'Net stakeholders jostle at U.S. domain-name hearing

Critics decry proposed WIPO authority over U.S. courts

By Rebecca Sykes

October  1997
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Boston (October 1, 1997) -- The U.S. House Science Subcommittee on Basic Research yesterday heard testimony from Internet stakeholders in an effort to determine what role, if any, the U.S. government should continue to play in assigning domain names.

The most contentious issue is a proposal from the interim Policy Oversight Committee (iPOC), known as the Generic Top-Level Domain Memorandum of Understanding (gTLD-MoU). Domain names, such as .com or .org, are alphabetic representations of underlying Internet addresses.

At yesterday's hearing Internet Society President Don Heath explained the proposal, which would set up a nonprofit association in Switzerland and offer multiple domain-name registries as well as new top-level domains such as .firm, .store and .web.

"A sound plan exists to introduce competition into the domain name regisration process," Heath said.

But other witnesses at the hearing disagreed.

The governing organization the plan calls for "is set up as a Swiss cartel" and the plan itself "is fundamentally flawed," said Tony Rutkowski, director of the World Internetworking Alliance based in Herndon, Virginia.

"The [iPOC] plan is a poorly veiled attempt to take over the domain-name system," said Andy Sernovitz, president of the Association for Interactive Media, which represents entertainment studios, cable and phone companies and others and is based in Washington, DC.

Sernovitz charged that under the iPOC plan, a contested domain name could be awarded to one party under U.S. law only to be overruled by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). For example, a U.S. court could determine that "nbc.com" belonged to the U.S. television company, whereas a Bolivian court could award it to a Bolivian company hypothetically called National Bolivan Company, and WIPO would determine nbc.com's true ownership, Sernovitz said.

Heath dismissed the notion of a Swiss cartel as "foolishness" and denied that iPOC's plan would create a kind of world court with WIPO as judge.

The organization's decisions "will not supercede national law," Heath said. "The registries will be subject to the laws of the countries they are in, not Swiss law."

Heath also stressed the international nature of the Internet Society, which he said had over international 150 institutional and individual members, and by extension the iPOC plan, which spells out a role for the Geneva-based International Telecommunications Union (ITU) in addition to WIPO.

But Sernovitz scoffed at the idea that ITU and WIPO involvement translated into representation of the burgeoning international Internet community, calling both organizations part of the old, governmental guard.

"The ITU is trying to maintain [a job for itself] as we move from their old turf, which is telephony, to the Internet [and] WIPO wants to take their role in the trademark community and extend that to the Internet," Sernovitz said.

Moreover, several witnesses at the hearing charged iPOC with manufacturing a timing crisis to push through their proposal. The contract of Network Solutions Inc.(NSI), which currently registers .com, .org, .edu, and .gov domain names, expires in March. However, its authority can be extended, witnesses said.

"There is absolutely no crisis right now [and] the only people declaring an emergency is [iPOC]," Sernovitz said. "We have the time to do this correctly."

Though the witnesses were clear in their opposition to iPOC's proposal, their own proposals for administering domain names were less specific and focused more on transitional organizations which could escort the administration of the Internet into a new era.

Rutkowski recommended a dual mechanism of an industry-led advisory committee and a public corporation, in addition to more research on the issue. Barbara Dooley, executive director of the Commercial Internet Exchange, which represents Internet service providers, called for "the kind of succession planning" that businesses engage in.

One analyst flagged two features as paramount in any administration system overseeing the Internet's shift from its U.S.-dominated roots linking 20 million computers worldwide to an international network of up to a billion computers.

"It's got to be international and it's got to be scaleable," said Carl Howe, director of network strategies at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Rebecca Sykes is a correspondent with the IDG News Service, a SunWorld affiliate

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