July 14, 1998


by Andy Oram
American Reporter Correspondent

CAMBRIDGE, MASS.—A unique experiment in grass-roots governance took place last week at a conference in Reston Virginia. While helping to create a new Internet administrative organization that would have impact on tens of millions of people—current and future Internet users—the attendees dedicated themselves to consensus, inclusiveness, and an exemplary process. Though the subject matter was domain names (strings used to denote organizations in email addresses and Web URLs) the real issue was how to make decisions in the amorphous community called “Internet stakeholders.”

Many people have resented that a monopoly called Network Solutions has been giving out and administering servers for names in the key .com domain—such as their own networksolutions.com, my company’s oreilly.com, and american-reporter.com. Similar monopolies exist in other countries for their top-level domains (.ca for Canada, .fr for France, and so on).

Factions have been warring for two years (with preliminary skirmishes going back even farther) about the rules for allocating domain names. An organization called the Domain Name Rights Coalition has been carrying the banner for small organizations on the Internet for years.

But the antiquated but functional system is coming to an end, as Networks Solutions’ contract with the federal government runs out on September 30. Everybody wants to have a say in creating a new system, because it can generate millions of dollars and because names deeply affect the image organizations present on the Net.

The problem is that no precedent exists for taking the next step, and no organization has a clear right to dictate the solution. The U.S. Commerce Department set the current phase rolling on June 5 with their White Paper on “Management of Internet Names and Addresses.” Wary of dictating to the unruly and worldwide Internet community, they left the terms as open as possible.

For instance, the White Paper stipulated a new corporation set up by an interim Board that would choose a final 15-member Board. But there was no hint of how to choose either Board. (You can’t poll the Internet they way a village elects a council!)

Similarly, the topics to be addressed by the corporation were laid out, but not its powers. For instance, some people would like the corporation to be able to set quality standards for domain name registrars, like “Thou shalt back up thy data at least once a day.” Others say this ought to be left outside the powers of the corporation.

The firmest thing about the new corporation is the deadline for its creation: it must be able to “carry out operational responsibility by October 1998.” The date is determined by the end of the Network Solutions contract. As a facilitator from the conference said, “clocks are ticking,” and this puts pressure on the people trying to get their input into the rules and structure of the corporation.

By unanimous report, last week’s “Global Incorporation Alliance Workshop”—the first of several planned conferences to deal with the White Paper—was a success. We will doubtless return to analyzing and reviewing those two days in Reston for years to come. But like the Commerce Department before them, the conference took only baby steps toward a solution.

Ultimately, the most sensitive and far-reaching decisions about domain names may well be determined in the last few hectic days of September, by a handful of interested parties in a closed room. This would be the opposite of the “open” and “transparent” process that the White Paper and all participants claim to cherish.

Several fracture lines that reflect unreconcilable differences have appeared in the Internet community. The final decisions concerning the corporation will have to take sides on the following battlegrounds.

Why couldn’t the Reston conference resolve these issues? Being self-chosen and possessing no external blessing for their work, the attendees could not simply take votes. Instead, they could only indicate the places where they achieved consensus—which were impressively common—and where they had to defer to later meetings.

The time crunch of the October deadline also played a role. The more issues one tries to address before the corporation is created, the less likely one is to satisfactorily resolve the most essential issues. Besides, the conference was set up explicitly to discuss the process of creating the corporation, not to determine its subsequent decisions and activities.

So we are left with a a solid beginning of which the Internet community can be proud—but a tentative beginning nevertheless. The question remains open as to whether domain names will be administrated in a democratic, widely respected manner, or whether a tiny sliver of the stakeholders will unduly influence the outcome in the waning hours of debate.

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