Internet Top-Level Domains
Who Owns The Internet's Naming System?
Below is a news summary from the Benton Foundation.
by Katharina Kopp of the Benton Foundation
In the past months, there have been considerable developments regarding the creation, administration and management of the Internet's top-level domains (TLDs). Top-level domains such as .com, .edu, .net and .us have quickly become scarce resources, even though they are one of the key means of organizing and finding content on the World Wide Web. Any change in their number or in how they are administered has potentially significant effects on the structure of the Internet, its content and its users. The Benton Foundation and the Media Access Project have been arguing that the .us top-level domain should be better utilized to the benefit of all Americans, and nonprofit organizations in particular. (For more background on this issue, please see http://www.benton.org/DigitalBeat/db102400.html.)
This article summarizes the recent changes and plans for TLDs, explores how recent Internet governance issues might play out to serve the public interest and nonprofit organizations, and explains how Benton's and MAP's activities fit into that context.
The Debate Over the .us Domain
Last August, the Department of Commerce began proceedings on the future management and use of the .us Top-Level Domain. This proceeding provides a great opportunity to consider how to use this national resource more effectively. Benton and MAP have argued that the .us TLD is a national public resource that should be administered to the benefit of all Americans and not simply be given away for free to a for-profit company, without any return to the American people. Since we filed comments with the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Agency (see http://www.mediaaccess.org/filings/dtuscmmt.pdf), we have also held a meeting with almost 30 public interest organizations discussing the future of .us. One of the outcomes of the meeting was the decision to send a letter to the Department of Commerce urging it to hold a separate proceeding on the public interest aspects of the intent to reassign administration of the .us domain, as well as to prohibit Network Solutions, Inc. (NSI), the current administrator of .us, or any subsequent administrator of the space, from making any changes until the conclusion of that separate proceeding.
Since we sent the letter in February, Benton and MAP have heard little from the Commerce Department. We have requested a meeting with the Acting Assistant Secretary of Commerce, John Sopko, who is responsible for the administration of .us, but staff have informed us they will not meet with us until they have prepared a response. We are still waiting to see that the Department of Commerce treats the .us issue with the attention that it deserves.
The .us TLD registry is operated by NSI, now a subsidiary of VeriSign Inc., as a result of a contract that has been extended through November 10, 2001. Prior to this contract, NSI had subcontracted .us administration to the Information Sciences Institute of the University of Southern California. Under the new agreement, known as Amendment 21, NSI is required to "use commercially reasonable efforts to maintain the status quo with respect to the operational policies, practices, procedures, administration and daily operations of the .us domain (except as may be reasonably necessary to comply with customary business practices and to minimize or mitigate risks)," unless otherwise directed by the Department of Commerce. We will be asking for an explanation from the Commerce Department what "commercially reasonable" means since this is a significant change in contract language which could potentially mean requiring registration fees and imposing other costs or restrictions on operation on .us registrants.
The Public Interest Potential of .us
The idea to reassign the .us for public interest reasons was first put forward by Brian Kahin, now a professor at the University of Maryland and formerly with the Clinton White House. Kahin drafted a proposal for the management and use of the .us name space where he argued that this national resource should be utilized to the benefit of all Americans by setting up a Digital Opportunity Trust (DOT). The trust would generate its funds through the auctioning, selling and/or sponsorship of .us TLDs in a restructured .us TLD space. The fund could invest in projects enabling the widest possible participation and access to information and communication technologies with the goal to narrow the Digital Divide.
While guaranteeing existing .us name holders their continued place under .us, the cumbersome geographic structure of the .us space would have to be reorganized so as to make it as attractive for commercial development as possible and hence to raise as much money as possible. The important principal here is that the .us ccTLD is a national resource, like our forests and parks and airwaves, and that the use of national resources for private gain should in some form benefit the American people as a whole. It seems that the most straightforward way to generate money is by selling, auctioning and sponsoring .us domain names for commercial use. Money generated this way can then be applied to finance projects that benefit society as a whole by strengthening participatory democracy, increasing economic opportunity and fostering diversity of speech.
