Network Solutions is still in the driver's seat for domain names

Will the federal government ever find a way to extract Network Solutions Inc. of
Herndon, Va., from the center of the Internet Domain Name System?


Just when we thought the company’s control over .com, .net, .org and .edu domain
registration was coming to an end, the Commerce Department’s National
Telecommunications and Information Administration cut a deal to extend NSI’s contract
for another two years [GCN, Oct. 12, Page 61].


The extension was necessary; no decent replacement system was on the horizon. But the
transition plan that became part of the deal could end up keeping Network Solutions in the
driver’s seat for years to come.


As Commerce hammers out the final details of the transition in months ahead, I hope it
will put some pressure on Network Solutions, and subsequent private-sector registrars, to
make it easier for third parties to create directory services based on DNS records.


Today, if I need information about XYZ Corp. and don’t know the company’s
uniform resource locator, I would


try http://www.xyz.com or http://www.xyzcorp.com. That’s a shot in the dark
that doesn’t always work.


The next step is to visit a search engine, enter the company name and look for a
relevant link among maybe 10,000 hits. It’s a frustrating exercise.


You’d think that InterNIC, the service run by Network Solutions that assigns
domain names, could help. But the lookup service at http://www.internic.org
is minimal. If you know an Internet address, the lookup can tell you who owns it. But you
can’t reverse the process, that is, enter a name and find a Net address.


A domain name lookup service is just a huge table that equates a name, such as
www.xyzcorp.com, with a numeric address such as 155.255.123.21. Every Internet host has a
numeric address. Anyone could create a domain name service by establishing a lookup table
that connects the numeric address to anything—company names, addresses or phone
numbers.


Imagine just typing “XYZ Corp.” or “Jack” and seeing your browser
jump to the proper site. But two things make this difficult, maybe impossible. First, all
the world’s Web sites must register their names and addresses in the lookup table.
Second, all the world’s domain name servers must be made to look to the table as a
primary resource.


That’s not likely to happen, and that’s why it’s tough to extract
Network Solutions from DNS business. The company built something the whole world has
agreed to use and is the expert at maintaining it.


Under the new Commerce agreement, Network Solutions must admit multiple licensed,
accredited registrars to its secrets. That means many companies can sign up to become
retailers of domain name registration services, feeding into the shared system.


Network Solutions’ influence will be long-term because the company will design the
registry or registrar interface and back-end system, and it will license the Shared
Registration System protocol and associated documentation to other accredited registrars.


Central to the agreement is the establishment of a nonprofit Internet Corp. for Names
and Numbers, sometimes referred to as NewCo. The corporation will act as a coordinating
body for DNS administration.


Again, Network Solutions’ influence will continue under its contract to provide
some services to the new corporation. And Network Solutions will continue to administer
the primary domain name root server on the Internet, known as root server A, for an
unspecified time.


It’s likely that those who need domain names will still turn to Network Solutions
to set up names and renew existing registrations.


I’m not suggesting that Network Solutions doesn’t do a good job of managing
domain name services. Any organization that can handle the millions of domain names now
registered on the Internet with relatively few fumbles deserves praise.


But it could do much more. It could offer forms on its site and other places where
visitors could find addresses any number of ways. It could collect optional information
that lets registrants designate how they want to be categorized.


As NTIA monitors the construction of a shared registration system, its primary task
will be to see that registration costs are kept affordable and that more companies can
compete for the domain registry business. We will see many different shops spring up to
help people register domain names.


But NTIA can also encourage diversity of services beyond simple domain name
registration. Now that Network Solutions is in this business for the long term, it’s
important that the feds get its cooperation to make the Domain Name System more useful for
everyone.


To read about the contract extension, visit http://www.networksolutions.com/.
  To read the Commerce and White House white paper on the future of the Internet
Domain Name System, visit http://www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/domainname/6_5_98dns.htm.


Read comments received by NTIA at http://www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/domainname/proposals/comments/100598.htm.
  Be aware there’s some wacky stuff mixed in with the solid comments.


To see one example of how the InterNIC Whois lookups could expand into useful
directories, visit the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority’s Country Code Contact
Information directory, taken directly from Whois calls on InterNIC, at http://www.iana.org/countryAF.html


Shawn P. McCarthy is a computer journalist, webmaster and Internet programmer for
Cahners Business Information Inc. E-mail him at smccarthy@cahners.com.

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