Just months before Network Solutions (NSI) is due to lose its monopoly over the registration of Internet domain names, the company has rankled some of its potential competitors by claiming ownership of InterNIC, a Web site that acts as a registry for some of the most popular top-level Internet domain names.
InterNIC, set up with help from the National Science Foundation, offers a no-frills service where customers can register domain names under the top-level domains including .com, .org and .net for a relatively low price. While NSI has been responsible for InterNIC's management, the question of whether or not the company actually owns the Web site that allows customers to interact with the registry has never arisen. Until now.
Sometime over the weekend, NSI arranged it so that when users type http://www.internic.org/ in their Web browser they are taken automatically to NSI's domain registration home page at http://www.networksolutions.com/. The move effectively blended the two sites into one.
"NSI is claiming ownership over InterNIC, which was never the government's intention when it awarded NSI its contract to manage it," said Rich Forman, president and chief executive officer of register.com, one of the companies that hopes to compete with NSI when the registration process is thrown open to competitors next quarter.
The US government decided last year to end NSI's monopoly on registering top-level domains and is accepting bids from companies that want to compete with NSI as registrars. While other companies will be able to sell domain names along with NSI, NSI itself will remain the registry, or administrator over the entire domain name registration process.
As well as managing InterNIC, NSI offers its own branded registration service on its home page which features a friendlier user interface and additional services such as Web hosting and site promotion. Companies that will compete with NSI say its decision to drive business to that home page using InterNIC.net is foul play.
"People always assumed InterNIC was a public domain, but (NSI) turned it into a private, commercial domain. People should know it's no longer public, because they will end up at (NSI's Web site) whether they want to or not," said Forman at register.com.
A U.S. government spokeswoman said NSI did not consult with the U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC) before the company folded InterNIC into its own Web site. NSI executives are set to brief the DOC tomorrow on what they have done, and until then the department won't pass judgment on whether or not NSI's behavior oversteps the terms of its agreement.
"We are reviewing what NSI did now to make sure the changes, and the procedure by which they were made, were in compliance with the agreement," said Becky Burr, associate administrator for International Affairs at the National Telecommunications Information Administration, which is part of the DOC.
NSI, for its part, says it acted within the bounds of its contract with the DOC. The company responded to customer demand by creating a single, simplified Web site where users can easily register a domain name and access other services, an NSI spokesman said.
"The perception of confusion these potential registrars are spreading -- it's a little self-serving," said NSI spokesman Brian O'Shaughnessy.
One observer said he understands why registrars are upset over NSI's behavior.
"They've essentially taken what they were given via a government contract and turned it into something commercial," said Karl Auerbach, a member of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and a member of the Boston Working Group which has been active in discussions about how to evolve the Internet administration.
However, NSI is only doing what any red-blooded corporation would do in the same position, Auerbach added. "They're taking advantage of every loophole in order to make a profit for their shareholders," he said.
Auerbach and other market observers say the fault may lie with the U.S. government for not crafting its contract with NSI more carefully in the first place, and for not taking firmer action to shape NSI's behavior during the transition from monopoly to competition.
Mike Roberts, interim president and chief executive officer of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), was en route to Washington, D.C., this afternoon to meet with the Commerce Department to discuss NSI's action, and he declined to comment on the matter in detail.
ICANN is the non-profit international group created last year to take over responsibility for all of the Internet oversight, including domain-name system management and NSI.
"The Department of Commerce and NSI have been trying to sort out the pieces of this transition (to competition), and one of the questions was what to do with InterNIC," Roberts said. NSI is "entitled to promote their own business as aggressively as they want to," he added.
NSI, based in Herndon, Virginia, is at http//www.networksolutions.com/. ICANN is at http://www.icann.org/.