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Internet Governance in Crisis: The Political Economy of Top-Level Domains

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Internet Governance in Crisis: The Political Economy of Top-Level Domains

Milton L. Mueller

Rutgers University

USA

Abstract

Different approaches to top-level domain naming embody three conflicting visions of Internet governance. One vision, which bases top-level domain names on ISO 3166 country codes, represents an attempt to force the Internet into the traditional governance structure of nation-states. An alternative vision bases top-level domain names on "generic," meaningful categories and features company or organization names at the second level. A third principle of domain naming puts top priority on the problem of reconciling domain names with company trademarks.

Using this analytical framework, the paper examines the results of the International Ad Hoc Committee (IAHC) decisions and makes two arguments:

(1) "Generic," content-oriented top-level domain naming is the principle best suited to the growth and development of the Internet. Such an approach maximizes competition and choice and minimizes the opportunity for political and legal conflicts inimical to the interests of the user public.

(2) The IAHC decisions of February 1997 issued mixed signals regarding which of the three principles of domain naming will be implemented. The paper argues that this lack of consistency may cause trouble in the future.

Contents

* Introduction

* The crisis of the domain naming system

o The DNS

o Evolution of DNS

o The DNS crisis of 1996

* Three warring principles of domain naming

o Generic TLDs

o Country-code TLDs

o Trademarks and TLDs

* The IAHC's new DNS order

o Mixed signals

* The case for generic TLDs

* Notes

Introduction

Domain naming and registration are crucial to ensuring that all users of the Internet are connected to each other. Because domain names must be unique, their creation and registration have been among the few centralized points of authority in the supposedly open, decentralized world of the Internet. Precisely for that reason, the process of domain naming has served as a lightning rod for legal and political controversies surrounding Internet governance and commercialization.

In early February 1997 a hastily assembled task force called the International Ad Hoc Committee (IAHC) issued a ruling making important changes in the way domain names are administered. Taking this ruling as its point of departure, this paper analyzes the political economy of domain naming and its implications for the future evolution of the Internet. The paper focuses on top-level domain naming in particular. It explains how different approaches to top-level domains embody three conflicting visions of Internet governance. One vision, which bases top-level domain names on ISO 3166 country codes, represents an attempt to force the Internet into the traditional governance structure of nation-states. This approach links top-level domains to national political boundaries, thereby encouraging an alignment of Internet administration and policy with traditional nation-state structures. An alternative vision bases top-level domain names on "generic" names that have some contextual meaning. Examples include ".com," ".gov," ".edu," or any other three-to-five letter string that suggests a distinct type of content or a specific function. These generic top-level domain names are completely disassociated from national political boundaries; registrations under ".com," for example, can be and are made by companies anywhere in the world. A third principle of domain naming puts top priority on the problem of reconciling domain names with company trademarks. This approach attempts to subordinate Internet domain names to prior legal claims for trademark status by finding a way to map domain names, which are internationally unique identifiers, onto trademark registrations, which vary by jurisdiction and by industry.

Using this analytical framework, the paper makes two arguments:

(1) "Generic," content-oriented top-level domain naming is the principle best suited to the growth and development of the Internet. Such an approach maximizes competition and choice and minimizes the opportunity for political and legal interference inimical to the interest of the user public.

(2) The IAHC decisions, while positive in several important respects, did not make a clear or coherent statement regarding which of the three principles of domain naming IAHC plans to pursue. Instead, the plan combined elements of all three approaches. The paper argues that a hybrid approach to domain naming principles is not viable. The inconsistency may cause serious trouble in the future, although it is possible that the problem will resolve itself over time through the choices of users.

The crisis of the domain naming system

Recent controversies over domain naming have produced an abundance of literature explaining what domain naming is and how it works.[1] This paper provides a cursory description of the system, the evolution of top-level domain naming, and its descent into crisis in 1996. Readers who are familiar with the story may want to advance to the next section, Three warring principles of domain naming.

The DNS

In order to be connected to the Internet, each host computer must have a unique Internet Protocol (IP) address. IP addresses are merely long strings of numbers. At their simplest, domain names map IP addresses onto names that users can remember and key into a computer more easily. More importantly, the domain naming system (DNS) divides administrative authority over these names into a hierarchy, starting with top-level domains (TLDs) and proceeding down to second-level domains (SLDs), third-level domains, and so on. Hierarchical organization is required to maintain universal connectivity

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