Tangled Webs
Masters of Their Own Domains
Nov 19, 1997
Issue 2.14


Anyone who has recently tried to register a domain name knows that the .com top- level domain is practically filled. By the middle of 1996, it had become obvious that the Internet's Domain Name System (DNS) had outgrown its intended capacity, and the Internet Society and the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) formed the Internet Ad Hoc Committee (IAHC) to address domain overcrowding.

Their proposed solution was obvious, technically simple and widely agreed upon; add new top level domains. Applications for the new .firm, .store, .web, .arts, .rec, .info and .nom domains were expected to start around April of 1997. It was just a matter of working out a few details.

The devil, however, is in the details, and when when you toss a few politicians and sundry corporate multinationals in there with him, problems have a way of showing up. The future of the proposed domains remains uncertain.

The fundamental problem is that domain names are no longer simply unique names given to computers. They have become semi-precious commodities, and with tens of thousands of registrations daily, being in charge of their administration means cash flow. From a business perspective, by creating these domains and putting themselves in charge, the IAHC -- which now calls itself the Council of Registrars (CORE) -- is giving itself a license to print money.

The staunchest and most vocal opponent to the proposed change has been Network Solutions, who is currently the sole registrar for .com, .net, .org, and .gov domains. Network Solution's opposition surprised no one. Adding new top level domains would dilute the value of their monopoly, and CORE's plan calls for multiple registrars, which would turn domain registration into a simple commodity business.

Unfortunately for CORE, changing the Internet's DNS without the blessings of Network Solutions is nearly impossible. If Network Solutions dosn't adjust their servers to accept the new domains, large portions of the Internet will not be able to access the new domains, rendering them virtually worthless.

A Tough Defense
Corporate opposition and apathy towards CORE was to be expected, but in recent months, political opposition has begun to mount. The European Union, the US Congress and the White House have all come out against CORE. The US Congress and Department of Commerce have both held hearings on the domain name shortage. Neither had any practical suggestions, and paradoxically both called for "a private-sector solution" while strongly rejecting the most viable private-sector solution out there.

As far as I can tell, the political opposition to CORE is not technical in nature. For the most part, politicians don't understand the DNS and don't want to. They do however, grasp that it is important. Far too important to be left to a bunch of network engineers and UNIX gurus of unknown political and commercial affiliation. The fact that these are the people who have kept the system running for the last 20 years does not seem to carry much weight.

In perhaps the most direct move against CORE, The National Science Foundation, the agency ultimately in charge of the DNS, ordered Network Solutions not to add the new top level domains. This would seem to seal CORE's fate, but from its earliest days, CORE has maintained that national governments have no choice but to go along with their plan.

The Hail Mary Play
This rather bold assertion is presumably based on the fact that one of CORE's members is the IANA, whose members run the Internet's 13 root servers. Theoretically, CORE can bypass Network Solutions entirely by having those who run the root servers make the change at that level. The plan seems perfectly legal, technically trivial, and hopelessly naive.

Granted, if the administrators of all 13 root servers decide to go along with CORE there won't be much Network Solutions or national governments can do about it. It appears that IANA really does have the authority to order the change, and it appears that the US government does not have the authority to stop them. However, these are untested waters, and setting yourself up for a power play against the governments of Europe and the United States is hardly sound strategy.

Not too long ago, decisions about the Internet were made by engineers, and having a solid workable solution to a problem was all anybody needed to rally support. The system worked remarkably well for over two decades. For better or worse, times have changed. Technical decisions are increasingly influenced by politicians demanding to know what's in it for them and their constituents.

Adding new top-level domains is the best solution to the domain name shortage, but CORE's refusal to play politics, while admirable, is hurting them. Registration for the new domains is slated to begin in February 1997. The next two months should prove interesting.

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