The Internet is about to get a new gatekeeper.
But the transition, which will replace the profit-making company currently managing the Net's naming system with a non-profit trustee over the next year, is inspiring controversy within the Net community.
"The whole situation is out of control", said Brampton-based corporate naming expert Naseem Javed, who has just released a book on the Internet's management system titled Domain Wars.
"You've got kids in unknown countries registering corporate (Internet) names on a first-come, first-served basis that are detrimental to the intellectual property of North American companies."
The identifying endings of Web site addresses such as .com (for commercial enterprises), .net (computer and Internet firms), .edu (educational facilities), and .org (non-profit groups), are assigned by fiat.
For a fee typically around $70 (U.S.) a year, which is the equivalent of about $105 (Canadian) at current exchange rates, anyone can register a full Web site address, or domain name.
And that has led to a crush of lawsuits, often involving large companies whose domain names have been snapped up by Net surfers.
Last month, Mattel Inc., maker of the Barbie doll, filed federal lawsuits in the United States against a Kentucky woman who owns Barbienet.com and an Oklahoma man who holds barbienet.com.
Ty Inc., maker of popular children's toys Beanie Babies, has sued a St. Louis woman for selling the toys on her beaniebaby.com site.
Since 1993, Network Solutions Inc. of Virginia has been solely in charge of handing out the Internet's most popular domain names under a lucrative federal contract. But that monopoly is about to end.
The U.S. government has mandated a transition to a Los Angeles-based non-profit organization called Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN.
Yesterday, Network Solutions was reported to be steering customers of an important Web directory to its private commercial site. People trying to visit the popular Internic.Net directory are unexpectedly being swept automatically instead to Network Solutions' home page.
The government is upset because the information directory has traditionally been considered a community resource and because it owns Internic as a registered trademark.
To break the domain name monopoly, the U.S. government has charged ICANN with establishing a competitive system, authorizing private firms to act as Net name registrars, said Mike Roberts, ICANN's interim president and chief executive officer.
`There's no real policy in place'
"We're establishing level playing field rules for fair competition in this new market. We'll set rules and police the system."
This network of domain name wholesalers means price competition could emerge for domain names, with individual resellers setting their own prices, said Roberts.
One of the most heated debates about domain name registration centres on whether the first to claim a name should be the first to get it.
"As it stands, there is no real policy in place other than taking your money and handing you a name", Javed said. "That's not a policy. It's chaos."
And it's not just the handful of domain names controlled by ICANN that present a danger for companies, he said.
Nearly 250 countries around the world hand out their own national name endings (Canada's is .ca, for example), each with its own Internet governance policies. And that means corporate names can be registered thousands of times around the world for nominal fees or even for free.
"Less than 10 per cent of these countries adhere to rules of civilized countries. More than half are rogue, banana republics with no appreciation of copyright policies", Javed said.
But if the free-wheeling, fiercely democratic structure of Net governance is proving troublesome for companies, it has the support of many in the Net community.
"I don't think the current system is so wrong", said Jerry Sumpton, whose Vancouver-based company MailBank has purchased 12,000 domain names, which it rents out to anyone for a $20 set-up fee and $5 a year. "If you hand over the system to corporate America, we'll get outdone every time."
And while companies are quick to sue when they find their corporate identities have been claimed online, it doesn't necessarily mean they are justified, said David Jones, president of Electronic Frontier Canada.