Icann's plan for .org branded 'unworkable'

Plans to return the .org domain name to non-profit groups will have massive financial consequences, warns industry

Plans to return the .org domain name to its non-profit roots are unworkable and could have enormous financial consequences for companies and individuals around the world, say Internet lawyers.

The future of all domains registered under the .org top level domain (TLD) were thrown into doubt a week ago when Verisign, the company that manages .com, .org and .net, announced that it had renegotiated its contract with the group responsible for managing the domain name system, the Internet Committee for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). Under the proposed agreement, control of the .org domain name would be given to a non profit organisation, and only non-profit organisations would be able to register domain names under .org.

"I can't see how the deal is workable," said Simon Halberstam, head of e-commerce law at Sprecher Grier Halberstam. "A lot of companies have put a lot of time, money and effort into their .org domain names. You cannot start unravelling that. The financial consequences are enormous."

Halberstam cited the basic principle of law known as the law of acquired rights. "This says that if you have acquired something fair and square, then nobody can come along and say retroactively that the rules have changed -- it is just not feasible, it is nonsense." Halberstam said that one possible solution would be for ICANN to simply stop future registrations under the .org domain name, "but that still does not make it a domain for non profit organisations," he noted.

Nick Wood, chief executive of domain name registrar Virtual Internet, said the problem is that Icann and Verisign have not offered any alternative. "What they should say is 'we will create an alternative. Either you can keep your .org domain name because you are a non profit organisation and you can show it', or they should offer an alternative and pay for you to move your domain."

Wood said he agrees that .org should be returned to use by non-profit organisations. But, he added, he "feels a great deal of sympathy for those people who use the domain for activist Web sites and the like, who are not strictly speaking non-profit organisations if ICANN and Verisign turn round next year and say: you have no right to that domain"

One legal source close to Icann, who asked not to be named, blamed the mess on Network Solutions -- the company that gained control of the .com, .net and .org domain name system in 1992 and which was bought last summer by Verisign. "Network Solutions stopped bothering to check applications [for .org] in 1994," he said. "They failed to administer their responsibility," he added, referring to the policy, which was never formally revoked, that non profit organisations had to prove their status before they could register a name under the .org domain.

Virtual Internet's Wood agreed that Network Solutions is to blame. "They stopped checking registrations purely for reasons of revenue generation, and opened registration of .org and .net up to everybody as an alternative to .com," he said.

There are now approximately three million domains registered under .org and one million registered under .net. As Icann's annual meeting gets underway in Melbourne, Australia, on Monday, the industry is expecting a heated debate on how the problem will be solved.

"I predict they will fudge the issue and say you can keep your .org domain for two years while allowing only non-profit organisations to register new domains under the .org domain," said Wood, who cautioned that there are many issues with this strategy. "Branded trademarks can include .com, .net an d .org, so many companies would be able to say the move diluted their brand," he added. "But Icann and Verisign would then face the issue of what to do with these big companies, but they can't say that because you are a big company with lots of money you can keep your .org domain. They have to apply the same rules to individuals and multinationals."

The legal source close to Icann had his own solution: "I would stop all new registrations to .org today," he said, "and open .nfp tomorrow, and reinstate checks on non-profit organisations."

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