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RealTime IT News

There's No 'I' in .US

Despite opposition from nearly every sector of the American population, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) is set to enforce the deadline for its giveaway of the .us domain.

What that means to the U.S. taxpayers is this: after providing initial funding for the management of the county code top level domain (ccTLD), the Department of Commerce (DoC) is letting a corporation take over without paying a dime.

Said corporation will then be able to reap rewards from what is expected to be a popular domain extension, a quasi-.com address that will expand the already congested commercial domain space into a new frontier. That's expected to translate into hundreds of millions of dollars in registry fees over the years, money no one but the new owner of the .us domain will see.

It's similar to what happened with the .com, .net and .org domains, when VeriSign, Inc., was given management powers over the Internet's most popular extensions, a process that was designed to bring stability to the fledgling world wide Web (WWW). It didn't work out quite the way the government intended, and many advocates consider VeriSign a monopoly with a stranglehold on the industry.

Critics and Congressmen alike were taken aback by the government's decision to declare a 44-day-long Request for Quotation (RFQ) to any business with a desire to run the .us domain extension.

Edward Markey (D-MA), ranking Democrat on the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet called the .us domain space a "public resource" that should be managed in a way that reflects American values, and at least provide recompense to taxpayers.

"If the Bush Administration intends to give this valuable public resource away to private entities, taxpayers must be compensated," Markey wrote in his letter. "If private entities are to be permitted to commercialize the .us ccTLD and profit from its management, it would be far better to transfer management to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The FCC could then sell .us at auction to the highest bidder, rather than permitting NTIA to give away this valuable resource without adequately recouping its value for American taxpayers."

Clyde Ensslin, a spokesperson at the DoC, said the NTIA has been holding discussions for a long time now about the fate of the domain and doesn't understand why critics are just now coming out of the woodworks to protest. "The process has been open to the public and competitive and fair," he said.

But Michael Froomkin, a University of Miami law professor and an editor of advocacy site ICANNwatch.com, has been watching the .us domain extension rhetoric increase the past couple months as the DoC put the domain extension on the open market.

While he agrees the NTIA has been good about opening the year-long discussion to all takers about the fate of the ccTLD, the follow through has been less than exemplary.

"They completely ignored the comments or results of the discussion (they gathered)," Froomkin said. "It's certainly true that they've been in discussions for a long time, but this RFQ came out of the blue."

What has many critics of the .us domain transfer of power concerned, however, isn't so much the DoC's failure to get any money for the domain, but the sweeping powers the new owners will have over the relatively untapped soon-to-be-commercial extension and the lack of restrictions to oversee the .us overseers.

Right now, the organizations occupying the .us domain space are largely K-12 schools, community/technical schools and state and local government agencies. And in many instances, they don't pay a domain name fee for their presence on the Web. All that will likely change when the new owners move in and take charge.

It's likely because the new owners of the .us ccTLD, in addition to having managerial control over the .us registry, will have complete oversight authority over how the domain is handled with registrars. So, if that means officials in charge of the .us registry decide its time to start charging a fee every year or that certain reporting requirements are necessary that by coincidence favor one company over the other, well that's too bad for everyone else.

That's like giving the fox the keys to the chicken coopor giving control of the Internet Corporation for Names and Numbers (ICANN) to VeriSign. The two organizations, founded when the government ceded control of .com, .net and .org, have been under fire for years about the cozy relationship the two maintain when it comes to retaining the "stability" of the Internet through their version of managed care of the domain business.

The terms of the RFQ document has raised red flags with advocates everywhere. Following are some of the factors that will prove to the NTIA a business is a viable candidate:

  • Administer the domain at no cost to the government.
  • Have a plan in writing describing how to expand the number of registrants on the domain.
  • Implement a "sunrise policy" for trademark owners.
  • Have a plan in place to allow only people from the U.S. to own the domain.
  • Implement a Uniform Domain Name Resolution Procedure (UDRP).
  • Abide by government advisory committee principles to avoid conflicts with U.S. law.
  • Submit and publicize a progress report six months after taking over the ccTLD, to prove the company is abiding by its obligations.

Kathryn Kleiman, director of the Association for Computing Machinery's (ACM) Internet governance project, said the NTIA's insistence to include measures like the UDRP, political compromises brokered and written by Louis Touton, ICANN general counsel, to appease big corporations and small domain players alike, infringe on basic U.S. First Amendment rights.

"The requirement of UDRP is extremely dangerous," Kleiman said. "It is not consistent with the rights and protections existing under the U.S. First Amendment. The first amendment protections are much broader than what are given to people who use the UDRP, which is not a fair and accurate reflection of the balance, under U.S. law, of the trademark rights of all. This will create a problem in the .us domain space.

In fact, both policies are currently under fire at ICANN, as more and more resolutions end up favoring big business and leaving the entrepreneur and non-commercial domain registrants with the short end of the stick.

Kleiman, one of several advisors during the drafting of the UDRP, said that with as many problems as the measure is facing in the international arena, applying it to the .us domain space will spell disaster. Also, the inclusion of a sunrise policy, which allows trademark owners to reserve their domain name before any others can take it, is inherently flawed and unnecessary.

"We have the anti cybersquatting Act, so we don't need the UDRP or sunrise policy," Kleiman said. "We also have the history of the UDRP, which shows it overwhelmingly and unfairly favors trademark owners over anyone else. We have to fix the UDRP first: it's not appropriate to extend it anywhere else, particularly the U.S."

The ACM joined a growing list of organizations that includes Congressmen and schools when it sent a letter to Department of Commerce Chairman Donald Evens, calling for an extension to the RFQ process. Letters have been pouring into Evan's office lately, letters the DoC will be hard-pressed to brush off with glib reassurances.

The Senate Commerce Committee also threw its weight behind opposing the RFQ process, with a letter asking for a delay until the DoC names a new NTIA director, which has been left unfilled since Bush came into office and named Evans to the DoC.

Ernest Hollings, Commerce chairman, proposed a non-profit organization to take the reins.

"Several organizations have proposed that this domain be administered by a non-profit entity that would use any profits from registering domain names for activities which would promote the public interest," Hollings wrote to Evans. "This seems consistent with the Administration's interest in promoting competition for domain names while at the same time allowing this resource to continue to benefit the public."

DoC spokesperson Ensslin said the agency plans on responding to lawmaker and organization concerns publicly in the near future, but was unable to comment on whether that would be before or after the RFQ date.