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Postel's Death Clouds Future of Internet Domain System

The sudden death of Internet Assigned Numbers Authority leader Jon Postel last Friday leaves many questions about the future direction of the Internet's domain name system, largely overseen by Postel, who favored less commercialization and was viewed as a hero by academics and technology interest groups.

Postel submitted a proposal to the U.S. Department of Commerce on Oct. 2, recommending that the domain naming and addressing system be administered by a non-profit group in California, called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).

Postel recommended that members come from an international array of Internet luminaries who were "above the fray," according to guidelines issued by White House technical advisor Ira Magaziner.

His recommendation soon ran into criticism. In an Oct. 12 letter to U.S. Commerce Secretary William Daley, the International Trademark Association (INTA) reluctantly supported Postel's recommendations, taking issue with the proposed board's makeup. The organization said the interim board was not international enough in scope.

"In our opinion, the proposed list of interim board members does not meet the "international trademark holder" threshold which was established in the white paper. Based on the resumes provided in Dr. Postel's Oct. 2 letter, it appears that none of the nine members listed has a measurable background regarding the important role of brand identity in the global marketplace. We feel strongly that without such expertise on the interim board, the concerns of trademark owners will be vastly overshadowed by technical matters during the initial stages of the corporation's development."

On Thursday, Virginia Republican Rep. Tom Bliley, chairman of the House Commerce Committee, sent letters to Clinton Internet policy adviser Ira Magaziner and Daley, asking them to explain the administration's legal grounds for the reformation of the domain system, how proposed ICANN members were chosen and why discussions were kept out of the public eye.

"I am concerned about the manner in which the process of privatizing the governance of the DNS (Domain Name System) has apparently unraveled," Bliley wrote. "A loss of credibility in the Internet community at large will seriously undermine the ability of the new corporation to administer the Domain Name System and the stability of the Internet itself."

The Clinton administration has yet to officially outline the future direction of the domain name system, although that could be unveiled by late Tuesday.

Without Postel's leadership, it is not clear what the next step is for the involved groups jockeying for position.

Joe Sims, the Washington, D.C.-based lawyer who co-drafted the ICANN proposal with Postel, downplayed the effect Postel's death will have on the process.

"I don't think Jon's death will have any impact going forward. The process is mature enough to survive him. He has said that he's not submitting his views, but the broad consensus. Obviously he won't be able to give the technical advice that everyone anticipated, but this will continue."

ICANN member Greg Crew, an Australian appointed by Postel, believes the group's actions will largely mirror Postel's viewpoints.

"ICANN is yet to be incorporated, but if it is established, I am sure it will try to follow Jon's wishes in facilitating the orderly development of the Internet and the domain name system."