Governing the Internet has quite rightly been compared to the task of herding cats. Internauts are a notoriously opinionated and fractious group and the process is usually conducted in the full glare of public scrutiny, subject to continuous, pointed and often intensely personal criticism from any interested party. Power plays tend to fail, often spectacularly. As Dave Clark, speaking about the Internet Engineering Task Force, observed in 1992, "We reject kings, presidents, and voting. We believe in rough consensus and running code."
The recent effort to increase the number of top-level domain names and to break the monopoly of the registrar for the existing generic domains, .COM, .EDU, .ORG and .NET, illustrates these principles--and what can happen when they are ignored.
Once upon a time, it cost nothing to register names in the top-level Internet domains. This began changing in March, 1992, when the National Science Foundation decided to outsource domain name and IP network registration. NSF solicited bids and, on January 1, 1993, it awarded to Network Solutions, Incorporated a contract to run a registration service named the InterNIC. The contract ran through September, 1998, with all costs of operation borne by U.S. taxpayers through NSF.
By September, 1995, the situation had changed. NSI had been acquired by Science Applications International Corporation, a multi-billion-dollar defense contractor. And, without requesting comment from the Internet community, NSF had authorized NSI to begin charging for domain name registrations in the .COM and .ORG domains at the exact time when commercial use of the Internet was growing explosively.
Almost immediately after the September 13, 1995 NSI announcement, subscribers to the newdom, com-priv, ietf and domain-policy mailing lists and the comp.protocols.tcp-ip.domains newsgroup quickly began to focus on the need to expand the top-level domain name space and on setting up new registry authorities to compete with the NSI/InterNIC monopoly.
In April, 1996, Eugene Kashpureff, set up the so-called Alternic registry and claimed the .EXP .LTD .LNX .MED .NIC and .XXX experimental domains as his intellectual property. Although these additional domains were then supported only by his own nameservers, (and are today supported by less than 1% of the total nameserver population of the Internet, conspicuously not including the 7 "root" nameservers which sit at the top of the DNS query tree,) Kaspureff began charging to register clients in some of them.
Possibly in reaction to Kashpureff's Alternic service, on May 3, 1996, Jon Postel, Director of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) posted draft-postel-iana-itld-admin-00.txt. It proposed that up to 50 new registries be created, each of which would have the exclusive right to register new domain names in up to three new international top-level domains (for a total of 150 new domains in the first year), in competition with NSI and its traditional .COM, .EDU, .ORG and .NET. It also suggested up to 30 additional new registries and 90 iTLDs be authorized in each of the next five years.
Internet Drafts are the least "official" documents of the Internet standards process. Nonetheless, a number of companies and individuals, sensing an opportunity to create name registration monopolies, set up "experimental" registries based on the Postel draft. Among these were Karl Denninger of MCSNet, who asserted ownership of .BIZ and Christopher Ambler of Image Online Design, who staked a similar claim to .WEB.
A version of Postel's original document, retitled draft-postel-iana-itld-admin-01.txt, was presented at the June 24-25, 1996 annual meeting of the ISOC Board of Trustees, which then passed its Resolution 96-05, authorising Postel to refine the proposal to include a business plan for review and approval by the Board. Among other changes, it proposed reducing the cost of IANA licensing for new registries from the $100,000 in the original draft to $2,000 plus 2% of revenues.
There were two other incidents which would have a profound effect on the future course of events:
On June 22, 1995, NSI announced a new, unilateral policy for dealing with conflicts between trademark owners and holders of existing domain names. If the holder of a trademark contested ownership of a domain name, NSI would now suspend the registered domain name, removing it from the master Domain Name Service database until the dispute was resolved in a court of law. In practice, this meant that NSI took the side of the contesting party, regardless of the merits of its claim. On June 26 David Graves, NSI's Internet Business Manager, clarified this policy by explaining that NSI would continue to maintain the existing domain name only if the name holder agreed to fully indemnify NSI and to pay all of its legal expenses. The Internet community was consulted on neither the intial policy nor Graves' clarification and, needless to say, Internauts' reaction was strongly negative.
Then, on July 31, 1996, Bill Manning, an employee of IANA, met with IODesign's Ambler--among others--to discuss the criteria by which organizations that wished to apply to run the proposed new registries might be evaluated by the ad-hoc committees the Postel draft would create to oversee the process. Manning's notes of the meeting indicate that the participants felt that a "good faith effort" to establish a working registration service was one criterion which should be used. The issue of fees to be paid to IANA by the registries was also discussed.
