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Hands Off Net Names, Mr. Official

The scarcity of memorable Internet addresses, like the shortage of memorable phone numbers, is causing problems for companies and organizations looking for a presence on the World Wide Web. The government has proposed to restructure the Internet to solve the problem, in the same way that phone companies add new area codes. But the White House needs to listen to the free thinkers of the Net who want less bureaucracy in the details.

The Internet is not a physical place, of course, but there is in fact a location where its global web of connections is arranged, and it’s right here in Southern California. The Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, or IANA, is a federally funded technical organization based at USC’s Information Sciences Institute in Marina del Rey.

IANA has successfully coordinated Internet operations for the past 15 years. But in 1993, as the Internet’s growth took off, the government gave part of IANA’s job, “domain naming,” to a private Virginia-based company. The company, Network Solutions Inc., now assigns domain names--Internet addresses like latimes.com and whitehouse.gov. The Internet contained around 1.5 million domain names in 1993; now it has more than 30 million. Network Solutions, which charges a yearly $50 fee to domain name-holders, has been netting huge profits.

But the supply of useful names is running out and the Clinton administration has proposed that one for-profit company be allowed to manage name-giving in each of the domains (.gov, .com, .org, .edu and .net) and in some new ones. One company would hand out addresses ending in ".com,” another in the newly created ".arts” (for entertainment and cultural groups) and so on.

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In a rare display of solidarity, the Internet community has condemned the administration plan, known as the Green Paper. While the administration argues that competition would drive down registration fees, it would more probably lead the new private companies to sell names to the highest bidders. And the administration’s proposal to extend federal oversight of Internet naming to September 2000 is just as unpopular.

The administration has gone back to the drawing board and should look at a plan completed last week by a coalition of Internet groups called Core, which proposes that seven new domains be created, to be assigned by an all-new, nongovernmental and nonprofit IANA. Key to Core’s plan is that IANA would distribute names not to the highest bidders but on the basis of the activity of the domain name seekers: for instance, ".shop” would go to stores that sell goods, while ".info” would go to companies that sell data and ".nom” to individuals who have Web sites.

This is not to say that the government has no role. It’s needed to protect the rights of individuals from being invariably trumped by trademark owners. Clearly the present situation can stand some improvement. Last week the private company Network Solutions told 12-year-old Christopher Van Allen that beginning next month he will have to suspend operations of his Web site, pokey.org, which uses his nickname, because the Prema Toy Co. owns a trademark for the Pokey cartoon character.

The days of the old, anarchic Internet are over. But the free and communitarian spirit that has allowed the Internet to thrive should not be killed in the name of orderliness.

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