THE INTERNET IS CHANGING FROM A PUBLIC RESOURCE TO A LUCRATIVE
OPERATION INFLUENCED BY SPOOKS AND FORMER PENTAGON OFFICIALS.
OPEN ACCESS AND INFORMATION ARE INCREASINGLY CONTROLLED.
The Internet, the mother of all networks, is a
sprawling congregation of connected computers;
almost anyone is welcome, almost anything
goes. Now, one private company with strong
ties to the defense and intelligence agencies
has become the prime gatekeeper and toll-taker
for the millions navigating the maze. Network
Solutions Inc. (NSI) of Herndon, Va., has the
government-granted monopoly to issue "domain
names'' electronic addresses like
NSI's spook connections and its lead role in
the privatization of the Internet have raised
alarms. Net activists were outraged by the
firm's September 1995 decision to charge $100
a year to register new addresses and $50 a
year to renew old ones. Later, NSI stirred up
even more anger when it began removing the
addresses of the thousands who refused to pay.
The company also has been sued half a dozen
times over its policy to give trademark
holders priority when a domain name is in
WHO'S IN CHARGE
who controls and regulates the Internet.
Although physically decentralized with
millions of computers linked around the globe
the Net is in fact hierarchically organized.
Anyone on the planet who wants an Internet
address ending with one of the popular
suffixes .com, .edu, .org, .net, or .gov must
register the domain name with the Internet
Network Information Center, or InterNIC, a US
government-created central registry. In 1993,
NSI took over the administration of that
This domain name system allows people to substitute user -friendly names such as
"ibm.com" for the real Internet Protocol (IP)
addresses: hard-to-remember numerical strings
like "126.96.36.199". When you enter an
address in your web browser like
"mediafilter.org/caq" to get this magazine's
site your computer first accesses a "name
server.'' The server then returns the unique
numeric IP address which your browser uses to
find the appropriate place on the Web.
Critics say there is no good reason why Network Solutions should have a monopoly franchise on registering the
|user-friendly domain names. But NSI has a great reason: By controlling the keys to prime Internet real estate, it has staked out a phenomenally lucrative business. Although the company does not release financial figures, the Internet's astronomical growth fueled by the tens of thousands of businesses coming on line each month has triggered an explosion in domain name registrations. In March alone, about 45,000 names were registered, a 25 percent increase over February. NSI made an estimated $20 million||
in the six months from September
1995 to March 1996 from annual registration
fees, with an additional $40 million projected
for the next six months.
"I would think they're making an obscene profit,'' said Karl Denniger, head of Macro Computer Solutions Inc., a Chicago-based Internet provider that wants to enter the domain name business. "Their monopoly of this isn't really legally defensible," said Stanton McCandlish, an activist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco.
In September 1995, NSI instituted the fee system.
|A few months earlier, it had been bought out by Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC). This privately held company with 20,000 employees and 450 offices around the globe has close ties to the Defense Department and intelligence agencies. Its current board of directors includes former National Security Agency chief Bobby Inman, former Defense Secretary Melvin Laird, and the former head of research and development for the Pentagon, Donald Hicks. Ex-CIA Director Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense William Perry, and CIA Director John Deutch have been past members. Eighty-three percent of the company's $2 billion annual revenue<||
government contracts, including defense,
intelligence, and law enforcement contracts.
It is designing new information systems for
the Pentagon, helping to automate the FBI's
computerized fingerprint identification
system, and last year won a $200 million
contract to provide "information support'' to
the Internal Revenue Service.
Some of these contracts, along with the company's strong intelligence and defense links, raise fears that SAIC will abuse the information it controls through its key "I don't want a spook corporation,particularly a private spook corporation,
to be anywhere near a control
point on the global cooperative Internet,''
said James Warren, a writer and Internet civil
liberties activist. But McCandlish of the
Electronic Frontier Foundation described
SAIC's ownership of Network Solution as a "non
issue.'' "The Internet itself was a Defense
Advanced Research Project Agency project. It's
been true for a long time. It's not some big
PUTTING A HOLD ON NAMES
|NSI's policy on domain name disputes. For a long time, names were registered on a first come, first served basis. But then some quick-buck artists realized they could register domain names related to famous trademarks and sell the name back to the owner, a process known as trademark hijacking. In response, NSI instituted a policy that gives trademark owners priority in claiming a domain name over someone who has already registered it. While the domain names are in dispute, the company can put the disputed name "on hold," so that it can't be used until||
the issue is settled.|
The company's dispute policy has swung too far to protect trademark owners at the expense of legitimate domain name holders, critics say. They note that trademark law allows different companies to share the same name McDonald's hamburgers and McDonald's widgets, for example. And they say NSI is ruling on legal questions, such as who owns the name and what it can be used for, without legal authority.
"They are serving as legislators, administrators, judges, juries,
executioners,'' said Kathryn Kleiman, a lawyer
and organizer of the Domain Name Rights
Coalition, a non-profit organization that
lobbies Congress on domain name issues.
The company's policy created major headaches
for a New Mexico Internet service named
Roadrunner Computer Systems, for example,
which used the
name on hold.
CHALLENGING THE MONOPOLY
Paul Garrin, a New York media artist, has plans to strike an even more decisive blow for competition and Internet democratization. He and his colleagues have designed an alternative network of name servers. By changing your browser's default settings to find one of the servers Garrin has
around the world, you could locate web sites
listed by any chosen name.
"We would no longer be restricted to top-level domain, such as .com or .edu," Garrin said. "Under the existing system, there's an artificial shortage of domain names driven by InterNIC's desire to control. By adding new suffixes such as .mag, .inc, .press, for example, numerous companies could use their own names." They could also eliminate NSI's monopoly control. "We're de-territorializing the Internet and bringing it back to the real ideal of virtual space with no national borders,'' he said.
CAQ59 Contents | CAQ Contents | Subscribe to CAQ | MediaFilter | Back Issues