CANN they?
How L.A. Governs --and May Yet Overthrow -- the Internet

By Matt Welch and Emmanuelle Richard


Marina del Rey might seem like an odd place to install the Secret Global Government, but Southern California has always provided fertile ground for weird state/free-enterprise partnerships and the crackpot libertarian movements that fear them. If the Internet was plugged in at UCLA, and the Stealth Bomber built in Burbank, why *shouldn't* control over the World Wide Web's suffixes -- .com, .net, .org, and their cousins -- be exerted by an obscure organization west of the 405? And if Pasadena can produce Scientology while Orange County helps birth the John Birch Society, it makes perfect sense that some of the most creative circumvention of the New Internet Order is already springing from what might soon be known as ".la."

On Nov. 16, the Marina del Rey-based Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the organization with the unhappy and hellishly complicated mission of privatizing the domain-name registration business while simultaneously establishing the basic rules of Internet governance, finally announced the seven new "top-level domains" (TLDs), that will expand the Web universe some time during 2001, pending approval from the U.S. Department of Commerce. Already beseiged with heavy, broad-based criticism, from regulation-hating libertarians, regulation-loving Naderites, trademark-protecting corporations and non-Americans wondering just why a Southern California think-tank should affect their lives at all, ICANN pleased very few with its selections -- .aero, .biz, .coop, .info, ..museum, .name and .pro.

"I thought they could have and should have created many more suffixes," said leading ICANN critic David Post, co-director of the Cyberspace Law Institute at Temple University, publisher of icannwatch.org, and a self-described "Jeffersonian" in a cyber-world he fears is taking on an ominously Hamiltonian bent. "The processes are much more important than the result of the meeting. This restriction looks like [ICANN] increases its own power and its own money. It looks like they have given special favors to applicants, and I don't know why they chose the ones they did. I suspect, always, the worse. Power corrupts, and they are now exercising a kind of power that is very worrisome."

How that power ended up on the Westside is understandable enough to those who are familiar with the local aerospace industry. In 1972, the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), a Defense Department-created organization that funded the beginning of what was then known as the ARPAnet, decided it needed a permanent research institution -- something between a university and a military contractor -- to oversee and tinker with this new network of university computers. The task was handed to the Rand Corporation, which then sought a university partnership. UCLA was the natural choice to run the thing, given Professor Leonard Kleinrock's central role in developing and applying the packet-switching theory that forms the basis of Internet technology, but the Bruins blanched at the timing, which gave their rival Trojans an opening. So the University of Southern California created an off-campus Information Sciences Institute on Admiralty Way. For the next 15 years, the Internet was basically run from ISI's 12th floor, a few blocks from Venice Beach.

By the mid-1980s, as thousands of universities and research centers piled onto the ARPAnet, it became necessary to humanize the laborious process of typing elaborate numerical routing codes just to send and receive information, such as common e-mail. So the ISI's John Postel, one of the dozen or so people who can lay legitimate claim to being a "father" of the Internet, devised the Domain Name System (DNS) and Internet Assigned Names Authority (IANA), whereby hierarchical English-language names were assigned to the numbers that the various computers were communicating with behind the scenes. Until the mid-'90s, Postel was basically a one-man caretaker of the database and navigational language of the entire Internet.

When the World Wide Web graphical interface changed the world in 1993, a new system was needed. The National Science Foundation transferred oversight of the name-registry database and granted an exclusive five-year contract to sell domain names at .com, .net and .org, to a private Virginia-based company called Network Solutions. Meanwhile, the Dept. of Commerce and a whole hell's broth of early online advocates butted heads over how to modernize Postel's job to fit the new era. By 1997, after several fits and starts, it was Postel himself who came up with idea of ICANN -- a private non-profit dedicated to parceling out Internet names and numbers, and promoting competition for domain-name registration. The great scientist died less than a month before ICANN made its debut November 1998.

Two years later, ICANN is a growing entity, headed by TCP/IP protocol inventor Vinton Cerf (another "father of the Internet), who oversees an unruly committee of appointed and elected members who spend $6 million a year. Network Solutions was stripped of its monopoly on selling names, but was still attractive enough to be bought for $15 billion by VeriSign Global Registry Services, despite having 60 new competitors.

Heading into November's meeting, most of the talk was about how ICANN needed to expand the range of suffixes, which at 20 million-plus for dot-coms alone (out of 32 million Web addresses overall) was starting feel crowded. The committee invited consortiums of potential domain-guardians to make their cases for $50,000 a suffix, which limited official entries to 44. There was a strong push to create a .sex or .xxx, to more effectively ghettoize pornography, or conversely a .kids to create a smut-free zone. Presidential candidate Ralph Nader advocated .sucks and .complaints; meanwhile many business leaders wanted to keep the field narrow, to avoid having to buy scores of domain-names just to protect their trademarks.

It was a no-win situation, and after the seven head-scratching names were announced (.aero, anyone?), ICANN members were on the defensive.

