WASHINGTON -- The U.S. government and the contractor in charge of parceling out the vast majority of Internet addresses now in use have reached an agreement for the handoff of the domain name system to the private sector, the Commerce Department said today.
Under terms of the agreement, Network Solutions Inc. will begin to abandon its government-sanctioned monopoly on registrations for .com, .net and .org by handing over the necessary technical information for other companies to register addresses between March 31 and June 1. Would-be competitors, meanwhile, will line up to copy NSI's business model under the supervision of a private-sector body whose makeup is still to be determined. The Commerce Department called for its creation in a series of actions over the past two years, most recently the white paper on domain names issued June 5.
NSI , meanwhile, will keep its federal contract to register Internet addresses for the next two years, or until the transition is complete, whichever comes first.
Difficult chapter closed
The accord should help put to rest one of the most contentious cyberspace issues yet tackled by any government.
"This agreement is the result of in-depth discussions between NSI and the Department of Commerce," said Becky Burr, associate administrator of the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration. "It delivers on the promises that the department outlined in the white paper and demonstrates NSI's commitment to robust competition in (domain name) management."
Or is it?
Whether it will do so is not entirely certain. For one thing, there's always the possibility that outside parties could claim the agreement does not go far enough in stripping NSI of its official monopoly over "generic" domain-name registration. Generic domains are those which signify an Internet address without referring to a specific country such as France's .fr or Singapore's .sg.
More likely, though, is continued conflict over the reorganization of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority , the private-sector body that will assume power over domain registration between now and October 2000.
IANA the real power
Though NSI controls who registers names under .com, .net and .org, it's the IANA, based in Marina del Rey, Calif., and run by Internet pioneer Jon Postel, that parcels out the underlying numeric addresses that computers actually use to send messages from one part of the Net to the other. As it takes on the additional duties of supervising domain-name registration, conflicts are bound to arise.
The new IANA, tentatively known as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, submitted its proposal for re-incorporation last week. Under its proposal, a group of nine widely respected Internet pioneers would supervise three separate groups under which industry and non-profit groups would present plans for supervising domain-name registration. The group would also shepherd assignment of numeric addresses and coordination of technical standards. Each of those groups, in turn, would eventually help form a permanent board and governing bodies to carry work out.
In response, the Boston Working Group, an informal organization representing a spectrum of corporate interests, legal specialists and small businesses, submitted a rival proposal in which they accused the new ICANN backers of ignoring "consensus" opinions on a number of governance issues. Among other things, the group said, ICANN had ignored repeated demands that groups governing domain issues be drawn from broad membership bases.
Given the issues still being disputed, "it's obviously going to be months before the new organization is up and running," said Mikki Barry, president of the Domain Names Rights Coalition and a longtime critic of the government transfer process. "The administration has said through the entire process [that] if there were multiple proposals, they'd get everyone together in a room to work them out. The ICANN didn't take any outside suggestions, they didn't take any outside comments. The process wasn't very transparent at all."
All under consideration
The NTIA's Burr, however, said the administration was considering allproposals. Most observers say the ICANN proposal is the odds-on favorite within the administration. "We should have a consensus candidate within the next two weeks," she said. "After that we'll begin negotiating with the new corporation" for a complete transfer sometime in the next two years.
The European Commission, Japan, Canada have all previously expressed concerns over the transition. Nonetheless, Burr said, the administration remains confident differences can be ironed out soon. In addition to foreign concerns, the administration may have to answer some from Congress: a House subcommittee is scheduled to hear from Burr, NSI and other businesses in hearings scheduled for Wednesday afternoon.
David Maher, a trademark attorney who helped found a private-sector group transition group that included Postel's IANA more than two years ago, said he was delighted with today's announcement.
"I think it's absolutely great," he said. "I really think at this point Ira and Becky have figured it out. You may not agree with everything Jon Postel does, but by God, he runs the Internet."