To almost anyone who has a passing familiarity with computers, the term "dot-com" instantly evokes the Internet and everything associated with the online world.
That is not quite the case for "dot-net."
Regarded by most ordinary Internet users as ".com's" less-attractive cousin, ".net" is nevertheless the world's fourth-largest Internet domain and a key conduit for massive amounts of Internet traffic. This month, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the group that oversees the Internet's global addressing system, will begin deciding what company will run it.
The stakes are high, and so is the responsibility: The winner will take in about $30 million a year, but if the domain were to fail, huge swaths of online real estate -- including Web sites like Amazon.com and e-mail networks like those operated by Comcast and Earthlink -- could go dark.
"It's the most important decision ICANN has ever had to make," said Tom Galvin, vice president of government relations for VeriSign, the Mountain View, Calif.-based firm that operates .net and .com under contract with ICANN. Roughly 30 percent of all e-commerce traffic and more than 150 billion e-mail messages a year travel through .net, which is also home to 4.9 million registered Internet addresses, according to VeriSign.
By contrast, .com has more than 30 million registered addresses and is easily the largest of the domains in terms of both registrations and Internet traffic. The smaller .org domain -- originally intended for use by nonprofit groups and other organizations -- has about 3.2 million registrations.
As the operator of the registry, VeriSign acts as the sole wholesaler of Internet addresses ending in .net. Whenever a retail company sells a .net name to one of its customers, it pays VeriSign $6 a year to register the address. VeriSign maintains the master list of .net names, and is responsible for making sure the domain is always on and reachable throughout the Internet.
In 2001, VeriSign agreed to relinquish its hold on .net in exchange for a contract that would give the addressing giant near-permanent control over the larger and more lucrative .com. The deal allows VeriSign to bid to continue operating .net, but does not give the company preferential treatment.
With the hunt for a new .net operator set to begin, VeriSign is warning lawmakers, high-tech companies and the media that choosing the wrong successor could be disastrous.
Large tech firms like IBM, Sun Microsystems and MCI have sent letters to ICANN President Paul Twomey urging him to be cautious in choosing a new .net operator or to let VeriSign keep the domain. Microsoft Corp. Senior Vice President Craig Mundie wrote a letter to U.S. Commerce Secretary Donald Evans asking him to keep .net under VeriSign's control. The Commerce Department must approve ICANN's choice for a new operator before a switch is made.