regulate content or tax commerce on the Internet, according to the official.
"It's not entirely clear what the role of [U.N] organizations like the ITU and WIPO are going to be, but we are concerned about the possibility that those organizations will have too great a role in the process and we won't have a private sector-driven process," the official said. "There are also some concerns about addressing an Internet-related issue in a forum that has traditionally done telecommunications regulation, like the ITU."
The United States has slowly turned over increasing responsibility for the Net to the private sector in hopes it would become an engine for free commerce. The ad hoc committee's plan to use U.N.-sponsored intergovernmental authorities as repositories and arbiters creates an opening for them to regulate the Net. The White House specifically rejects the idea of regulating the Net, as well as the telecommunications network, in its strict "hands-off the Internet" philosophy outlined in its white paper on e-commerce.
The United States also has concerns about whether there was adequate involvement and public comment on the plan. "The structure and process must be adequate and sustainable," the official said. "If it goes forward without a genuine consensus, then the possibility that lawsuits will have an effect and different root name servers will go in different directions creates the possibility of splitting the Internet."
The Enhanced Domain Name Service coalition (eDNS) has already set up its own domain name system that lets users access domain names not recognized by the official DNS created by the National Science Foundation and not used by the majority of the Internet.
Network Solutions, the company that assigns domain names in ".com" and other global top-level domains for the National Science Foundation, has said it will fight rather than release the registries it administers under the NSF/InterNIC agreement even after its contract runs out in March 1998. If the company hangs onto its existing seven domains, including ".com" and ".org," but doesn't recognize the new domains created by the ad hoc committee, the Internet's addressing system could break down. Internet users could have difficulty finding Web sites and sending email.
There have also been concerns about whether a lottery is a good way to distribute registries evenly around the globe and whether the conflict resolution and trademark portions of the plan are viable, the official said.
The ad hoc committee has said it doesn't need the U.S. government's approval to go ahead with its plan. Appointed by the Internet Society, the committee says it has direct control of the computers that run the Net's addressing system through the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA). The government has "no choice" but to go along with its plans, IAHC chair and ISOC president Don Heath has said. (The Internet Society is a trade group that has taken under its wing many of the Internet's pseudo-governmental committees left homeless by the National Science Foundation's withdrawal from the Internet.)
"The ad hoc committee appears to be saying this it's the only game in town," the U.S. government official said. "Some people in the government see a possibility of multiple solutions to the domain name issue."
The government is expected to release a formal position statement, but hasn't determined a time frame to do so.