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The Hamilton Spectator
Monday, February 23, 1998

The Name Game Gets Serious

Control of domain names may move to corporate boards,
a sign of the Net's growing maturity

by David Akin,

Later this year, volunteers will cede control of a key part of the core operations of the Internet to a corporate board of directors, a sure sign that the global network of computers has reached adulthood.

But the Internet's growing maturity is not, in everyone's eyes, a good thing. Some mourn the good old days when volunteer computer geeks fueled by a heady mix of ego, pride, and a sense of adventure built the system from the ground up and ran it on a creed of mutual respect, co-operation and consensus.

Proposals in Canada and the U.S. to transfer the complex domain name registration system to corporate boards of directors are winding their way through a consultative process. The Internet has grown to the point that most, but certainly not all, stakeholders are ready to concede that some more formal structures, including some arbitrary, dispute-resolution processes, are required to help the network flourish.

'COMING OF AGE'

"(It's) a sign of the Canadian Internet coming of age", said David Jones, a McMaster University computer science professor and a co-founder of Electronic Frontier Canada.

"If it didn't happen now, it was going to happen eventually. It's growing beyond the capacity of the current approach, the volunteer, non-profit approach that worked very well for the academic community but is not as responsive as the business community wants in terms of time and volume", Jones said.

Some Netizens, though, claim the business community doesn't know what's it's talking about.

Richard Sexton argues that the corporate belief that the highly formalized environment of real-world commerce is not required in cyberspace. His is a variation on "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Sexton has been involved in the development and construction of the Internet from its earliest incarnation. He now runs his own Internet development and consulting business VRx from a 200-year-old farm house in Bannockburn, a hamlet north of Belleville.

Sexton's suggestions for reform have helped form the proposals on both sides of the border.

"There's never been, in the history of the Internet, any top-down administration or control. To say that it couldn't work without (that) is specious. The network is exploding and it's not because of government regulations saying 'You will do this', it's because people build stuff that works. If people use it, that's great. If people don't use it, it goes away", Sexton said.

"That's the nature of the Internet. People have this intense ego and pride to keep it working."

At the end of last month, committees in both Canada and the U.S. released discussion papers containing proposals to change the way domain names are doled out.

A domain name identifies a specific computer on the Internet. Some examples of domain names include www.hamiltonspectator.com, www.canada.gc.ca, and www.epa.gov, the domain names respectively for the Web servers of The Hamilton Spectator, the Government of Canada, and the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

Each one of those domain names contains a top-level domain name - the two- or three-letter suffix at the end of the Internet address.

Those top-level domains frequently help describe the organization that owns the domain name.

The .com (pronounced dot - calm) indicates that the organization, in this case The Hamilton Spectator, is a commercial organization.

The .ca (dot - see - eh) top-level domain is the country code for Canada. Groups with a .ca domain name, then, are usually Canadian. (Canadians, though, are not limited to .ca domains and, in fact, frequently prefer to register .com or .net domains.)

The .gov (dot - guv) indicates that the domain is held by an agency of the United States government. Other national governments, like Canada, must use a country code like .ca.

Domain names are, to a large extent, doled out on a first-come, first-served basis.

There is no charge to register a .ca domain name and it costs only a few hundred dollars to register a .com or a .net domain.

Domain names are beginning to have a certain economic value as more users, particularly commercial enterprises, connect to the Internet.

As result, the Internet has seen a new kind of phenomenon recently: cybersquatting. Cybersquatters typically register and then own a domain name like coke.com, for instance, figuring that sooner or later, The Coca-Cola Co. will pay the cybersquatter big bucks to get coke.com back.

A cybersquatter did, in fact, register www.coke.com and it took the soft drink maker three years of wrangling to acquire it from the squatter.

In a 1994 case, journalist Joshua Quittner registered www.mcdonalds.com and wouldn't give it to the burger chain until McDonald's bought brand new computers for a New York City school.

CALL FOR REFORM

Such scenarios, while rare, have caused some corporations to call for reform so that they can better protect their trademarks.

Still, because the Internet is a new kind of entity that spans national borders, its not clear whose laws, if any, would apply in trademark cases. It's even less clear if a domain name qualifies as a trademark.

This confusion has contributed to the calls for change to the domain name allocation system.

In Canada, calls for change are coming from those who want the .ca domain administered with the same business-like efficiency as the .com and other generic top-level domains.

It is estimated that as much as $5 million is being paid to American firms for the use of .com and other generic top-level domains by Canadians frustrated with the delays and relative inefficiency of the .ca administration system.

That Canadian money is being poured back into American Internet infrastructure development to Canada's competitive disadvantage.

To remedy this, the eight-month-old Canadian Domain Name Consultative Committee issued its plan for reform late last month. Canadians can comment on the plan until March 1 before final recommendations are posted March 15.

Like a similar U.S. proposal, the Canadian committee is calling for the creation of a non-profit corporation run by a board of directors selected from the Internet industry, government, and other domain name owners.

