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Race Is On for Control of Key Internet Domain

By David McGuire
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 19, 2005; 9:46 AM

The search for the next operator of "dot-net" -- the world's fourth largest Internet domain -- is officially underway, as bidders from around the world had until late last night to submit their applications to the group that oversees the Internet's global addressing system.

The Marina del Rey, Calif.-based Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) will review the bids with the help of a soon-to-be-named third-party evaluator and choose the next operator for the ".net" registry sometime in March, subject to aproval by the federal government.

_____ICANN Headlines_____
Firms Bid to Control .net Addresses (The Washington Post, Jan 20, 2005)
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AU President Loses Web Site Challenge (The Washington Post, Oct 21, 2004)
Tech Policy Section

Whoever controls the registry controls the global master list of Internet addresses ending in ".net." It is home to roughly 5 million addresses (a fraction of the 35 million registered under ".com") but plays a critical role in a vast amount of important Internet traffic. ICANN's decision has far-reaching implications for the Internet, and the world's largest high-tech firms are watching the competition closely.

The current operator of .net, Mountain View, Calif-based VeriSign Inc., estimates that $700 billion annually -- nearly 30 percent -- of all e-commerce travels through the domain. In addition, nearly 150 billion e-mails pass through .net addresses every day. Comcast, AT&T and Earthlink Internet customers all receive .net e-mail addresses.

A domain operator makes sure that the registry contains the information that Internet switching systems need to direct traffic to the right recipients, and that the information is accurate. If the .net list had errors or became unavailable, critical swaths of the Internet could go dark.

"Not only is it home to a lot of e-mail and Web sites, but ... a lot of the plumbing of the Internet uses dot-net," said Richard Tindal, vice president of registry for Sterling, Va.-based NeuStar, one of a handful of companies bidding to run the domain.

ICANN -- created in the late 1990s under the auspices of the U.S. government to introduce competition to the domain name system -- would not say how many bids it had received, but officials didn't expect to get more than six, given the relatively small universe of companies with the technological infrastructure capable of handling such a task. ICANN President Paul Twomey affirmed that the group's top priority will be finding an operator who can run the domain stably and securely, a spokesman said.

In addition to the prestige of managing one of the Internet's largest domains, the winning applicant will take in roughly $30 million in annual registration fees. Although the selection process began officially last night at midnight Pacific Time, many of the bidders have been touting their proposals for months.

One of the most vocal bidders has been VeriSign itself. In 1999, VeriSign inked deals with ICANN and the federal government that effectively ensured that the company would maintain control of .com in perpetuity. In return, VeriSign -- which once held a government-approved monopoly over the entire domain-name market -- agreed to relinquish exclusive control over ".org" (the world's fifth largest domain) and .net.

But while the contract required VeriSign to give up .org outright, it didn't prohibit the company from bidding to retain control of .net. VeriSign has submitted a bid and is lobbying hard to keep the lucrative domain.

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