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White House plays domain referee

The Clinton administration says it will oversee the controversy brewing over domain names and control over the Internet.

After holding back for months, the Clinton administration said it will referee the controversy brewing over domain names and who will control the Internet's logistical underpinnings as the U.S. government withdraws from its supervisory role of the Net.

An interagency task force organized by the Office of Management & Budget said in a meeting Monday with Internet organizations that it will issue a request for comments sometime in the next week. For 45 days, the task force will accept comments on how the Internet's resources, starting with domain names, should be managed.

The National Science Foundation will cease administering domain names in March of next year when it plans to stop funding the InterNIC, which is operated by Network Solutions. The InterNIC is the only entity authorized to register domain names in the most commercially desirable "global" top-level domains, including ".com" and ".net." Another 200 or so registrars assign domain names in geographical domains, such as ".sf.ca.us" for San Francisco.

Yet the future of the domain name system has been in doubt since the U.S. government ceded its control. A volunteer committee sponsored by the Internet Society and the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority developed a plan for expanding and taking control of the system after the government's pullout. In May, the Internet Ad Hoc Committee (IAHC), as it was dubbed, held a meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, where 80 organizations and companies signed onto a plan that uses the United Nations' intergovernmental agencies as enforcement and record-keeping entities.

Several groups have vehemently opposed the plan, saying it was conceived in secrecy and removes from power all but a select few organizations. The opponents include a consortium of Internet service providers, alternate domain name systems, and the Association for Interactive Media.

The Internet Society denies the accusations, saying the process has been open all along and the naysayers have refused to participate. The plan has also drawn heated opposition from Network Solutions, which has said it will not give up control of its lucrative registration business, even after the government's pullout. Even the White House interagency task force has said it cannot support several points of the plan, especially the use of intergovernmental agencies for enforcement, which might bring wider Internet regulations.

Surprisingly, given the Internet's antiauthoritarian culture, leaders on both sides of the debate hailed the White House's involvement as a positive development. They said it may heal some of the more bitter divisions that have made communication and compromise among groups difficult.

"We view it as very positive," said Jay Fennello, president of Iperdome and one of the founders of the enhanced Domain Name System (eDNS) Consortium, whose members have been very vocal critics of the IAHC plan. "An open process will occur and the process will not go crazy or remain out of control as it has in the past."

Internet Society's Don Heath agreed. "On one level, I was happy; I think there should be discussion and that's what we've done. But at the same time it's frustrating, we did all this months ago," he said. The society will be deeply involved in the discussions, he added, but in the meantime, it will go ahead with its plans. "As things come up, we want to incorporate and adjust. We don't want to do anything unless there is a rough consensus among all the stakeholders."

The IAHC plan probably won't be operational until the end of the year, according to Heath.