This corporation would administer some of the basic functions of the .ca domain space, including the operation of some basic root-level servers.

The new corporation, though, would assign responsibility for doling out the actual .ca domain names to registered agents. Agents could charge whatever they wanted for a domain name.

It's expected that free market forces would produce the kind of price equilibrium in which agents could make a buck and consumers could feel that they were getting fair value for their dollar.

"I do have a worry about that agent structure especially since they expect the majority of agents to be Internet service providers (ISPs)", said Richard Reiner, CEO of Toronto Internet development firm FSC Internet.

"The single greatest weakness that almost every ISP organization that I'm familiar with ... is customer service. It's impossible or near impossible, with very few exceptions, to get your calls returned", Reiner said.

He thinks there should be some quality standards for agents in order to protect the interests of .ca domain name holders.

If the Canadian proposal proceeds - and there seems to be general consensus that it will go forward with some minor revisions - it will end an era in Canadian Internet history, an era to which John Demco is inextricably linked.

Demco manages the computer facilities at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver but he is better known in Internet circles as the registrar of .ca domain, the only registrar the domain has ever known.

He said there was some soul-searching before deciding to get behind the reform plan but now thinks everyone will benefit from the change.

"It's time, and maybe in some sense past time, to sort out the authority structure", Demco said.

Ever since he was delegated the task 11 years ago of assigning .ca domain names, Demco has been registering names on a volunteer basis, never charging a penny.

The volume of registration requests kept him active but not swamped. Now, though, it's getting out of hand. He estimates he receives 5,000 requests a month for .ca registrations and actually registers about 1,200.

COSTS NOTHING

It still costs nothing to register through Demco, although there are some paperwork requirements. And while many complain about the week it takes for Demco to get around to their requests, many more have marveled that the system worked as well as it did for so long.

"At the .ca domain , everything is still processed in a very manual way and yet they've done an excellent job all this time", Reiner said.

The U.S. plan also calls for a non-profit corporation to act as the supervisor of top-level domains and separate agents who would hand out the domain names.

It also tries to deal with calls to increase the number of generic top-level names. The current generic top-level domains are .com, .edu., .org, .net, .gov, and .mil.

Some in the Internet community want to add some new ones including: .rec for sites about recreational activities; .info for a site with information resources; .nom for personal Web sites; .store for sites that sell something, and .arts for arts-related groups. But many critics, mostly outside the United States, say new names should be added only within country domains.

This, they say, would apply some organizational discipline to the domain name system and, because they would be added within a particular nation's domain name space, would provide some legal framework in which trademark and other issues can be resolved.

Critics also say more generic top-level domains means more money and control for the American organizations that administer such domains.

"The American (proposal) is controversial because ... they're cementing their control further with domains like .edu and .com and so on", said McMaster's Jones. "They're basically excluding foreign input."

Sexton, though, is all for more generic top-level domains, believing ease of use, rather than tidy bureaucratic ideals, should be the paramount consideration in adding the new names.

There are, for instance, about 22,000 electronic mailing lists on the Internet.

Sexton thinks users would find it easier if they were all consolidated in one domain, which he's volunteered to administer.

Country codes, Sexton said, aren't linked to the reality of the Internet.

"All those country codes are totally hosed. Nobody cares about this clever taxonomy of organization-city-province-country. The Net is not academic anymore. It's largely commercial", Sexton said.

"People want a name that's catchy, a name they can remember. The easier it is to remember, the catchier it is, the more it has intrinsic and extrinsic worth."


WHAT'S IN A NAME?

CA Domain
You can register a .ca domain and find out more information about the .ca top-level domain at

http://www.cdnnet.ca/

Introduction and history of the Internet Domain Name System
Richard Sexton, a Canadian who has been involved in the development of the structure of the Internet since it started, has a history and discussion of some implications of the system for Canada at

http://dns.vrx.net/talks/caip97/

The Canadian proposal
A Canadian committee representing the Internet industry, users, government, and other stakeholders has put forward this proposal and is looking for public input.

http://www.canarie.ca/cdncc/main.html

Canadian Association of Internet Providers
Detailed background on the Canadian and international domain name system reform efforts at its Web site:

http://www.caip.ca/issues.htm

The American proposal
Known informally as The Green Paper, but officially titled Technical Management of Internet Names and Addresses:

http://www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/domainname/domainname130.htm

The British way
Many Canadian groups suggested the domain name system in the United Kingdom may be applicable in the CA domain. Information about the UK system is at

http://www.nic.uk

Open Root Server Confederation
An interest group formed to discuss reform plans that, in general, favours a bottom-up approach to administration and development of the Internet.

http://www.open-rsc.org/

Domain Name Rights Coalition
Info and perspective from another prominent group in the whole debate.

http://www.domain-name.org/


Copyright © 1998 by The Hamilton Spectator. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.