Network Solutions delayed the much-anticipated launch of its Internet search engine Monday as federal officials challenged the company's claim to own the critical database of Internet address names on which the search engine is based.
Herndon, Va.-based Network Solutions compiled the database of about 5 million Internet addresses during the six years it held an exclusive government contract to register Web addresses ending in .com, .net and .org. The company says it owns the database because its own employees created it.
But the U.S. Department of Commerce contends that because the database was compiled under a government contract, it should be regarded as public property.
Ownership of the valuable database has emerged as a major point of contention as Network Solutions prepares to relinquish its government-sanctioned monopoly. The Commerce Department has decreed that the registration of Internet addresses, or "domain names," is to be handled by competing private companies.
Over the last several months, Network Solutions has limited public access to information in the database. In March, for instance, it shut down the public Web site where people could search for domain names and their owners and directed visitors to its own corporate site, which critics say is more cumbersome to use and in some cases less informative. The information, however, remains free of charge.
In a letter sent last week to Network Solutions Chief Executive James Rutt, Commerce Department General Counsel Andrew Pincus said the company's proposed launch of its search engine, to be known as the "Dot Com Directory," highlights the necessity of resolving the dispute quickly.
"We have no objection to NSI's new service," Pincus wrote in a letter dated July 23 and made public Monday. "But, as you know, we strongly object to NSI's restrictive policy."
Network Solutions spokeswoman Cheryl Regan said the delay in launching the Dot Com Directory was due to technical--not political--considerations and the site should be up in a few days.
NSI would consider licensing the database to other companies so that they could develop competing services, Regan said.
Pincus' letter seems to make room for such a compromise. If NSI agrees to share access to the Internet address data, he indicated, the company may be justified in charging a fee to recover the costs it would incur to make the data available.