When the nonprofit organization that oversees the Internet's domain name system announced last month that the world's fourth largest domain would remain in the hands of VeriSign Inc., technology workers and Internet policy wonks around the world were incredulous, wondering aloud how the company had managed to navigate a process that was, in many ways, designed to reduce its hold on key pieces of Internet real estate.
Online message boards lit up with rants and conspiracy theories about how VeriSign had managed to keep dot-net -- a vital piece of the Internet's infrastructure, particularly in the United States where major Internet service providers like Verizon and Comcast have assigned millions of dot-net e-mail accounts to their customers.
"I would give the job to Microsoft before I'd willingly let VeriSign have another crack at it, and that's not something I'd say lightly. If they built cars, people would have died in the VerisSgn Pinto," one angry poster wrote on Slashdot.org, a message board and news site that caters to the technology audience.
Other message boards swelled with accusations that VeriSign had inappropriate connections with the technical team that evaluated the company's proposal to continue managing dot-net, or that VeriSign had somehow bullied Internet authorities into compliance.
But experts who closely follow VeriSign and the Internet domain market say the Mountain View, Calif.-based company owes its latest coup to a savvy lobbying effort in which VeriSign worked through the press and with its industry allies to play up already heightened concerns about the stability and security of the Internet.
"Competition isn't the only parameter of concern. Security and stability are also issues of concern," said Vinton Cerf, chairman of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the Marina Del Rey, Calif.-based group that was commissioned by the U.S. government in 1998 to oversee the domain name system. "It's not clear to me anymore that competition comes from binding a top-level domain to a particular operator," Cerf told reporters at an ICANN meeting earlier this month, a few days after the dot-net decision was announced.
Cerf's comments were surprising to some observers, as he heads a group that was created with the express mission of breaking up the near monopoly on domain name management maintained at that time by Network Solutions, a company VeriSign bought in 2000.
"It's shocking because ICANN and VeriSign basically hate each other and have hated each other since [ICANN's] inception," said Milton Mueller, an information studies professor at Syracuse University and author of a book about Internet governance. "VeriSign basically had to be bludgeoned into accepting ICANN as the administrator of the domain name system, and ICANN has always been run by people fundamentally hostile to VeriSign."
ICANN and VeriSign have locked horns in courtrooms, at negotiating tables and even before Congress, as the company has sought to protect its valuable domain name business. The bad blood between the two sides boiled over last year when VeriSign sued ICANN after ICANN officials forced the company to jettison a controversial search service called Site Finder. That suit is still pending in California.
But in the post-Sept. 11 world, VeriSign found itself in a strong position to play on ICANN's realigned focus on protecting the stability of the global Internet infrastructure. When ICANN put out its request for dot-net bids last December, the group made security and technical competence two of its top requirements for the next dot-net operator. Telcordia, the company chosen by ICANN to review the dot-net bids, ranked the criteria it used to judge bidders by importance -- high, medium or low. The ability to run a secure and stable registry was ranked "high," while promoting greater competition ranked "medium."