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Internet body chairperson downplays effect of new domain names

Esther Dyson
ICANN Chairperson Ester Dyson  

(IDG) -- In 1994, long before Napster was as common to college dorm rooms as hot pots, Esther Dyson warned of a war over intellectual property on the Internet. Today, as chairperson of ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), she has a bird's eye view of that war, and several others. Dyson, a noted author and a member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, has been a major force in shaping Net-related public policy. Dyson is also chairman of EDventure Holdings, which publishes the whip-smart computer industry newsletter, Release 1.0.

Lately, Dyson has been championing startups overseas, as Europe embraces the new economy. She spoke to WebBusiness about the implications of new top level domain names, which will be released by ICANN in 2001, and about the new economy here and abroad.

WB: Everyone is abuzz about ICANN's decision to add up to ten new domain suffixes. Will they affect business?
Dyson: Honestly, I think their implications are less than people think, unless you're in the business of buying and selling names. A domain name is not going to ensure your future. It is an asset that you can possibly sell, but business is about leveraging assets, using people and building something.

WB: Many of today's Web entrepreneurs say their brands define their businesses. Do you agree?
Dyson: It works the other way around. What was the importance of the name Apple to Apple Computer? Apple built a real business and they made the name. Issues of identity, issues of free speech are all very important and very interesting. But in the end, being successful in business depends on being successful in business, not your name.

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WB: You've watched the new economy grow while serving as one of its gatekeepers. Any insight?
Dyson: A lot of the new economy is about changing interactions between individuals and institutions. It's about new attitude. It's about the importance of intelligence and innovation opposed to economies of scale. It's really much more than technology. Our tendency is always to look for the center so we can examine it closely. The new economy is all these people out there doing things without a center. And that confuses people.

WB: Who's paving the way?
Dyson: No single person; that's the point.

It's a much more bottom up world than it used to be. That doesn't mean that Time-Warner doesn't matter. But at the same time, various people get huge amounts of press.

If you look at a guy surfing, he's visible, but if he doesn't catch the wave right, he disappears. I would say the new economy is like the wave. These famous people, Bill Gates, whoever, they are people who caught the wave. But if they hadn't, the wave would have gone without them and somebody else would have caught it. They have all filled the slot that was waiting for somebody. It may have been filled differently by somebody else, but I don't think that economic history is made by these individuals in the same way that I feel like political history is.

WB: Is this because consumers are more empowered now than they were under the old model?
Dyson: They absolutely are; but individuals are producers as well. It used to be that in order to be an effective producer, you had to be part of a big institution. Now, anybody with their PC can be extraordinarily productive. That doesn't mean that everyone with a PC can be Rupert Murdoch, but it does mean that it's a flatter marketplace, so you can find your market.

WB: How is the dynamic changing for employees?
Dyson: If you look at the fundamental economics of what's happening, employees are getting more equity in the companies and investors are getting less. And that's been obscured because investors, until March anyway, had done incredibly well. The stock prices kept going up. If you look at a percentage of the ownership of the companies, the employees are getting more. The returns to labor, intellectual labor anyway, are higher, and the returns to capital, over time, are going to be lower. If you look at the numbers right now it sounds as if I'm nuts. But if you look at it over the long term, I'd rather be contributing my labor than just having a pool of capital.

WB: You were one of the first people to promote European markets in the new economy. What has its effect on Europe been?
Dyson: In some sense, I think it's going to be much greater than it has been. The American culture was already hinting toward openness, toward celebration of individual effort, toward efficient markets. And in Europe, the Internet is going to have a much bigger, and not necessarily as welcome, impact. In Europe, pricing is kind of a moral issue. In the U.S. it's business- what the market will bear. In Europe you say, 'Is this price right? Is it appropriate?' And it really will foster a quite different way of thinking.

WB: France is suing Yahoo for auctioning Nazi paraphernalia on its site, which is hosted in the United States. Should governments have a role in dictating what is published on the web?
Dyson: Governments can carve out space if they want on the Internet and warrant influence out. But if they do, they aren't going to be part of the Internet. In the end, it's sort of futile to try to stop this. And in some sense, governments should relax and should let their citizens figure out what they want to see.

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The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers
EDventure Holdings

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