February 3, 1998


by Andy Oram
American Reporter Correspondent

CAMBRIDGE, MASS.—On Friday, January 30, the Clinton Administration ended the suspense felt by Internet policy-makers around the world, releasing its preliminary proposal on administering the Domain Name System. Whatever the outcome of the debates that are sure to keep raging around this issue, we can hail the proposal for one general principle: the triumph of gradual evolution over wrenching dislocation.

The administration of DNS, which most Internet users query dozens of times a day without knowing it exists, has been the subject of argument for years. The tone of discussion has become nearly hysterical since a group set up by the Internet Society, a leading administrative body, instituted a program that they claimed would introduce competition and improved stability to DNS administration.

Internet users depend on DNS so they can get to a machine using a name such as www.oreilly.com, instead of remembering that the Web site for O’Reilly & Associates lies at the address (which can change in any case, if the company switches machines). When it comes to administration, however, policies matter mostly to the organizations that want a domain name. They care about price and reliability, both of which could probably be improved if there were competition in the selling and administration of domain names.

Since the most popular names are offered by Network Services, Inc., domain-name reform essentially means breaking this monopoly. Reformers also have the admirable goal of weaning the system away from U.S. government control and making its management truly international.

But the proposal spearheaded by the Internet Society was overly radical and in some ways arbitrary. The Internet Society is a smart organization run by some of the key leaders of Internet policy, but its proposal could not possibly satisfy a wide range of Internet users, developed as it was by a committee of 11 with very little input from outsiders.

The general attitude taken by this group, the International Ad Hoc Committee, was that NSI is an evil organization to be exorcised as soon as possible. In its place (and to coordinate worldwide DNS registration and administration) they set up a totally new organization called the Council of Registrars (CORE). Internet service providers and other key organizations were suspicious; they called for a slow-down and a public discussion.

But having finalized its proposal, the IAHC and its supporters would not back off. Instead of trying to draw in the larger Internet community, they ran to two established organizations that had minimal connection to the Internet: the International Telecommunication Union and the World Intellectual Property Organization. While their endorsements lent a veneer of international approval (matched by the European Commission) it removed the process even further from the consensus-based approach for which the Internet has been known up to now.

In particular, bringing in the WIPO pre-empted a serious policy decision. The move enforced an assumption that domain names have value as trademarks, which many Internet users consider as wrong as believing that one’s street address could be a trademark.

To understand this issue, you have to see how rabid some companies are about eliminating any domain name that looks anything like their trademark. My professional organization, Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, has been found for years now at cpsr.org. What if some outfit that trademarked the name Corporate Pigs Seeking Registration gets the domain cpsr.com? Under a legal regime too favorable to trademark owners, they might be able to force our organization to give up our domain! (Disclaimer: There does happen to be a domain called cpsr.com, and I intend no disrespect to the owners.)

The wailings of the Internet community crescendoed to the point where they were heard in the lofty halls of policy-makers in Congress, the Department of Commerce, and the key Clinton policy advisor Ira Magaziner. Finally, the government started to put an orderly process in place to undergird the debate. Congressional hearings, requests for comments, and a huge number of personal meetings between Magaziner and a variety of stakeholders led up to Friday’s proposal, officially released by the Commerce Department.

Instead of a completely new and untested system, Magaziner proposes careful steps forward. A new organization will be created, but it will reach out to the diverse Internet community and try to include people with a variety of concerns. Transition to an international body will be gradual, while other changes are being tried out and evaluated.

NSI can keep its monopoly on administration for at least six more months. Other organizations will be allowed to sell domain names, though, and NSI will be expected to administer their names fairly.

Up to five new top-level domains (offering alternatives to .com, .org, and so on) will be added to test the effects of expanding the namespace. Each top-level domain will have a single administrative organization, while the new organization proposed in the Commerce Department paper determines the feasibility of allowing competition in administration. However, names can be registered by multiple organizations in each top-level domain; only the technical administration is left to monopolies.

Much remains to be fleshed out in the Magaziner proposal, and some sections already raise warning flags. It leaves a lot of administrative control in the hands of registries (notably NSI), which conceivably could let them lock in customers and subject them to price-gouging and poor performance. The weakest part of the proposal is its position on trademarks, which perpetuates the notion that companies have a right to distinctive domain names.

But, right out of the gate, the proposal represents a much more reasonable way to achieve the goals that the Internet Society started with. Magaziner tries to preserve the tradition of open discussion and reliance on input from different stakeholders that Internet administration at its best has historically been known for. The proposal doesn’t do everything that everybody wants at once, but we can move forward from here.

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