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Network Solutions sued for domain-name antitrust

Who's controlling the "config" files?

April  1997
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New York (March 21, 1997) -- New York-based PGP Media Inc. is adding fuel to the Internet domain-name fire, yesterday filing a complaint against Network Solutions Inc. charging that the company, along with other Internet-related organizations, is violating antitrust laws by exclusively controlling the assignment of domain names.

The complaint was filed yesterday in U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, and served to NSI today, according to Michael Donovan, lead outside counsel for PGP and primary counsel in this case.

PGP seeks "to open access to the Internet's Domain Name Registration Market, which has been controlled exclusively by Defendant NSI since 1993," according to the complaint.

"The NSI monopoly is a continuation and exploitation of the arcane and arbitrarily limited Domain Name format developed at a time when the Internet was exclusively operated and controlled by military, governmental, and educational research facilities," the complaint said.

NSI officials, based in Herndon, VA, declined to comment on the case. However, NSI recently did attest to the growth of the domain-name business, saying that in 18 months the number of assigned domain names has gone from 250,000 to more than one million.

The National Science Foundation, a government body, has awarded responsibility -- and a $5 million grant -- to NSI to assign domain names. NSI also charges a $100 fee to register domain names. But NSI has come under attack as companies involved in the online world increasingly realize that domain names have monetary and intellectual property value.

The PGP complaint, however, specifically focuses on NSI's alleged control of Internet "config" files on 11 Internet root servers around the world, claiming that this control prevents other companies from entering into the domain-name service market. The config files contain all the assigned top-level domain (.edu, .com, etc.) names, and are used by the root servers to match the names with underlying IP addresses to allow for the routing of transmissions to correct Internet resources such as Web servers.

In order to start a service for domain name assignments, PGP's assigned domain names also need to be listed in the config files, but NSI has refused to cooperate, according to Donovan. The complaint seeks to open the config files to PGP-assigned domain names; it also asks $1 million in damages.

"We sent them a formal letter asking to resolve this issue, but they said they have no control over the root server, so we took this as a no," said Donovan. NSI said that the IANA (Internet Assigned Numbers Authority), based in Marina del Rey, CA, controls the config files. But Donovan said he found no reference in any documentation to the IANA's control of the config files. In addition, Donovan said, IANA's director, Jon Postel, advocates a consensus approach to the issue that does not assure the domain-name market will be open to competition.

"Postel tries to force a consensus approach on just about every issue, but if the consensus being reached starts to hinder competition in markets it becomes illegal," said Donovan.

The complaint filed yesterday charges Jon Postel, IANA, "as well as individual members of the Internet's International Ad Hoc Committee (IHAC) and the control person of the Internet Society (ISOC)" as "non-party co-conspirators."

"NSI has conspired and continues to conspire with numerous `stakeholders' in the Domain Name Registration Market to erect barriers to entry to that market in order to preclude any competition with NSI, and to control the creation of other discrete sub-market monopolies under an extremely limited set of new, exclusively-owned, Top Level Domains," according to the complaint.

Jon Postel, representatives of IANA and the general counsel of the University of Southern California, which hosts IANA and other Internet-related services, were not available for comment. NSI has until April 9 to reply to the complaint.

Meanwhile, IANA faces a lawsuit that Image Online Design Inc. has filed in a San Luis Obispo, CA court. The suit alleges that IANA violated an agreement it had with Image Online Design over the .web top-level domain, the company said in a statement.

The NSF's inspector general has issued an investigative report on the whole domain-name issue. The NSF will make the report public, probably in a few weeks, once the NSF director has had a chance to formally reply to the report, NSF officials said.

--Marc Ferranti

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