At the end of the meeting, Ambler handed Manning a sealed envelope which apparently contained a check from IODesign for $1,000.00. Ambler maintains that Manning understood that the check and the accompanying paperwork constituted a formal application for permission from IANA to run an experimental registry. Postel and Manning strongly dispute this idea. Manning maintains that the envelope was presented to him in a manila folder along with other papers from Ambler and that he did not discover it until after Ambler left the meeting. Ambler does not dispute Manning's contention that the envelope was returned to him, unopened.
On August 2, Postel sent a message to the newdom mailing list stating, "The suggestion that the IANA is accepting money to reserve new top-level domain (sic) is completely false."
Regardless of Postel's warning, and acting on the assumption that operation of an experimental registry would lend legitimacy to their applications for the real thing, Ambler, Kashpureff, Denninger and various others set up such registries. Eventually, they began to charge for registrations, assuring their customers that their experimental domain names would eventually be supported by all Internet name servers.
Enter the IAHC
On October 22, 1996, a press release from Donald Heath, President of ISOC, announced that an International Ad-Hoc Committee, composed of "representatives of the large international Internet community" would be formed to "undertake defining, investigating, and resolving issues" raised by the Postel draft. The IAHC itself was named on November 12, 1996. It consisted of one representative each from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), and the International Trademark Association (INTA), plus two members each from ISOC, IANA, and the Internet Architecture Board (IAB) (a total of nine). George Strawn co-Chair of the U. S. Federal Networking Council represented the FNC. Heath, representing ISOC, chaired the Committee.
Under pressure from large ISPs, such as
PSINet, and from powerful
individuals, such as Paul Vixie,
(who maintains the
Internet Name Domain software used by most Unix
computers--including the Internet root name servers--to provide
services), the IAHC set an aggressive schedule. It created a
The Draft Specification proposed substantial changes to the Postel draft's recommendations. Instead of a first-come-first-served policy, the intial group of new registrars would be chosen from among the applicants by lottery. Just seven intial new domains would be created, rather than the 150 the Postel draft had specified. Only one master registry would be created and, instead of getting exclusive rights to three new domains apiece, all the new registrars would share registration authority for all new domains. A Council of Registrars (CORE) would be created to oversee the "necessary contractual, legal, oversight and public policy framework under which CORE and the individual Registrars must operate" with a Board of Trustees to oversee CORE. Most controversial of all, the Draft Specification mandated a 60-day waiting period from the time an end-user applied for a domain name until it would become operational.
NSI's monopoly over the .COM name space would continue unchanged, until the expiration of its contract with NSF in September, 1998 at the earliest.
Release of the Draft Specification created a deluge of reaction. Over the six weeks of the official comment period, the iahc-discuss email list received over 4,000 posts. More input was submitted to the IAHC via surface mail, fax, telephone calls and confidential email. Many parties offered substantive criticism, both of the provisions of the Draft and of the process by which it was generated. Others threatened lawsuits and predicted that implementing the Draft would "break the Internet". Still others, notably Aveek Datta of Monolith Internet Services, Intl., were outraged that no provision was to be made to provide no-fee registrations for non-profits and individuals.
Armed with this mass of input, the IAHC reconvened in Switzerland during the last week of January, 1997 to hammer out a Final Report. It was released just before midnight on February 4.
The Final Report
The Final Report of the IAHC: Recommendations for Administration and Management of gTLDs differed in major ways from the Draft Specification.
It made CORE a Swiss-chartered non-profit association, and replaced the Board of Trustees with a Policy Oversight Committee. The POC was chartered to oversee CORE, authorize additional registrars, remove registrars for cause, authorize additional gTLDs and change the technical and financial entry requirements for new registrars in light of evolving circumstances. It was to be made up of representatives from the same organizations which made up the IAHC (and in the same numbers) plus two members from CORE itself and a non-voting representative from the Depository (the International Telecommunications Union) for the Memorandum of Understanding which would implement the Report. It also set up a Policy Advisory Board to provide input to the POC on policy matters regarding gTLDs, CORE and amendments to the Memoranda of Understanding which set the governance structure for the whole enterprise.
