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Beyond dot-com: Net group grapples with new names

ICANN focusing on growing pains and cybersquatters

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NEW YORK — Dot-movie. Dot-protest. Even dot-sex?

The organization that coordinates the Internet's address books meets this week in Yokohama, Japan, to consider adding domain names such as these to the familiar .com, .net and .org.

If the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (www.icann.org) succeeds, the Net will stay easy to navigate. Otherwise, like a telephone system ringing only some phones, some sites may be out of reach. Or as simple addresses run out, users may flounder online.

So just as our growing phone system constantly needs more area codes, the Internet needs more domain names. Adding them is as effortless as changing a few lines of programming code, but agreeing to do so is tough.

"There really are people with different interests," says Esther Dyson, ICANN's chairwoman. "We need to reconcile this in a way so that even if you lose something, you feel the process is fair."

The hurdle is the latest for ICANN, chosen by the U.S. government in 1998 to take over Internet naming duties. Growing pains come as no surprise: It is a coalition of non-government volunteers trying to assume government functions, without any power to enforce policies.

"There's very little in the way of a road map," says Don Simon, general counsel for Common Cause in Washington.

Disputes are inevitable, acknowledges Richard Forman, chief executive of Register.com, a New York company that registers Internet addresses.

"There was a lot of acrimony among the states negotiating and signing the Declaration of Independence," he says. "Every time you work on something revolutionary, it's not easy to do."

Last month, several countries complained of taxation without representation when ICANN tried to collect nearly $1.5 million for domain suffixes specific to countries, such as ".uk" for United Kingdom. The money makes up almost one-third of ICANN's budget.

Then Afternic.com, which brokers existing domain names in the United States, sued ICANN over permission to register new ones. In a settlement announced Friday, ICANN agreed to the request, with conditions.

Larger issues are contentious as well. When ICANN proposed a council to appoint its board, civic groups complained the process was undemocratic. ICANN caved in and will let Internet users directly elect five of 19 board members.

Other critics, citing delays getting new domain names, complain that ICANN favors businesses over individuals. Large corporations with valuable trademarks have resisted new names because of cybersquatters — individuals who grab domain names for up to $35 apiece for resale at thousands, even millions of dollars.

The delays, in turn, create a scarcity that fosters cybersquatting, says Jonathan Weinberg, a Wayne State University professor who advises ICANN on naming.

Registrants are snatching domain names — 5 million in the first three months of 2000, or nearly 40 names a minute. New sites are getting longer or harder to remember. For instance, "ama-assn.org" or "americanmedicalassociation.org" will get you to the physicians' group. Its well-known acronym, AMA, will get you to the American Marketing Association.

New suffixes mean more choices. Take cars. Cars.com sells new and used cars. Cars.music might go to The Cars rock band. Cars.fan might reach a fan club. Cars.news might report on the auto industry. And Cars.protest might go to supporters of mass transit.

But what if Ford Motor Co. wants Ford.museum to showcase its cars? Would it have more right to the name than, say, former President Gerald Ford?

Besides trademark questions, ICANN must also consider: How many suffixes to add? Which ones? Who sells them? Who tracks them? Who resolves disputes?

Tired of waiting, one company now offers the unsanctioned ".web," reachable only from specially configured computers. A few companies also have begun registering names with non-English characters, even though Net equipment is designed for English.

ICANN wants to go slow, likely to approve only a few new suffixes such as ".museum" and ".protest." Some suffixes such as ".movie" might be open only to movie sites, while a ".sex" or ".xxx" suffix might mark porn sites. Others would be available to anyone.

Preliminary meetings begin Wednesday, and key decisions could come Sunday. The current proposal calls for starting bids in August and awarding contracts in December to register new names. ICANN likely won't specify suffixes at the meeting, leaving suggestions to companies and organizations.

The discussions are over global names. Consideration of regional names come separately. The European Commission wants an ".eu" suffix to unify European businesses. Earlier this year, ICANN approved ".ps" for the Palestinian territories.

Domain names help Internet users find sites without remembering numeric addresses assigned to each Net computer. For example, type Microsoft.com and you automatically get the Web site known in computerese as ""

The translation occurs through directories known as root servers. The Commerce Department controls the world's 13 official root servers; as the government's agent, ICANN has tremendous influence over which names get added.

The new global names would be the first since the Net went commercial and would show whether ICANN can formalize a system run informally since the Internet's birth 30 years ago.

Past decisions largely fell to Internet pioneer Jon Postel, who initially kept a list of names and numbers on paper. As the Internet grew in the 1980s, Postel helped create the current address structure, using generic suffixes such as ".com" and more than 200 specific ones for individual countries.

In 1998, just as Postel was organizing ICANN to formalize naming, he died and left the Internet without a trusted leader. So, notes ICANN's Dyson, the organization squabbled over its charter and mission, and it made mistakes such as meeting behind closed doors.

ICANN has opened registration of names to competition and created a process to resolve naming disputes. But success comes slowly.

It's ironic, says Milton Mueller, a Syracuse University professor. Created to remove decisions from politics and government, he says, ICANN is "behaving more and more like world government."

But board member Vinton Cerf, a founding father of the Net, understands how names can generate controversy. When the Net exploded the economy worldwide, even Internet addresses themselves gained value.

He explains: "It boils down to money."