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Domain names and the threat to the Net

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This is a tale that has all the intrigue, double-dealing and global power struggles of a spy novel. But the plot line is real, with nothing less then the fate of the Internet community hanging in the balance.

It starts with a group of self-appointed technocrats, a kind of Internet cabal, which operates with no authority of law or formal governance, which has simply rushed in to fill the power vacuum on the Internet, which has, since inception, operated in a spirit of consensus and community.

Not since the OPEC oil cartel of 1970s have so few held so many in economic bondage. The Internet cabal holds no less power over the global economic infrastructure we call cyberspace.

This cabal intends to control how and when new domain names will be added to the current list of .com, .org, .edu, .gov and .mil, and who gets the rights to act as a registry of those domain names.


The group operates from a document, known as the Generic Top Level Domain Memorandum of Understanding, produced by 11 self-appointed participants in closed-door meetings in Geneva.

The group set up a U.N.-style international tribunal that operates under the auspices of the International Telecommunications Union, which has headquarters in Geneva. The group steadfastly contends that the process has been “open” from the beginning and that such a document is needed to ensure fair competition and stability for the registration of domain names and the Internet.

But the group has garnered no consensus in the Internet community. During a two-day meeting on the issue of domain name registry held in Washington last week, the veneer of openness and cooperation being spun by the cabal began to be stripped away.

“Make no mistake, this process is not about technology, it is all about power,” said Jay Fenello, president of Iperdome, a small company that is vying to compete in the domain name registry business.


This whole mess started as a result of the troubles Network Solutions Inc. had in its role as the sole administer of so-called “Top Level Domain” names, those ending in .com, .edu, .org, etc. NSI operates as a government-subsidized monopoly under a contract set to expire next year.

Anticipating the end of that monopoly, two influential groups decided that some plan had to be put in motion to guide the Internet going forward. Those two groups are the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, or IANA, and the Internet Society, known as ISOC.

The IANA operates under a loose charter from the U.S. government to act as kind of administrator for handing out the blocs of numbers that are tied to each formal domain name, such as MSNBC.COM, which are used by “root servers” to determine what message goes where. The ISOC is a non-profit, scientific, educational and charitable entity, incorporated in 1992 in Washington.


These two groups put together the Internet International Ad Hoc Committee, which hunkered down for eight weeks with members of the ITU and World Intellectual Property Organization and hammered out the memo of understanding, a document that essentially sets up a global governance scheme for the future of the Internet.

That document spawned other organizations, such as the Policy Oversight Committee, which is intended to oversee policies outlined in the memo. Members of the oversight committee were chosen from those who drafted the document. It then fell to the ITU to circulate the memo for signatures from its members, which are comprised of sovereign states.

To date, the memo has garnered more than more than 150 signatories. However, those signatories come with a huge caveat: not a single government, save Albania, has signed on.

This process has drawn the ire of virtually everyone outside the small cabal of organizations that had a hand in drafting the document. The memo, “although without the stature of a treaty because it can be signed by parties other than sovereign states, is clearly an intergovernmental agreement that possesses significant binding force and effect … as public international law,” writes Tony Rutkowski, former executive director of ISOC.

Remember, IANA and ISOC have absolutely no formal authority to proceed with this process — they just decided to “do it.” Indeed, when ITU called a meeting of signatories and potential signatories of the memo in Geneva earlier this year, Secretary of State Madeline Albright sent a secret cable, which was leaked to the Internet, to the U.S. mission in Geneva, upbraiding the ITU secretary general for calling such a meeting “without authorization of the member governments.” She instructed U.S. diplomats to “cover” the meeting, but with lower-level staff, so as to not give the appearance of U.S. support of the memo.


At the domain-name meeting in Washington, participants generally acknowledged that there are no technical obstacles keeping an unlimited number of top-level domain names from being created. This would allow the creation of domain names like .sex, .web, .biz, .XYZ and so on. Indeed, an additional seven domain names have been proposed by the Internet cabal, but no more. The reason for limiting the number of top domains is simply to appease the legal divisions of major international corporations; these companies don’t want to have to register their trademarks across potentially hundreds of domain names.

Well, screw the suits. There are courts established for protecting trademarks. Policing trademarks is a cost of doing business in the analog world; it should be no different in cyberspace. Artificially limiting the number of domain names, when there is no technological reason to do so, is yet another attempt by the Internet cabal to enforce its control over the Net.

As part of that control, the cabal has set up what it calls the Council of Registrars, which will operate under Swiss law. Companies are encouraged to submit applications to become an official registrar of domain names under the council. Only companies accepted by the council will be allowed to compete in the open market to register new domain names, as approved by the memo. Small catch: In order to be “approved” companies must first sign onto the memo and pony up $10,000.

To take care of trademark disputes, the council will have an appeals tribunal known as the “administrative domain name challenge panel.”

This is seen as a threat to intellectual property and trademarks by Andrew L. Sernovitz, president of the Interactive Media Association and founder of the Open Internet Congress, a group dedicated to thwarting the efforts of the Internet cabal.

The panels “conduct their work in Geneva or via online discussions,” Sernovitz says in a document on his group’s web site. “You will have no right to a face-to-face defense against your challenger, he says.

Further, “During the challenge period, your Internet address can be suspended,” Sernovitz says. “If you lose a case … you will have lost your rights forever. There is no appeals process and there is no one to sue.”


The cabal is moving this process forward on a fast track, claiming that action must be taken quickly to keep the Internet from folding in on itself. This hurry-up stance goes against the entire culture of the Internet and is yet another reason why critics claim the memo is simply a power grab.

The moves by this cabal are set on a train wreck course with the U.S. government. Currently a government interagency working group is asking the Internet community for suggestions on how to handle the domain name issue. On July 2, the Commerce Department put a notice in the Federal Register seeking comments on how to proceed with the issue. “The Government has not endorsed any plan at this time but believes that it is very important to reach consensus on these policy issues as soon as possible,” the notice says.


In discussions with dozens of people ranging from industry to government officials, a theme I keep hearing is that this structure of global governance for the Internet won’t stop at domain names. “The governance models that we choose today for the Internet will be the ones that are placed on society in the next century,” a U.S. government official told me, in what he admittedly called a “messianic” remark. “Sometimes this thought keeps me up at night.”

I won’t go that far, but I do know that setting up a global body that operates on the U.N. model will sound the death knell for an open and thriving spirit of innovation and cooperation that has driven the Internet to date. Such a governing body, emboldened by a successful domain name coup, isn’t likely to stop there. They will take on other issues, such as content and marketing, in a kind of cyberspace governing mission creep.

Let’s hope that enough people respond to the Commerce Department’s notice in time for the government to step up and stop the Internet cabal before it puts its plan into action.

Meeks out ...