The network is the story: News on the latest Internet standards and struggles
Today the interim Policy Oversight Committee (iPOC) announced it had begun to accept applications from interested parties to become registrars of Internet domain names under their scheme to rework the DNS.
The iPOC still has a long road ahead of it, but no other proposal in sight provides a comprehensive scheme to deal with an impending change in the current structure for handling domain names. In addition, the iPOC plan has been quietly gathering support from businesses and governments.
The group will accept registrar applications for 90 days (at http://www.gtld-mou.org/docs/apply.htm/), the members said. At that point it will anoint qualifying applicants and push ahead with its plan to add seven generic top-level domains to the existing list that includes .com, .gov and .org. Those domain identifiers are a key part of domain names such as un.org or mcdonalds.com that identify entities on the Internet.
The application process advances iPOC's mission to build a new DNS framework and comes despite severe criticism -- and even death threats -- from an Internet community in turmoil over how to rework the system. In the last week, the controversy has moved from debate to action.
Eugene Kashpureff last weekend targeted an Achilles heel in the current DNS software and redirected traffic headed for InterNIC, the authority that oversees the registration of the most popular names. The self-professed stunt pulled users hoping to register domain names within the authorized system to the AlterNIC registry, where Kashpureff has been offering his own alternative domain names.
Last Thursday, an employee at Herndon VA's Network Solutions Inc., the company that runs InterNIC's domain name registration service under an agreement with the U.S. National Science Foundation, unwittingly caused a computer to send corrupted files to 10 servers around the world that handle domain names. The mistake caused messages to be returned to senders and cut off access to U.S. Web sites for some European users, according to reports.
The incidents underscore the rationale offered for a new DNS framework: that as the Internet grows in size and global reach, the traditional mechanisms for handling key resources have not grown with it. At the same time, the Internet has been evolving into a platform for commerce, and many argue that the traditionally freewheeling network needs some sort of predictable governance.
"We've reached the limit of this old boys network's ability to function with the world outside," John Perry Barlow, cofounder and vice chairman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), said this week.
The recent events also point to the dangers of allowing one organization to oversee a key Internet resource and may bolster iPOC's call for a large number of name registries spread around the world, observers said.
Though controversy rages, the iPOC proposal appears to be gathering momentum. A number of organizations have voiced their support, and several companies are readying plans to become registrars under the new scheme.
John Gilmore, EFF co-founder and an original member of Sun Microsystems Inc., said he has tapped a partner in Australia to set up global registry under the proposal. Dun & Bradstreet Information Services, meanwhile, is mulling ways it can leverage its database expertise under the iPOC plan, said Ted Wolf, senior strategist at the Parsippany, New Jersey-based corporate information specialist.
And iPOC is making efforts to reshape its proposal to placate rivals and critics.
"We are trying to make accommodations for some of the people who are not supporters," said David Maher, chairman of iPOC. "We know their pain, and we are trying to find ways to give them representation."
The committee says its key concern is to negotiate a smooth transition to a new system. "We're not going to do anything that causes a crash. We're going to do things that keep a cooperative relationship so things go smoothly," said John Postel, director of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) and member of iPOC. IANA is currently the highest level of oversight regarding domain names.
The registrars, based around the world, will belong to a not-for-profit organization that will be set up by iPOC in Switzerland. In addition the plan calls for the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) to moderate trademark disputes associated with domain names.
Trademarks have been a devilish issue in the domain name game. Outside the Internet, multiple entities such as Acme Bicycles and Acme Buildings can share the same trademark, but on the Internet only one "acme.com" can exist. And though a domain name has to be a unique global address, trademark law differs from country to country.
Backers of the committee argue that the proposal will provide a more international, legally defensible and stable method for handling domain names.
The opposition, meanwhile, argues that iPOC does not represent a broad cross-section of the Internet community. Last week, for instance, a group that proclaimed itself the "Internet stakeholder community" called for a democratic process to determine the fate of the name system. The group, working under the Association for Interactive Media, wrote off iPOC members as technocrats who have claimed authority over all Internet management issues.
"They just literally said, 'we are in charge,' [but] there's no need for a declaration of control," said Andy Sernovitz, AIM's president. "There's plenty of time to do this thing right, with...all the requisite democratic mechanisms which make something truly representative."
Sernovitz was particularly scornful of the rules concerning who gets to be a member of iPOC, saying that the proposal is for members to name their own successors. If this was student government it would be one thing, but "this is global communications networks we're screwing here," he said.
Debates are taking place on the national level as well. In the Philippines, for instance, the body that for 10 years has allocated domain names and administered the .ph extension now faces a challenge from a group of large Internet access providers who say they can do the job more effectively.
The controversy promises to burn through March of next year when the NSF agreement with NSI ends. NSI has vehemently opposed the iPOC plan.
But the committee is pushing ahead and gaining support, including that of the U.S. government.
