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Whose Net is it, anyway?

July 28, 1998
Web posted at: 1:45 PM EDT

by Kristi Essick

(IDG) -- Government actions worldwide aimed at regulating the Internet have been met with cries of protest from the Internet community and technology industry, which claim the Internet should remain close to its roots as an unregulated public medium governed by its users.

In the case of the registration and management of top-level domain names, such as .com and .net, the U.S. government has for once granted the private sector its wish for self-regulation.

In June, the U.S. government released a white paper suggesting that the day-to-day upkeep of domain names--which is now run by U.S.-government funded monopoly Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, whose contract runs out September 30--be turned over to a nonprofit "New Organization" made up of private-sector board members from several countries. In addition, the issuing of top-level domain names, now handled by another U.S. government-funded monopoly called Network Solutions, would be opened up to competitive registrars around the globe.

"It is our [the U.S. government's] strong, strong disposition to get out of this," said Ira Magaziner, President Clinton's senior advisor for policy development, speaking Friday about the domain name debate. However, as he has warned in the past, Magaziner said if industry can't get its act together to form this new organization in time, the U.S. government will have to come up with a plan in conjunction with other governments.

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"The broader political community is watching this," Magaziner said referring to the development of the private-sector domain name organization. This is a chance for industry to prove itself in self-regulation, he said.

Time is running out for industry to create this new structure, with the September 30 deadline now only two months away. And considering the amount of head-butting that went on between members of the "private sector"--from academics and lawyers to technology companies and independent Internet organizations such as the Internet Architecture Board and the Internet Engineering Task Force--this week at the Internet Society's 8th Annual INET conference in Geneva, a consensus on how to run this New Organization seems light years away.

While the international community seems to broadly agree on the formation of the New Organization to replace IANA, many questions as to its final structure still remain. Will the organization permit members from the government to join? What will be the role of international organizations such at the World Intellectual Property Organization and the International Telecommunications Union? Will registrars be for-profit or nonprofit? How will the New Organization ensure that industry members have no ulterior allegiances to their shareholders? How will trademark disputes be settled? And what impact will existing work in the area of domain names have on the new negotiations?

These questions were batted around for the three days of the INET '98 conference in panel sessions, written papers and discussions over coffee breaks and the battle looks set to continue well into the weekend as the IFWP meeting rolls on. A consensus on every issue is not expected this weekend or indeed before the September 30 deadline, said many observers. The idea is to put a preliminary board in place that will tackle the sticky issues throughout its first year, said Jon Postel, head of IANA.

Those working on the formation of the "new IANA" are confident they will finish in time, Postel said. "There is a clear commitment to work together on this."

"We're confident the private sector is moving toward an agreement on domain names," agreed Magaziner.

Kristi Essick is a Paris correspondent for the IDG News Service, a PC World affiliate.
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