MediaFilter on Fri, 29 Nov 96 08:39 MET

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]


by John Dillon


The Internet, the mother of all networks, is a sprawling congregation
of connected computers; almost anyone is welcome, almost
anything goes. *1 Now, one private company with strong ties to the
defense and intelligence agencies has become the prime gatekeeper
and toll-taker for the millions navigating the maze. Network
Solutions Inc. (NSI) of Herndon, Va., has the government-granted
monopoly to issue "domain names''    electronic addresses like
<> used to route e-mail and steer traffic through the
increasingly commercialized World Wide Web.

NSI's spook connections and its lead role in the privatization of the
Internet have raised alarms. Net activists were outraged by the firm's
September 1995 decision to charge $100 a year to register new
addresses and $50 a year to renew old ones. Later, NSI stirred up
even more anger when it began removing the addresses of the
thousands who refused to pay. The company also has been sued half
a dozen times over its policy to give trademark holders priority
when a domain name is in dispute. *2


The furor over NSI raises basic questions of who controls and
regulates the Internet. Although physically decentralized   with
millions of computers linked around the globe   the Net is in fact
hierarchically organized. Anyone on the planet who wants an
Internet address ending with one of the popular suffixes .com, .edu,
.org, .net, or .gov must register the domain name with the Internet
Network Information Center, or InterNIC, a US government-created
central registry. In 1993, NSI took over the administration of that

This domain name system allows people to substitute user-friendly
names such as <> for the real Internet  Protocol (IP)
addresses: hard-to-remember numerical strings like
<>. When you enter an address in your web browser
  like <> to get this magazine's site    your
computer first accesses a "name server.'' The server then returns the
unique numeric IP address which your browser uses to find the
appropriate place on the Web. *

Critics say there is no good reason why Network Solutions should
have a monopoly franchise on registering the user-friendly domain
names. But NSI has a great reason: By controlling the keys to prime
Internet real estate, it has staked out a phenomenally lucrative
business. Although the company does not release financial figures,
the Internet's astronomical growth    fueled by the tens of
thousands of businesses coming on line each month    has
triggered an explosion in domain name registrations. In March
alone, about 45,000 names were registered, a 25 percent increase
over February. NSI made an estimated $20 million in the six months
from September 1995 to March 1996 from annual registration fees,
with an additional $40 million projected for the next six months. *3

"I would think they're making an obscene profit,'' said Karl
Denniger, head of Macro Computer Solutions Inc., a Chicago-based
Internet provider that wants to enter the domain name business. *4
"Their monopoly of this isn't really legally defensible,'' said Stanton
McCandlish, an activist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation in
San Francisco. *5


NSI's national security pedigree is even more troubling to some than
its monopoly-derived profits. When the government administered
the InterNIC, the service was subsidized by tax dollars and was free
to users who simply registered their names. In May 1993, the
National Science Foundation  privatized the name registry and is
paying Network Solutions $5.9 million to administer it.*6

In September 1995, NSI instituted the fee system. A few months
earlier,  it had been bought out by Science Applications
International Corp. (SAIC). This privately held company with
20,000 employees and 450 offices around the globe has close ties to
the Defense Department and intelligence agencies. Its current board
of directors includes former National Security Agency chief Bobby
Inman, former Defense Secretary Melvin Laird, and the former head
of research and development for the Pentagon, Donald Hicks.
Ex-CIA Director Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense William Perry,
and CIA Director John Deutch have been past members. *7
Eighty-three percent of the company's $2 billion annual revenue
comes from government contracts, including defense, intelligence,
and law enforcement contracts. It is designing new information
systems for the Pentagon, helping to automate the FBI's
computerized fingerprint identification system, and last year won a
$200 million contract to provide "information support'' to the
Internal Revenue Service. *8

Some of these contracts, along with the company's strong
intelligence and defense links, raise fears that SAIC will abuse the
information it controls through its key Internet role. "I don't want a
spook corporation, particularly a private spook corporation, to be
anywhere near a control point on the global cooperative Internet,''
said James Warren, a writer and Internet civil liberties activist. *9
But McCandlish of the Electronic Frontier Foundation described *
SAIC's ownership of Network Solutions as a "non issue.'' "The
Internet itself was a Defense Advanced Research Project Agency
project. It's been true for a long time. It's not some big secret.'' *10


Another bone of contention is NSI's policy on domain name
disputes. For a long time, names were registered on a first come,
first served basis. But then some quick-buck artists realized they
could register domain names related to famous trademarks and sell
the name back to the owner, a process known as trademark
hijacking. In response, NSI instituted a policy that gives trademark
owners priority in claiming a domain name over someone who has
already registered it. While the domain names are in dispute, the
company can put the disputed name "on hold," so that it can't be
used until the issue is settled.

The company's dispute policy has swung too far to protect
trademark owners at the expense of legitimate domain name
holders, critics say. They note that trademark law allows different
companies to share the same name   McDonald's hamburgers and
McDonald's widgets, for example. And they say NSI is ruling on
legal questions, such as who owns the name and what it can be used
for, without legal authority.

"They are serving as legislators, administrators, judges, juries, and
executioners,'' said Kathryn Kleiman, a lawyer and organizer of the
Domain Name Rights Coalition, a non-profit organization that
lobbies Congress on domain name issues. *11

The company's policy created major headaches for a New Mexico
Internet service named Roadrunner Computer Systems, for
example, which used the <> address for itself and
for its customers' e-mail. But last year Warner Bros., which
produces Road Runner cartoons and holds a trademark by the same
name, tried to establish exclusive rights. Roadrunner Computer
Systems obtained a court order barring Network Solutions from
putting its name on hold. *12


But NSI's monopoly may soon crumble. Dozens of new top-level
domains (the .com or .edu portion of the names) are being
considered, and they will be administered by new registration

Paul Garrin, a New York media artist, has plans to strike an even
more decisive blow for competition and Internet democratization.
He and his colleagues have designed an alternative network of name
servers. By changing your browser's default settings to find one of
the servers Garrin has established around the world, you could
locate web sites listed by any chosen name. *13 The system does
not yet work for e-mail.

"We would no longer be restricted to top-level domains, such as
.com or .edu," Garrin said. "Under the existing system, there's an
artificial shortage of domain names driven by InterNIC's desire to
control. By adding new suffixes such as .mag, .inc, .press, for
example, numerous companies could use their own names." They
could also eliminate NSI's monopoly control. "We're
de-territorializing the Internet and bringing it back to the real ideal
of virtual space with no national borders'' he said.

This article appears in the latest issue of CAQ (CovertAction Quarterly)
available soon on MediaFilter:

*  distributed via nettime-l : no commercial use without permission
*  <nettime> is a closed moderated mailinglist for net criticism,
*  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
*  more info: and "info nettime" in the msg body
*  URL:  contact: