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Rein in VeriSign

We can’t control it, but ICANN can.

One of the great frustrations of many Internet users is the domain registration system. For most of the ’90s, one company–Network Solutions–handled all domain-name registration. There were several problems with this process: Network Solutions often has had problems with its system and especially with customer support; Network Solutions has long sold the information it gathers on registers to marketing wonks around the globe; and Network Solutions long overcharged users because of its monopoly position.

Enter the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which has two main missions: initiate competition in domain-name registration and develop new “domain neighborhoods” on the Net. As I’ve argued elsewhere in this space, I think ICANN blew it on its second charge. As for the first mission, the jury is still out. We have limited competition now, meaning VeriSign–Network Solutions’ parent–has developed relationships with several companies that basically resell the registration service at a discount. But VeriSign still controls the .com, .org, and .net top-level domains (TLDs).

On March 1st, in anticipation of ICANN’s meeting in Melbourne, Australia (going on now), VeriSign made ICANN an offer to extend its control of the primary TLDs at least until 2007. If accepted, the proposal would extend the dysfunctional relationship we have now rather than establish true competition for domain registration. The proposal has therefore been roundly criticized by everyone at the meeting (except for VeriSign execs) as reported in a news story on our site today.

The problem ICANN faces is two-fold. First, someone has to have a master database of all domain names to prevent duplication. Currently, VeriSign has it and there is no good way to wrest it away. VeriSign considers the database its intellectual property, ostensibly what it bought when it purchased Network Solutions in March of 2000 for $21 billion. VeriSign CEO Stratton Sclavos is playing hardball here and he has hard balls–the database–to do it with.

Second, ICANN has already been dragged through the mud on some of its other actions, causing lots of reorganization at the top. As a result its board convinced Vint Cerf to be its CEO in the hopes that the Internet’s inventor might have a Jon Postal-like affect on the domain-name process. The last thing Cerf wants is more negative public scrutiny. But that’s exactly what he and his organization will get if he gives in to VeriSign’s demands.

There’s no love lost between the digerati eyeing the meeting and VeriSign. After all, Network Solutions has caused many of them major headaches, not the least of which is having all its information sold to direct marketers. Now ICANN has the unenviable task of trying to satisfy its board, attendees at this meeting, and VeriSign.

My guess is, Cerf and company will stand up to VeriSign here. They will reject the proposal in favor of a working agreement that gives it a fair public hearing. And ICANN will enact a measure to bar domain registrars from selling personal information. ICANN needs victories, and reining in VeriSign would be a big one.

James Mathewson is editorial director of ComputerUser.com and ComputerUser magazine. Also read his monthly Insights column in ComputerUser magazine.

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