Ira Magaziner, a senior advisor to U.S. President Bill Clinton, last month said that "the goals and intentions of the IAHC [iPOC] are goals we share," adding that the U.S. government wants to quickly move the DNS into the hands of a more private system. To bring public opinion into that process, last month the U.S. Commerce Department requested comment on domain names, trademarks and the iPOC proposal (http://www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/domainname/domainname.htm).
-Rob Guth, IDG News Service, Tokyo Bureau. (Torsten Busse in San Francisco, Rebecca Sykes in Boston, Marc Ferranti in New York, Terho Uimonen in Taipei and SunWorld staff contributed to this story.)
Network Solutions revealed the DOJ's request in a July 3 filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for an initial public offering (IPO). The company, whose parent company received the request June 27, is not "aware of the scope or nature of the investigation," and it "cannot predict whether a civil action will ultimately be filed by the DOJ or by private litigants as a result of the DOJ investigation," according to the filing.
The DOJ can confirm only that its "antitrust division is looking at the possibility of anticompetitive practices in the Internet address registration industry," said Gina Talamona, a DOJ spokeswoman. The agency will not identify any specific company or companies it is investigating, nor will it confirm the details revealed in Network Solutions' filing, she said.
Under an agreement with the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), Network Solutions is currently exclusively responsible for registering and administering second-level Internet domain names for the .com, .org, .edu, .net, and .gov top-level domains. But that could change, given that proposals are brewing for introducing competition into the domain name registration process. (See "Who will run the Internet next year", from the April 1997 issue of SunWorld.) And the NSF does not plan to renew its agreement with Network Solutions, nor does it plan to award the agreement to another company, according to Network Solutions' SEC filing.
Network Solutions was already the target of a civil antitrust lawsuit filed by PGP Media Inc. over the domain naming issue earlier this year. That suit is pending, according to the SEC filing.
A Network Solutions official had no further comment today on the Justice Department request, citing SEC regulations.
--Sari Kalin IDG News Service, Boston Bureau
"Governments can have a profound effect on the growth of electronic commerce," Clinton said in a statement released by the White House. "By their actions, they can facilitate electronic trade or inhibit it. Government officials should respect the unique nature of the medium and recognize that widespread competition and increased consumer choice should be the defining features of the new digital marketplace. They should adopt a market-oriented approach to electronic commerce that facilitates the emergence of a global, transparent, and predictable legal environment to support business and commerce."
Comparing the impact of the Internet with the invention of the steam engine and the industrial revolution it set off, Clinton said the electronic revolution made possible by the Internet will once again transform and revolutionize people lives.
"One of the most significant uses of the Internet is in the world of commerce...Trade and commerce on the Internet are doubling or tripling every year -- and in just a few years will be generating hundreds of billions of dollars in sales of goods and services. If we establish an environment in which electronic commerce can grow and flourish, then every computer can be a window open to every business, large and small, everywhere in the world.
"I call upon all Internet users -- both in government and in the private sector -- to join me in seeking global consensus and, where necessary, agreements on the issues raised in our report by December 31, 1999, so that we may enter the new millennium ready to reap the benefits of the emerging electronic age of commerce," Clinton said.
The full text of the statement is available on the White House's Web site at http://www.whitehouse.gov/.
--Torsten Busse, IDG News Service, San Francisco Bureau
The U.S. Supreme Court ruling declaring the Communications Decency Act (CDA) unconstitutional appears to be the end of the road for this controversial legislation. But while it was strictly a U.S. law, some observers in Asia saw it as a model for actions like Singapore's creation of its own regulations for Internet content.
"The damage has been done," said David Conrad, director general of the Asia-Pacific Network Information Center, the regional registry for Internet addresses. "The CDA proposal encouraged some governments to look at censorship and say, 'Hey, this is a good idea.' "
"Turning it over, declaring it unconstitutional, makes sense in a U.S. context, but some countries in this region don't have the equivalent of the [U.S.] First Amendment [guaranteeing freedom of speech]," Conrad added. "That escape route doesn't exist in other countries."
However, in some Asian countries governments are determined to let free speech hold sway on the Internet.
Before the CDA ruling was announced last week, Malaysia's top telecommunications official told the annual conference of the Internet Society meeting in Kuala Lumpur, that his government is committed to a hands-off policy when it comes to Internet content.
Meanwhile, in the U.K., representatives of the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) would not comment on the CDA decision other than to say that it is an U.S. law that has no relevance.
There are no current or pending U.K. laws regarding transmission of pornographic material over the Internet, said Martin Richards, spokesman for the DTI, because the current laws in the U.K. governing obscenity are broad enough to include the Internet, and no special legislation is needed.
This past April, the German government submitted legislation to parliament that would create a legal basis for controlling and regulating information and communications services here. Part of the draft bill is aimed at protecting children from sexually explicit material; the legislation is still pending.
-- Elizabeth Heichler, Rob Guth and Kristi Essick, IDG News Service, Boston Bureau
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week that parts of the CDA -- those that criminalized making "indecent" and "patently offensive" material available to minors over the Internet or online services -- were unconstitutional, largely because of the breadth of the law and the vagueness of its definition of indecency.
CDA opponents believe that the court's 7-2 decision on the Reno vs. American Civil Liberties Union case leaves little room for new legislation, given that the justices favored strong protection for free speech on the Internet. Even so, U.S. Senator Dan Coats, a Republican from Indiana who co-authored the bill, plans to develop narrower legislation that will pass a First Amendment test.
"I don't have a timeline yet but he'll be working on new legislation," said Erik Hotmire, a spokesman for Coats.
Coats developed the CDA, which was signed into law as part of the Telecommunications Reform Act in February 1996, with now-retired Senator James Exon, a Democrat from Nebraska.
-- Sari Kalin, IDG News Service, Boston Bureau
The law, passed by the U.S. Congress last year, made it a crime to distribute indecent or patently offensive speech to minors over the Internet or online services. The Supreme Court last week voted 7 to 2 to uphold a lower court ruling finding the law unconstitutional.
The U.S. Justice Department had argued that the government has an interest in protecting children from offensive material on the Web. Opponents of the law, lead by the American Civil Liberties Union, argued that it would be too cumbersome for content providers to screen viewers of their Web sites, and that the broadness of the law would have a chilling effect on all speech -- even speech that is protected by the U.S. Constitution.
The court's decision shows that justices were not persuaded by the government's case, but instead believe that the law is too vague to be legal under the First Amendment of the Constitution, which protects the right to free speech. The law also has "unprecedented breadth," the decision states.
"We are persuaded that the CDA lacks the precision that the First Amendment requires when a statute regulates the content of speech," the decision states. "In order to deny minors access to potentially harmful speech, the CDA effectively suppresses a large amount of speech that adults have a constitutional right to receive and to address to one another."
The court believes that the interest in encouraging "free expression in a democratic society outweighs any theoretical but unproven benefit of censorship."
"The growth of the Internet has been and continues to be phenomenal," the decision states. "As a matter of constitutional tradition, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, we presume that governmental regulation of the content of speech is more likely to interfere with the free exchange of ideas than to encourage it."
Seven justices fully supported the ruling. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who along with Chief Justice William Rehnquist concurred with part of the decision and dissented to part of the decision, wrote that she believes Congress was simply trying to set up "adult zones" on the Internet. Those kinds of zones can be "constitutionally sound," she said, but parts of the CDA stray from the "blueprint" of previous cases on this matter.
"They dissented but their dissent is quite sympathetic with the majority viewpoint," said Michael Greenberger, attorney with Shea & Gardner of Washington D.C., who argued a cable television indecency case before the Supreme Court. "The general thrust of their dissent doesn't offer a lot of comfort for those who want the government to be involved in censorship."
The full text of the decision in Reno vs. American Civil Liberties Union can be found at the ACLU's Web site, http//www.aclu.org/court/renovacludec.html/.
-- Sari Kalin and Rebecca Sykes, IDG News Service, Boston Bureau
The plan, which establishes the American Registry for Internet Numbers (ARIN), will go into effect no later than March 1998, and was proposed by Network Solutions Inc. (NSI) of Herndon, Virginia, which until now had handled both IP numbers and domain name registration.
The NSF has official responsibility for domain name and IP number registration and management in the U.S., but has contracted that responsibility out to NSI.
The administration of domain names, such as IDG.com or nsf.gov, for the time being is still being handled by NSI until the current debate over how to privatize the domain-name assignment business is resolved, according to NSF officials.
ARIN will hand out IP numbers in large batches to large Internet Service Providers and corporations. The ISPs will do the work of doling out the numbers to clients, and work with NSI to match the numbers to domain names. Domain names must correspond to underlying IP numbers, which Internet servers use to route messages.
Although the establishment of ARIN does not resolve the hotly contested issue of how to privatize the domain name management business, it is a step in that direction, said NSF officials. "It takes the government out of assigning the IP numbers, and puts members of the Internet community on the board of the organization that does that -- it's a kind of self-management," said Beth Gaston, a spokeswoman for NSF in Arlington, Virginia.
One critic of the current domain-name registration regime applauded the move, but said it is only a first step in allowing private competition in the domain-name assignment business. "We have supported it (the idea for ARIN) all along," said Michael Donovan, outside counsel for PG Media Inc. of New York, which has a lawsuit pending against NSI. "We have thought that there needs to be an independent group managing IP numbers."
However, Donovan said, companies like PG, which seek to get into the business of domain name registration, will not be able to do so unless they are assured that the names they assign get included in the configuration files of the small number of Internet root servers around the world. Only then will domain names assigned by private businesses be globally recognized and have real value, Donovan said.
And for now, NSI still has a monopoly on assigning domain names that are globally recognized, he noted. PG's lawsuit against NSI claims that the company, along with other Internet-related organizations, is violating antitrust laws by exclusively controlling the assignment of domain names.
In April, the NSF said it would bow out of administration of domain name issues, and said that its contract with NSI for domain-name assignment would not be renewed after March 1998. But NSF officials said that Internet bodies, the NSF, NSI and various government officials are still debating what to do after March next year.
-- Marc Ferranti, IDG News Service, New York Bureau
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