As the discussions about the public interest potentials of the .us domain have progressed, another idea has been put forward, although it is less developed at this time. The idea is not so much an alternative to that of the DOT proposal, but should be seen as complementary -- as an opportunity worth exploring in conjunction with the DOT proposal. The idea is to use the .us domain to foster some kind of electronic commons -- a space for noncommercial speech and nonprofit organizations in the United States. It is possible to divide the space, for example, into subdomains (such as .com.us for commercial enterprises and .ngo.us for nongovernmental organizations) and thus have both commercial and noncommercial uses of the .us space. The goal would be to have a clearly defined and easily identifiable space on the Internet that is truly a home for U.S. based nonprofit organizations and noncommercial speech. The .us domain would guarantee and indicate to the Web user that the content is generated by a nonprofit organization or by an individual speaking only for herself.
Contrary to commonly held notions, the .org top-level domain is not exclusive to noncommercial entities. It was set up as a catch-all for all those organizations and entities that did not fit under .net (network-related entities such as Internet service providers) or .com (commercial entities). Anybody can obtain a .org TLD, whether a for-profit or nonprofit entity, and generally there is no enforcement as to who can and cannot register under .org, .com or .net. In other words, at this point in time there is no TLD reserved for nonprofit organizations or noncommercial speech. The possibilities to make use of that space and to foster noncommercial speech are manifold, and many believe that this is an essential part to any communications medium, especially one as important as the Internet.
We are just beginning to explore the many uses and advantages of an Internet space reserved for noncommercial uses and organizations. Many opportunities exist; for example, such a space could foster democratic participation by giving political candidates their official campaign Web site that voters could easily locate and identify as that of the candidate's official site. This arrangement would avoid any confusion with Web sites where people exercise their First Amendment right to spoof a candidate. A noncommercial space can also serve local communities better and help to connect people with each other.
Geographic identifiers can help in this process. Part of the .us noncommercial space could continue to be structured based on some geographic system. In this way, chapters of national nonprofit organizations and local nongovernmental organizations catering to local needs could be more easily identified and local communities better served. In general, it would be easier to organize the domain geographically, so that all nongovernmental social services in a particular locality could be accessible through a community portal, for example. A clearly identifiable noncommercial top-level domain for U.S. nonprofit organizations and activities would also facilitate the development of a search engine with fair and transparent procedures which could also be designed to facilitate the identification of nonprofit organizations by location. (This idea was recently put forward by scholars from the University of Maryland's Civil Society/Community Building Initiative in connection with a proposal to create a .civ top-level domain.)
Meanwhile, Recent Activities Bode Ill for Public Interest
On April 11, the Department of Commerce filed a notice of intent to transfer control of .edu from VeriSign to the Washington, DC-based nonprofit EDUCAUSE, which counts more than 18,000 U.S. colleges among its members. Contrary to what one might expect, the bid to run .edu was not awarded competitively but given to EDUCAUSE without any consideration of other organizations.
The Internet's Top-Level Domain system provides an opportunity to both create noncommercial space and to fund noncommercial content on the Internet. It is up to policymakers and the public to ensure that this opportunity not be squandered.
The DOT Campaign: Making ".us" Work for All of US http://www.benton.org/DigitalBeat/db102400.html
Benton/MAP's activities on .us http://www.benton.org/Policy/US/
Dept. of Commerce Notice on .US Proceedings/ Request for Public Comment http://www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/domainname/usrfc2/dotusrfc2.htm
A Digital Gift to the Nation, by Newton Minow and Larry Grossman http://www.brook.edu/press/books/clientpr/priority/digital_gift.htm
© Benton Foundation, 2001. "Redistribution of this electronic publication is encouraged if it includes this message."
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