The Report replaced the widely-disliked mandatory 60-day waiting period with a voluntary waiting period for registrants worried about trademark disputes. It also required Administrative Domain Name Challenge Panels (ACPs) operating under the aegis of WIPO to provide binding arbitration for those disputes.
It authorized an intial 28 new registrars, equally distributed among 7 geographic regions. Each group of 4 regional registrars would to be chosen by lottery from among the qualified applicants for that region. Regions with less than 5 qualified applicants would have significantly lower bars to entry than would regions where a lottery was required. In contested regions, applicants would have to possess:
It also required a refundable $20,000.00 application fee and a commitment to pay the non-refundable cost of a detailed credit report to be conducted by an outside auditing agency. And, beyond business and fiscal criteria, the Final Report also demanded would-be registrars meet fairly tough technical, operational and administrative standards. Those included staff with previous DNS, router, SQL and Unix sysadmin experience, a 24 X 7 helpdesk and automated call distribution system, multihomed or distributed Internet connectivity and "robust" backup and disaster recovery procedures.
It exempted NSI from sharing .COM, .EDU, .ORG and .NET and left the question of NSI's post-1998 registrar status unanwsered. It also kept the seven initial gTLDs of the Draft Specification and defined them to be:
.ARTS for cultural and entertainment entities .FIRM for businesses, or firms .INFO for information services .NOM for those wishing personal nomenclature .REC for recreation and entertainment entities .STORE for businesses offering goods to purchase .WEB for entities related to the WWW
The Final Report was hotly criticized by the alternative registries community. Despite the promise that more registrars would be authorized once the inevitable start-up problems were addressed, many of the operators of experimental registries were outraged that their efforts would not be rewarded with automatic status as new registrars. Some took issue with the mandatory binding arbitration requirement, with the choice of intial gTLDs, with the high barriers to entry for the intial applicants and with a host of fine points related to the Final Report's phrasing. Others accused the IAHC of conspiring to destroy the alternative registries.
In an attempt to gain legitimacy, on March 3, 1997, the alternative registry community held a charter meeting for an association they call Enhanced DNS (eDNS). However, in the past year, non-standard TLDs have garnered the support of less than 1% of the name servers in operation Internet-wide. Only a few, mostly small, ISPs include non-standard TLDs in their DNS server caches. This means that, for the vast majority of Internet users, the eDNS TLDs are still effectively invisible.
Meanwhile, Ambler's repeated demands that the IAHC grandfather Image Online Design's application met with silence from the Committee. On February 27, 1997, IODesign filed suit against IANA, the IAHC and Postel, Manning and the other IAHC staff members and Donald Heath and 200 John Does as individuals in California's San Luis Obispo County Superior Court. The complaint alleged, in part, breach of implied contract, intentional interference with contracts and with "prospective contractual advantage" and trade libel. It asked for injunctions and unspecified damages.
Oddly, Ambler's complaint states that it does not seek to interfere with the implementation of the IAHC Final Report. Instead, it focuses on IODesign's claim of intellectual property status for .WEB, and seeks an order to permit IODesign to operate .WEB as an exclusive registry and to force IANA to support it on the Internet root name servers.
Thus, the call for registrar applications is still expected to go out once the gTLD Memorandum of Understanding (the legal enabling document) is signed by IANA (which started the whole process) and by ISOC (whose President will chair the IAHC until the enabling Memoranda of Understanding are completed). The application period will last 60 days and will be followed by a 30 day applicant review period. The lottery and the announcement of the first group of new registrars will be held the following day.
For most corporate and organizational networks, the additional gTLDs will have no meaningful technical impact. If you're implementing BIND on your corporate nameservers, once the new registries begin operation, you'll merely need to download the latest iteration of the cache file and restart your DNS in order to include the new gTLDs. Instead, the issues the Final Report raises are business and political ones.
Should your company stick with NSI's "name-brand", but increasingly crowded .COM, .EDU, .NET and .ORG name space, despite their lopsided trademark dispute resolution policy? Or, should it stake a claim in the new, uncrowded name spaces, where it will, at least initially, still be possible to obtain a 2- or 3-letter domain name? If you go with the new name spaces, in which one or which ones should you register? Should you jump on .FIRM or wait a year or two for .CORP, .BIZ or .INC?
Ask yourself, "What's in a name..?"
(Copyright© 1997 by Thom Stark--all rights reserved)