net.wars: .net wars

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 21 January 2005

It probably hasn't made the Murdoch News where you live, but the Internet Corporation for Assigned Networks and Numbers, ICANN,  is in the middle of picking a company to which it will re- delegate the .net global top-level domain (gTLD) when its current agreement with Verisign expires on June 30. ICANN is accepting comments from the public until February 2. The decision may be a key indicator of what the future of Internet governance will look like.

Wendy M Grossman

Five companies have applied. One is good ol' Verisign, the legacy registry operator for .net, .com, and .org. I suppose with new global Top Level Domains (gTLDs) coming on stream, we could call those "classic DNS". Like Classic Coke, only different. The other companies are all unheard-ofs by comparison: Irish-based Afilias, which runs.info and .org; the international consortium CORE++ (which at least has the good taste to have registered its own domain in .net); the new, ad hoc partnership between Japan Registry Services and Neulevel Sentan, which ditto; and the German company DENIC, which runs .de, the second largest top-level domain after .com

At one time, only people who worked at ISPs and other nettishly important organisations were allowed to have .net addresses. Then Virgin recklessly disregarded the best-laid plans of Jon Postel and men, and anyone could get in. As of last November, there were 5.1 million .net names to .com's 21 million. One of them is my own pelicancrossing.net. And you'll have noticed that this site is NewsWireless dot net, as well as http://www.kewney dot com.

But, as former maverick ICANN board member Karl Auerbach points out, .net has much greater significance than its coolth quotient or raw numbers would indicate. Those 5.1 million registrations include the main group of DNS root servers, many ISPs, and the names of the servers for other large top-level domains - .com, .org, .milIn other words, .net is in a very real sense the heart of the Internet

Auerbach's point is interesting in part because most of the complaints I've seen about ICANN's efforts to re-delegate .net, are focused on the 75 cents each registrant will be required to pay to support ICANN. Now, 75 cents isn't a whole lot, but to some of the old guard it looks like taxation without representation. Whether you agree with that complaint depends on whether you think ICANN is a government or not. Its mission is supposed to be technical oversight, though it's hard to see how that mission squares with its ever-increasing budget and its recent decision to contribute $100,000 to the UN's Working Group on Internet Governance. WGIG is trying to plan the future of Internet governance - but from the outside this looks very much like ICANN is trying to win friends and influence people. Which is hardly technical oversight and makes that 75 cents look more like a tax, especially since ICANN has given no indication of what the money's use is intended to be. In an interview, DENIC director Sabine Dolderer noted that this fee does not apply to other top-level domains, though of course ICANN may decide to extend it to others in the future. If present trends are any guide, it probably will.

When it comes to choosing among the contenders to run the .net registry, again, any decision ICANN makes is more than a technical one. Quite apart from the $3.8 million awarding the contract with that .75 cents charge will drop into its own coffers, ICANN is awarding a big piece of business to whomever wins the contract. ICANN's Request for Proposals specifies that it must appoint an independent third party to evaluate the applications. Just as well: ICANN is locked in litigation with Verisign over the latter's Sitefinder, a search page that pops up by default when users type in a non-existent domain name.

Then there's the diplomatic international relations aspect: the four applicants that aren't Verisign are all non-US outfits

ICANN can't win on this one. Americans tend to accuse ICANN of being too international. I can't count how many email messages I've had over the years from Americans complaining that the US invented the Internet and shouldn't give away control of it to other countries, when the truth is that creating the technology behind the Internet was an international effort. (And anyway, Britain invented the Post Office. Do they own it everywhere?) By contrast, a lot of technical folks outside the US think that ICANN is too American - it was set up by the US Department of Commerce, and lives in the US. Handing over the .net registry to Germany, Japan, or an international consortium would be the biggest move yet to internationalise the Net's inner workings. On the other hand, everyone hates Verisign.

No matter what ICANN does, people will complain. If ICANN is smart, it will get its head down and focus on preventing messes like last weekend's hijacking of Panix.com. That would be technical oversight - and clearly it's badly needed. . If blood - that is to say, traffic - can't flow through it, a lot of other things are going to stop functioning. Someone was ranting at me recently that while most people think of the Internet as a distributed system in reality it's plenty centralised, and here is a perfect example.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).