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Opinion: The Internet's identity crisis

January 18, 1999
Web posted at: 12:08 p.m. EST (1708 GMT)

by Bob Metcalfe, InfoWorld columnist

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(IDG) -- The Internet is going through an identity crisis.

Well, actually, two identity crises: one about the identities of those Internet users who want privacy and another about those who want fame.

Those who want privacy are fighting over Internet user identities, cookies, e-mail addresses, databases, and spam. They ask, "Who actually owns information about your buying habits or whether you are likely a deadbeat?"

Those who want fame are fighting over Internet domain names, such as, out of which e-mail and Web addresses are made. They ask, "Who will administer domain names? Are they trademarks? Why can't my e-mail address be"

The domain name identity crisis is worrisome right now because of the recent untimely death of Jon Postel, the guru of Internet names and numbers. Not nearly filling Postel's shoes, we have the new Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN.

There is much controversy about ICANN. We know who died, but who made Esther Dyson chairman? Is this some plot of U.S. military intelligence? Are large corporations taking over the Internet?

Let's be thankful that Dyson has agreed to help sort out the ICANN mess, which I think will develop along the following three scenarios.

  • First, there's the scenario of those who had a hand in building the Internet. They'd like names and numbers assigned much like they are now, without regard for the real world, because everything about the Internet is, man, like, totally without precedent. They think, for example, that domain names should be given out first come-first served, so those who slyly speculate in other people's trademarks can continue to disrupt Internet commerce.

  • Second, there's the trademark lawyer scenario. They'd assign Internet names and numbers as they have assigned trademarks in the past: for the usual fee. They think, for example, that a "challenge period" should precede domain name assignment, so trademarks can be protected.

  • And third, there's the scenario of domain names as nothing more than a level of indirection in Internet numbering, allowing sites to move without notifying every last database and spreading loads among sites with the same service. Perhaps all of that money you just spent buying your domain name from some identity speculator will come to naught because soon maybe nobody will care what your domain name is.

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Well, Tom Barrett of Thomson & Thomson still cares. Barrett just opened Namestake, which brings onto the Web the services of Thomson & Thomson, a 75-year-old company that gets paid to search for names in trademark registries around the world.

If you are interested in trademarks, visit There I learned that,, and are all in the hands of total strangers.

Namestake is also watching trademarks used as keywords in Web searches. Your competitors may be paying so that people searching for you get banner ads from them. Namestake showed me people buying the keyword "metcalfe" so that my fans get their ads -- and I don't even get a cut. Were I to complain, the portals would kindly offer to sell me the use of my own name as a keyword.

My favorite abuse of the current domain name system is the famous new top-level domain: not .com but .tv. If your business is about television, find out how to buy at

It turns out that .tv is the two-letter country designation of the southwest Pacific island Tuvalu, which is willing to let you use .tv for $1,000 the first year and $500 each year after that, unless of course there's a conflict, in which case your trademark goes to the highest bidder.

While ICANN tries to untangle various domain name scenarios, go to to see what's happening to "your" name on the Internet.

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