Net privatization is caught in standoff

Net privatization is caught in standoff

Esther Dyson of ICANN

ICANN gets blasted for proposed registration fee; Network Solutions maneuvers to gain advantage

By William Jackson

GCN Staff

The path to Internet privatization is proving to be a lot thornier than Congress and the Commerce Department expected.

Commerce, Network Solutions Inc. and the Internet Corp. for Assigned Names and Numbers continued squabbling last month over how to open Domain Name System registration to competition.

Network Solutions of Herndon, Va., has since 1993 held a government-granted monopoly to register names in the top-level .com, .net and .org domains. Commerce launched ICANN last year to oversee the introduction of competition in the registry business.

Now ICANN is drawing criticism from Congress and Internet users for the way it conducts its business, and Network Solutions is battling with Commerce over who owns the company's database of domain names.

Under pressure from Congress and Commerce, ICANN has agreed to open to the public at least one of its previously private board meetings and to defer a $1-per-year fee it wanted to collect for domain registrations. But the group argues that if the government will not let it raise money to finance itself, Congress had better come up with the money.

Network Solutions, meanwhile, is pushing ahead with a plan to develop a proprietary domain name directory that would give it an advantage over competing registrars. A test period for five new registrars to shake the bugs out of the Shared Registration System developed by Network Solutions ends this Friday.

Registered domain names, coupled with top-level domains, form the uniform resource locators that make Web sites accessible. The URLs map to numerical IP addresses that route traffic over the Internet. The government has long been responsible for this system, and it delegated much of the work to Network Solutions through an agreement with Commerce that expires next year.

Mapping the way

The Clinton administration last year proposed a road map for getting government out of the Internet business by setting up ICANN as a nonprofit corporation to oversee it. ICANN's charter is to develop a policy consensus in the Internet community. It is operating with a set of interim officers and directors, and its first elected directors are supposed to be in place by its first annual meeting, in November in Los Angeles.

To compete with Network Solutions in domain name registry, ICANN chose America Online Inc. of Dulles, Va.; the Internet Council of Registrars of Geneva; France Telecom of Paris; Melbourne IT of Melbourne, Australia; and of New York. The rival registrars will have to cooperate with as well as compete with Network Solutions, which will continue to manage the computer registry of domain names.

In June, Rep. Thomas J. Bliley (R-Va.), chairman of the House Commerce Committee, criticized ICANN, saying it exceeded its authority by imposing the $1 registration fee. He also complained about the closed board meetings.

J. Beckwith Burr, associate administrator of Commerce's Office of International Affairs, relayed Bliley's concerns in a July 8 letter to Esther Dyson, the interim chairwoman of ICANN, and Michael Roberts, president of the organization.

In a July 19 letter to Burr, Dyson responded that 'ICANN expects to have nine elected directors to supplement the interim board by November, and our goal is to replace each and every one of the current board members as soon as possible.'

Dyson wrote that ICANN has 'decided to defer the collection of the fee. The United States government has asked us to do an important job, but it has not provided the means by which to carry it out. If the government is serious about the progress that ICANN has made and its desire to see this process mature, short-term funding must be made available quickly.'

She added, 'We do not see a global consensus demanding that ICANN hold all its meetings in public.' But because the issue has become contentious, she said, there will be a public meeting in August.

Although Network Solutions developed the Shared Registration System to give competing registrars access, it has not recognized ICANN's authority nor reached agreement about how competitive registration will take place. The company is at odds with Commerce over ownership of the database and its status as a registrar after the expiration of its agreement with Commerce on Sept. 30, 2000.

Network Solutions' view 'is that when the cooperative agreement terminates, NSI will be free to operate these domains without any supervision by the government,' Commerce general counsel Andrew J. Pincus told the House Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations on July 22. 'The Commerce Department believes just as strongly that NSI does not have the legal right to operate these domains in perpetuity.'

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