The rickety domain name system upon which the Internet currently is based will be crushed in the rapid commercialisation of cyberspace, unless something is done - and soon.
The Internet leaders and experts who attended a conference at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government last month on the coordination and administration of the Internet almost universally agreed on that point.
That, however, is where the consensus ended. In its place arose a sprawling, sometimes contentious, two-day debate fuelled by a collective sense of urgency and a flurry of proposals for handling domain name allocation problems and legal challenges.
The conference was dominated by a man who was not there - Jon Postel of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), whose recently announced plan to add top-level Net domains and award licences to competing domain name registries was the reference point for virtually all discussion.
Since 1993, registrations for names in all top-level domains (.com, .net, .org, .gov and .edu) have been handled by a private company, Network Solutions (NSI) in the US, for the National Science Foundation's Internet Network Information Center (InterNIC) project.
This agreement, argue many members of the Internet community, has given a lucrative government-mandated monopoly to a company ill-equipped to handle the deluge of domain name requests.
Postel's plan would create more top-level domains, with the new registries having exclusive rights to three each. As many as two dozen new registries could be licensed in the US, with a similar number abroad. Supporters of the Postel draft say competition in the top-level domain registration business will benefit the Net.
"Competition is good. Period. It generally lowers prices, it gives better service, and that's one of the objectives," said Don Heath, president of the Internet Society (ISOC). "The Internet is so much bigger than .com or .net. This will facilitate growth."
While his draft does not actively address the deepening legal quagmire involving domain names and trademark rights, Postel has said the existence of business-related domains beyond .com could help avoid costly disputes and lawsuits by companies claiming infringement.
Critics of Postel's plan say that, at best, it naively ignores trademark issues and, at worst, would exacerbate them by introducing more points of conflict. "Say there are three or four other top-level domain registries that start registering trademarked names. Instead of having one conflagration, you're going to have several," said Tony Rutkowski, vice-president for Internet business development at General Magic, and former executive director of ISOC, in an interview.
Rutkowski presented his own proposal to the Kennedy School conference, urging the merger of InterNIC and IANA into a non-profit, narrowly tailored international body that would devise necessary procedures and domain name dispute resolution mechanisms.
Rutkowksi and other critics even question IANA's authority to arbitrarily revise the Domain Name Service (DNS).
Robert Shaw, adviser on global infor- mation infrastructure for the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in Geneva, said the "legal foundation for a group like IANA to do this is a house of cards".
IANA's trustee role in the Internet community will not help the group withstand pressure from litigious corporations that do not care for Postel's plan. "The problem is that registries are a multimillion-dollar business," Shaw said. "Someone will challenge this." Shaw proposed to attendees a way to capitalise on the increasing market value of prestigious domains. "You could generate a tremendous amount of revenue by auctioning off top-level domains," he said.
Other attendees of the conference expressed concern that the endorsement of Postel's plan by ISOC made it a fait accompli. Heath reiterated that, despite the imminent formation of an ad hoc committee to process applications for new registries, "the IANA draft is a draft".
One panelist warned that efforts to sustain any kind of DNS as a Net directory invited perpetual legal problems.
"We're putting ourselves into the middle of a fight we don't need to be in," said Scott Bradner, a consultant with Harvard University's Office of Information Technology. "The longer we continue to go along on the tack that the DNS is the answer, the more fun the lawyers are going to have."
Bradner said the DNS should be "replaced with a good directory service".