"I think people vastly overrate the importance of the [domain] name over running the company well," outgoing ICANN chair and New Ecomony guru Esther Dyson snapped to reporters at the naming conference.

But regardless of whether ICANN created too few names or too many, the market is blooming with end-around solutions to solve every perceived inadequacy, and much of the action is taking place in Southern California.

Hollywood, for example, is warming up to a Redwood City company called RealNames, which is selling keywords instead of domains, so that users can type a brand name in Internet Explorer and then be directed straight to that company's website.

"ICANN has good intentions. They want to create competition for people selling domain names. From the user point of view though, it's a bad idea," argues RealNames Chief Technology Officer Nicolas Popp. "If there are too many TLDs, it creates confusion. It's already hard enough to find things on the Internet. Now, from the RealNames prospective, it's of course a great opportunity. If people don't know what to type after the dot, [they] will probably drop the dot and start using keywords, which is a more natural way to navigate anyway."

To avoid cyber-squatting, RealNames sells a keyword "only to a company who owns the trademark or which has user expectation," Popp said, and the buyer does not have the right to resell. In Southern California, RealNames customers include CarsDirect, eStyle, Mattel, Virgin Megastore and New Line Cinema.

"We began integrating keywords on all of our properties [since the beginning of 1999]. We've had a great relationship with RealNames," said Gordon Paddison, New Line's senior vice president of worldwide interactive marketing and business development. "If there is a conflict about a keyword, like if the name of my movie happens to be 'Clorox,' the keyword would link you to a choice. The goal in their mind as well as in my mind is to eliminate consumer confusion, because at the end of the day I don't want the people who want to find Clorox Bleach. I want people who want to find my movie to find it, even if they have to stumble across the bleach."

RealNames also divvies up the keywords by country and by language -- something that is not possible within "dot-com," for example -- and in fact hopes to license its keyword-registration business to local companies all over the world.

"We say names are not global, they mean something in a geopolitical context and when you have TLDs you create collision," Popp said. "There's no human system where the names are global; even trademarks are unique within a given territory. By creating all these TLDs you have these people rushing and competing and all these lawsuits, because identities collide. In the U.S., "ft" means "Financial Times." In France, it's "France Telecom."

Though ICANN finally -- this fall -- started to recognize characters from non-Roman alphabets (Chinese, Korean and Japanese), the world beyond U.S. shores is actually providing much of the impetus for getting around the Marina del Rey chokehold altogether. At least 244 countries now have their own suffix, and some of the poorer ones are licensing them to the highest bidder.

DotTV Corp., a Pasadena-based company funded by Idealab, famously purchased the 10-year rights to the ".tv" suffix from the tiny Pacific island nation of Tuvalu (pop. 10,000) for a guaranteed $40 million earlier in 2000, and and then registered more than 100,000 names in the first six months. That number should explode, now that VeriSign has led a $28 million round of financing, and agreed to add DotTV applicants to the valuable Network Solutions database.

Other island countries that have traded their suggestive "country codes" for dot-com millions include Mauritius (.mu), the Cocos Islands (.cc), and several others are expected to be announced in 2001.

But for Southlanders, the biggest news may be that, as of Jan. 2, they can begin to reserve ".la." A company called dotLA, whose website at this point consists of a smiling blonde with shades and pearls riding a convertible through Hollywood, announced in December that it would henceforth be peddling the suffix that otherwise belongs to Laos. The company, which obtained use of the domain through a three-year-old Florida venture capital company called Sterling Holdings that has ties to the Bush family, has started pre-registration at $200 for the first year, $100 thereafter. And not just for Los Angeles -- dotLA hopes to do good business in Louisiana and Latin America as well.

Since roughly a third of ICANN's funding comes from contributions extracted from the regimes governing each individual country, there is some grumbling that dissatisfied customers will simply pull out of the Marina del Rey root-server system, and create an alternative network. For now, that threat seems empty, since anyone participating would seem to be doomed to obscurity. The domain-registration companies that operate outside of ICANN's orbit but don't want to outright rebel, must ensure that their packet-switching protocols are recognized by the dominant databases, and it behooves them to have a method to settle intellectual property disputes -- dotTV has its own special system, for instance, while ICANN, Network Solutions and most others defer to the World Intellectual Property Organization.

For now, ICANN can consider itself lucky that the great dot-com collapse of 2000 has all but erased memories of those crazy days when companies just up Lincoln Blvd. a stretch shelled out $7.5 million for domain names like business.com. The organization might be outflanked by energetic start-ups, and feared by those who, in Cerf's words, "enjoy ... all sorts of fantasies of global government," but there's nothing like a popped bubble to tone down emotions.

"I want ICANN to be invisible -- there is a committee somewhere, an international telecommunications union that makes sure that when I dial a number in Mozambique, it gets through," said icannwatch.org's Post. "But I don't think ICANN has gone to far yet. ... Esther Dyson is not Dr. Evil." Z