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Advocates Sign Global Accord on Internet Domain Names

Cyberspace: But a California Web site design firm--saying it reserved the right to assign addresses that end in ".web"--files a lawsuit to halt the agreement.


Dignitaries from the Internet community signed an international agreement in Geneva on Thursday that is designed to bring a degree of self-governance to the global computer network. But advocates of the plan had little time to celebrate before they had to defend the accord in a Santa Monica courtroom.

The agreement, a memorandum of understanding, was devised by the Internet Society, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority--which is operated by USC's Information Sciences Institute in Marina del Rey--the United Nations' International Telecommunications Union and other organizations that help administer the loosely governed global computer network. Several major companies--including MCI Communications, Digital Equipment Corp., UUNet Technologies and France Telecom--have voiced support for the plan.

The agreement aims to increase the Internet's capacity for domain names--the online version of addresses or telephone numbers--to accommodate the millions of companies, organizations and individuals that have been flocking to the Net in search of fame or fortune.

Since 1993, Network Solutions Inc. of Herndon, Va., has administered the registration of Internet domain names under a contract from the National Science Foundation. But many worry that demand for Web addresses with the ".com" suffix will soon surpass the remaining supply. The Geneva plan will create seven new categories of domain names that end in suffixes such as ".firm," ".store," ".info" and ".web" and empower 28 new companies to join Network Solutions in the domain name registration business.

Chris Ambler, president of a San Luis Obispo Web site design firm, asked Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Alan B. Habner to issue a temporary restraining order that would have prevented the agreement from taking effect. He said his company, Image Online Design, had previously reserved the right to assign Web addresses that end in ".web" and therefore stands to lose business if the Geneva plan gains wide acceptance.

But Habner, who describes himself as "technically challenged," declined Thursday to put the agreement on hold. He said he is reluctant to have a California trial court derail the efforts of Internet experts around the world and is not convinced that Image Online has a legitimate claim to ".web" domain names.

Although the international ad hoc committee has cleared its first legal challenge, more daunting obstacles remain. Several important players, including key Internet service providers, the United States and the European Commission, have yet to endorse the plan.

Earlier in the week, Secretary of State Madeline Albright said the U.S. government "has concerns" about the committee's authority to implement the plan. The United States is still studying the matter and has decided to remain neutral on the proposal for now, she said.

The European Commission's reservations stem from concerns that its member countries did not have enough say on the committee. The Internet grew out of a U.S. Defense Department project to link American computers in a way that would survive a nuclear attack, and most of the world's Internet experts are based in the U.S.

Private companies have criticized the plan for not doing enough to promote competition for domain name registration. The 28 new players will be chosen in a lottery administered by consulting firm Arthur Andersen and will have to pay a $20,000 fee if chosen.

Donald Telage, senior vice president of Network Solutions, said the plan is too bureaucratic and doesn't do enough to protect the Internet's physical infrastructure. Network Solutions currently earmarks 30% of the money it collects in registration fees for equipment upgrades, but its contract with the National Science Foundation is set to expire next year.

Two consortiums of Internet access providers have also criticized the plan for not including enough free market principles.

It's not clear that any of the objectors could stop the plan from going forward. However, the plan's success depends on its widespread acceptance. For example, a disgruntled ISP could block access to Web sites ending in one of the new suffixes, although none have threatened to do so.

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