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Dyson Comes Out Swinging at NSI in Response to Nader Letter

By Nick Patience

Late last week, veteran US consumer advocate Ralph Nader entered the increasingly fractious world of internet domain name and numbering politics. Nader and Jamie Love of the Consumer Project on Technology wrote to Esther Dyson, the interim chairman of the Internet Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) asking that she and the interim board respond to a set of specific questions about ICANN’s intentions and the scope of its powers.

Yesterday Dyson responded with a lengthy letter to Nader and Love, which strongly criticized the role of Network Solutions Inc in the whole process and accused the company of putting up fierce resistance to ICANN’s attempts to introduce competition into the domain name registration business. NSI expressed itself stunned at the contents of Dyson’s letter, which it described as a director attack on NSI and says, it appears that anyone that disagrees with the ICANN board will be subject to attack. NSI emphasized that it has never had any contact with Mr Nader or any of his representatives. Love was in Australia yesterday and unavailable by press time.

Dyson says the letter is not in response to any belief that CPT was acting as a patsy for NSI or anybody else. Rather, she says it is an opportunity to put some legitimate answers to some legitimate questions. She says the questions keep getting asked, but nobody pays any attention to the answers. It seems as if relations between ICANN and NSI have reached a nadir as Dyson says that ICANN has tried to work with NSI over the past few months, but now the board has decided that it hasn’t worked. Hence, this response to these particular questions.

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We’re not absolutely certain how CPT got involved but we know that in late April, Michael Sondow, through his International Congress of Independent Internet Users (ICIIU) was trying to secure support from Nader and the CPT. Sondow says he and others didn’t exactly get Nader and Love involved in the process, but succeeded in demonstrating to them that it will affect consumers, possibly adversely, and that there wasn’t yet any adequate consumer participation. Nader made his name in the 1960s when he exposed General Motors’ Corvair automobile as being unsafe and prone to tipping over in his book ‘Unsafe At Any Speed.’ Nader established the CPT in 1995 and last year lobbied in support of the Department of Justice’s antitrust case against Microsoft Corp.

Specifically, CPT asked ICANN if it has any intention of making decisions regarding how trademarks affect domain names, whether ICANN will use its control over root name servers to block access to any IP address or domain name, whether or not ICANN intends levying fees for the use of domain names and also whether the ICANN board is making substantive policy decisions before a membership is in place.

Dyson’s reply, which was she worked on over the weekend in conjunction with ICANN president, Mike Roberts, starts with a potted history of the subject and then answers some of CPT’s points. Dyson acknowledges Nader and Love as long-time champions of individual rights and against monopolies, and as such you hold common cause with us, she says.

She explains that the 1998 US government white paper set out no internet governance role for anyone, let alone a body like ICANN, which was granted its mandate by the US Commerce Department in November 1998. She then explains the resistance that has been put up by NSI, which she points out, is understandable, as it currently has a monopoly.

However, as of June 7, one of NSI’s two monopolies was broken when Register.com began registering names directly into the NSI- controlled registry, which is the other half of NSI’s monopoly, which is due to be relinquished in September 2000. As of yesterday, Register.com had registered 10,000 domains in .com, .net and .org through this arrangement, and two of the other four accredited companies are expected to be up and running by the end of this week. Dyson says that anybody who

understands this market will be able to understand ICANN’s fundamental message over and above whether or not NSI now has some limited competition.

Dyson alleges that NSI has been funding individuals to throw sand in the gears whenever possible. NSI has indeed hired various individuals in the community as consultants, but it claims that is to provide input on what goes on in the various meetings that have been held around the world, rather than to campaign on its behalf. Dyson has been criticized recently for not disclosing some promotion for her books on IBM Corp’s web site. Some of IBM’s senior executives are closely involved in various aspects of the spats over the domain name system. She says that was a one-off deal that was actually done with IBM’s advertising agency and calls on those hired by NSI to fully disclose their interests.

Just over a third of the way through the letter Dyson moves on to Nader and Love’s specific issues. On intellectual property and trademarks, Dyson explains that the white paper asked the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) to look into the areas where trademarks, which it did, and the ICANN board accepted most of its findings, passing the rest on to the domain name supporting organization (DNSO), which will form policy in this area and then make recommendations to the ICANN board.

On the root server question, Dyson says that ICANN does not yet control the root server network, but that it does administer TLD assignments and related root server policies in the same manner as its predecessor, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA).

Financially, Dyson says ICANN does not expect the $1 fee per domain name that ICANN will charge the registrars to increase; rather it expects it to decrease as start-up costs are reduced. As for making decisions before a membership is in place, that question is, in our opinion, somewhat fatuous as ICANN’s board obviously has to make substantive decisions otherwise nothing would ever get done. However, one of those decisions is deciding upon a membership structure, which Dyson says had proven complicated as it is important that the membership process is open fair and resistant to fraud.

Dyson concludes by saying that much progress has been made, despite the direct and indirect opposition of NSI. It seems the landscape has changed once and for all and some opinions that have been muttered under the breath for months are now out in the open.
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