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Less Federal Control of Internet Proposed

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 30, 1998; Page G1

The Clinton administration will propose today that control of some of the Internet's most crucial operations be transferred from federal research agencies to the private sector over the next two years, according to White House officials.

In a much-anticipated report, the administration lays out a new structure for the global computer network, which has become a fast-growing medium for communication and commerce. Under the plan, the government's role in assigning Internet addresses and maintaining the traffic-directing hardware at the heart of the network would shift to a not-for-profit private corporation. The corporation would be run and funded by the businesses, people and institutions that use the Internet.

The Washington area has a huge stake in the network's future, because it is becoming a center for the Internet as a business-from fledgling companies that want to sell cyberspace addresses, to industry leaders, such as UUNet Technologies Inc. and MCI Communications Corp., that operate large parts of the network.

The White House proposal, which administration officials said does not require congressional approval, is intended to make the global network's computers more reliable, and to open to competition the task of assigning addresses on the network, with the aim of widening consumer choice and lowering costs.

The plan would allow firms other than Network Solutions Inc., a Herndon company that has an exclusive arrangement with the federal government, to assign addresses that end in ".com," ".org" and ".net."

In addition, the administration will authorize the creation of five new address suffixes-called "top-level domains" in Internet parlance-that can be assigned by several companies, according to a copy of the report obtained by The Washington Post. Domain names-such as www.ford.com or www.disney.com-function as a sort of Zip-code system for the Internet, enabling users to locate pages on the graphical World Wide Web and address electronic mail.

The five new domains would allow more individuals and businesses, some of which have been bickering over space in the popular but crowded ".com" area, to obtain addresses that more closely reflect their names. The result could be retailers with Web addresses ending in ".store" or theaters whose addresses end with ".arts."

The cost of registering an address, now $100 for two years, also is expected to drop significantly with competition, industry specialists predict, leading many ordinary computer users to snap up personalized e-mail and Web page addresses.

The Internet was built by the federal government in the late 1960s as a way to help scientists in different parts of the country better communicate with one another. The network is comprised of high-speed data lines that crisscross the nation, connecting major cities and transmitting data from computer to computer.

Although private telecommunications companies now sell access to the Internet and carry much of its traffic, federal agencies, either directly or through contracts, have continued to manage several key functions, including the assignment of addresses and the workings of the "white pages" directories that enable computers to find each other.

But as the network has grown into something resembling a mass medium, the National Science Foundation and Defense Department, which have nurtured the network since the '60s, have concluded that they no longer want to be responsible for operating it.

"Obviously the current Internet has grown beyond a research and education activity, and therefore beyond the scope of NSF's mission," said Beth Gaston, an NSF spokeswoman.

By placing those functions in the private sector, the government hopes to save money and give businesses that depend on the Internet for their livelihood an incentive to improve its performance. Under the administration's plan, some of the jerry-built computers in university basements that run critical parts of the network would be replaced with more dependable systems supervised by the private corporation.

The government's plan to be involved in Internet operations for the next two years-and fears that the private-sector corporation will be dominated by U.S. companies and Internet specialists-could upset some foreign businesses and computer user groups that want governance of the network to be more broadly shared, industry analysts said.

The proposal also likely will encounter criticism from business groups that argue that the increase in top-level domains will make it more difficult to prevent trademark infringement.

Administration officials say the transition needs to be spread out over two years and closely supervised by the U.S. government to prevent major glitches. "We want to move it into the private sector as soon as possible, but we also need to be sure we don't jeopardize the stability of the Internet while we do it," said presidential adviser Ira Magaziner.

The NSF last year announced that it would not renew its Network Solutions agreement, which expires this spring. The Defense Department said it wanted to stop funding the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, an organization created to handle other operating tasks that is run by a University of Southern California researcher.

Like a colonial power's withdrawal from a territory, those decisions set off a tumultuous global power struggle to define a new set of rules-and rulemakers-for cyberspace. Last summer, the White House decided to inject itself into the fray, starting a months-long process of public comment and industry discussions that have culminated in the report to be released today.

The administration's proposed corporation, whose board of directors would include technical experts, Internet users, business representatives and domain registry firms, gradually would be given authority to handle the operating tasks. The Commerce Department would determine when to transfer the responsibility.

The administration aims to finish that process by Oct. 1, 2000. "Our hope is that it will be a lot shorter than that," Magaziner said.

While the corporation will be able to decide when to add new domains, administration officials did not want to wait until the group is formed to start that process. Network Solutions' monopolistic arrangement with the NSF has prompted pointed criticism among Internet users, some of whom contend the company provides poor service and charges too much to assign addresses. The arrangement also is the subject of a Justice Department antitrust investigation and two lawsuits in federal court, developments the administration hope will become moot by allowing competition.

The report prescribes a system of competitive domain-name allocation akin to the distribution of toll-free 800 and 888 numbers in North America. A database of names assigned in each top-level domain would be held by a registry company. Registrar firms that want to assign names in a domain would check the database to ensure the name isn't taken.

The report does not indicate what the five new top-level domains would be called. The companies that would manage the databases and sell the domain names would have to be approved by the new corporation. Industry experts expect Network Solutions to continue to manage the databases for ".com," ".net" and ".org."

The plan also is a boon to the Reston-based Internet Society and a consortium of 88 businesses that have been developing a competitive system to assign domain names. Administration officials said that group appears likely to handle the databases for some of the new top-level domains.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company



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