Shots were fired, territory invaded, treachery was afoot and, although the smoke has temporarily cleared, what remains is an edgy standoff between three cyber superpowers whose expansionist ambitions are not secret.
In December, the Internet Ad Hoc Committee, a new and self-appointed regulatory body, released a proposal to add new top-level domain names as add-ons to the familiar .com, .org and .net designations. The organization also recommended the establishment of companies to compete with InterNIC, the present clearinghouse for operating, registering and administering domain names.
The IAHC gave the Internet community just a month to respond to its recommendations. Not surprisingly, given the short time frame and the intervening holidays, few responses were filed. On Feb. 4, the IAHC issued its final report, largely ignoring the few comments it did receive.
Conspicuously absent from membership in the IAHC is Network Solutions Inc., the corporate parent of InterNIC.
NSI has a contract with the National Science Foundation to administer .com, .net and .org through 1998. At the end of 1998, NSI's contract with NSF expires, leaving the ongoing administration of these three top-level domain names open to bidding in the marketplace. Until then, no one can force NSI to share administration of .com, .net or .org.
NSI has been very quiet throughout the IAHC proceedings, leaving some in the industry to speculate that NSI has no intention of cooperating with IAHC. Like Sony and Betamax, that would certainly create confusion and inefficiency for Internet users.
Others speculate that NSI will sue IAHC and its members if they attempt to subvert NSI's business with competing domains.
Alternic is a loose association of independent companies that administers a network of top-level domains through their own computer systems. At present, there are more than 30 such companies. Their collective view of the Internet and domain maintenance has a decided bias in favor of free competition. If someone wants to set up a new top-level domain and has the assets and equipment to do so, then Alternic says that's fine, as long as the domains don't interfere with one another.
Rights to second-level domain names on any top-level domain are on a first-come, first-served basis with disputes resolved in the courts. Known as "enhanced domain names systems," or eDNS, they include such top-level domains as .sex, .corp, .xxx, .web, .arts and others. Generally, Alternic top-level domain names are indicative of the content one will find at sites using that domain.
IAHC members claim eDNS is not as reliable as the traditional Internet system. Obviously, Alternic denies that accusation. As if to add to the intrigue, the IAHC chose two Alternic-administered top-level domain names within the seven new domains it proposed-.arts and .web. Doing so sets the stage for direct confrontation, putting the IAHC at odds with Alternic and in the role of the bully trying to run the smaller Alternic out of town.
Complicating the problem is the fact that some Alternic companies are financially capable of fighting for their turf on the Internet. Proof is evident in the suit filed Feb. 27 by Image Online Design, the operator of .web, to stop the IAHC from implementing its plan.
IAHC supporters are heralding the latest proposal as a major step toward relieving overcrowding on the Internet and introducing competition with InterNIC. Alternic supporters are rallying against the proposal as an illegal attempt to monopolize the Internet and interfere with their businesses. Sphinxlike, NSI remains silent. At this stage, accusations by all three parties are flying like bullets on the e-mail circuit, testimony as to just how brutal and ugly arguments can become on the Internet.
It is unsettling that all three groups claim Internet turf without the least regard for those who inhabit and use the territory. In their imperial presumptuousness, they're not unlike the earliest settlers who came to America, oblivious of the fact that the land was already occupied. The Internet, already a lawless place, could become an even more chaotic battlefield if companies with enough hardware, software and cash are allowed to do as they please. The result would be conflicting domains that interfere with commerce on the Net, and could eventually bring the whole system to a halt.
Thus far, this entire conflict has percolated without the participation of the ad and marketing community-the primary source of revenues needed to run and expand the Net. Last week, the World Intellectual Property Organization, one of the IAHC members, invited the Coalition for Advertising Supported Information & Entertainment to attend a meeting in Geneva April 28 to 30 to discuss the IAHC proposal. In addition, the IAHC is planning public forums in Washington the week of April 14 to present its proposal. While advertisers and marketers may not be able to stop the cataclysm, they should certainly warn the Internet warriors against rash actions and firing any wild shots.
The Internet is still an untested and fragile medium. There are many traditional media out there to channel information to consumers. If the Internet becomes any more unreliable, confusing or unstable, everybody suffers. And the advertising and marketing community may well close its pocketbook, pulling the plug on the whole promising enterprise.
Mr. Wood is a partner in the law firm of Hall Dickler Kent Friedman & Wood, New York.