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The 34 meeting of the IETF was held in Dallas, Texas, the first week of December
1995. Hosted by MCI, it was only the second IETF meeting where attendance had exceeded
one thousand registered participants. But it was the first to convene since the Netscape IPO
and the release of Windows 95, and since the NASDAQ stock index had closed over 1000.
Now the Dow was about to broach 5000, a gain of over 20 percent for the year. The Internet
frenzy was well underway, drawing inevitable attention to the wizards of the IETF, who,
behind the scenes, were finding themselves distracted from leading-edge technical work by
the unsolved, age-old political problem of how to divide up and distribute a resource in a way
that could allow all comers to feel were getting a fair share.
Brian Carpenter, Chair of the IAB, took the lead, presenting a paper at a BOF on the
IETF Role in DNS Evolution – DNSEVOLVE. His paper served as the basis for the first
formal Internet draft on how to proceed, emerging after the holidays, on January 22, 1996,
under the name “Delegation of International Top Level Domains (iTLDs).” Co-authored by
Postel, Carpenter, and Bush (who identified himself as “Unaligned geek”), it was filed under
an unusual name – “draft-ymbk-itld-admin-00.txt.”
At first glance, it seemed to follow the normal style for documents in the RFC queue.
Going from back to front: Geeks tend to start numbering at zero. ADMIN flagged
administrative concern. ITLD was a fresh acronym. The “i” suggested international, but
Postel defined it as a category reserved for “generic top level domains open to general
registration.” This was convenient, since he had just arranged with NSI to eliminate
screening in .net and .org, giving them equivalent administrative status with .com. YMBK
reflected less technical content. It stood for “you must be kidding.”
The draft retained Postel’s goal of introducing five iTLDs annually, and fleshed out
procedures for doing so. Selections were to be made sometime in March or April by a seven
member “ad hoc” working group, whose members would be appointed by the IANA, the
IETF, and the IAB. The ad hoc group would be required to develop the finer details of its
own procedures and policies, “in an open process [that] will be clearly documented.”
The draft also stipulated that “Multiple registries for the COM zone, and registries
for new iTLDs will be created.” This formulation hints at the registry/registrar structure that
finally emerged a year later. But the distinctions between the back-end wholesaler and front-
end retailer were still quite vague. The authors didn’t even have the words they needed to
help them say what they hoped to mean. There wasn’t much descriptive vocabulary yet
beyond “domain” and “registry.” In any case, the point was that NSI’s monopoly on .com
was to be terminated by the implementation of some new form of name registration
technology that was still under development.
This was a clear case of high level IETF members doing social engineering rather
than Internet engineering. “There is a perceived need,” the co-authors wrote, “to open the
market in commercial iTLDs to allow competition, differentiation and change.” Beyond their
freelance anti-trust project, they were frank about wanting to perpetuate IANA and protect
Postel. “As the net becomes larger and more commercial, the IANA needs a formal body to
accept indemnity for the touchy legal issues which arise surrounding DNS policy and its
implementation.” The body named, of course, was ISOC.
IANA was seeking more than ISOC’s legal umbrella. Postel needed to find a long-
term source of funding in order to wean IANA from US Government support. The draft
envisioned a structure in which registries would have to pay ISOC $5,000 annually for their
charters. Some of the money would presumably be passed on to IANA.
Locating new sources of income was a pressing issue. DARPA was already scaling
down its contribution to the IETF. The writing was on the wall for the IANA. It would have
been unwise for Postel to count on getting support from the NSF’s new Information
Karl Denninger, “Top Level Domain Delegation Draft, Rev 0.1.” Circulated by Jon Postel as, “Karl
Denninger’s Suggestion,” Newdom-iiia January 29, 1996.
Infrastructure Fund. Mitchell and Strawn had flaunted the original promise to solicit
community input before allowing the imposition of fees, and they could just as easily
overlook the pledge that NSF’s $15 portion of the fees would be used to subsidize IANA.
Under these circumstances, Postel could conceivably do what Kahn and Cerf had
done at CNRI – solicit corporate donations. But there was a better option than begging and
becoming beholden to a benefactor. As the defacto overseer of the IP number space and the
root zone, his gatekeeping power ostensibly included the power to collect tolls, and such
power could be used to lever a steadier source of income.
Postel concluded the ymbk draft with a short appendix that rejected the idea of “A
Thousand Domains Experiment.” Despite its “social appeal,” he had serious concerns. The
first was that dramatic expansion of the TLD space would be an “irreversible decision.” The
second had to do with habits of working that were well known to computer programmers:
“TLDs, like global variables, should be few and created with great care.” Both reasons were
self-consciously moderate, reflecting a deeply ingrained cultural attitude. When moving into
unfamiliar territory, Postel and those close to him preferred to acquire experience
incrementally. When it comes to collective action, technologists tend to be a cautious lot. A
consensus player, Vixie soon withdrew his proposal for thousands of new TLDs and
endorsed Postel’s iterative approach.
Karl Denninger, owner of MCSNet, a major ISP serving northern Illinois and
outlying regions, submitted an alternate proposal just three days later, Jan 25. Postel
circulated it on Newdom, where it drew favorable attention. Denninger had started the biz.*
hierarchy on the UseNet several years before, and was now seeking .biz as his own TLD. He
had clearly put some thought into the trademark issue (informed, no doubt, by careful
attention to the knowledgenet controversy, since the domain holder had relied on Denninger’s
hosting services). Newdom’s members were intrigued by Denninger’s radical approach.333
According to Denninger’s plan, IANA would take responsibility for vetting registries.
It would be empowered to rescind charters, but would otherwise stay out of registry
David Maher, “K. Denninger’s Suggestion,” Newdom-iiia January 29 1996.
administration. Most importantly, Denninger insisted that IANA and the IETF should have
no institutional dependence on funds raised by imposing fees on registries, whether through
charters or redemptions from operations. He believed this would solve the indemnification
problem. If the IANA received no money from the registries, there would be no “deep
pockets” to attract litigants. He was also wary of imposing any kind of registry/registrar
distinctions that had been suggested. As an inveterate free marketer, Denninger’s vision
required leaving any contract details up to the registry and the registrant, thereby fostering
the blossoming (and self-organized weeding out) out of diverse business models.
After a short amount of supportive hubbub, words of caution came from David
Maher, the attorney who had represented MacDonald’s Restaurants during the negotiations
with Josh Quittner. Opening with the disarming admission that “lawyers on this group are
about as popular as a fart in church,” Maher warned that Denninger’s approach wouldn’t free
IANA or anyone else from legal risks.
Indemnifications are worth the paper they are written on (if they
are in writing) plus the net worth of the party giving the
indemnity.... The only solution to the problem is to set up a
system that is perceived as fair by as many users as possible
(including trademark owners) and then provide a due process
mechanism for expeditiously solving the inevitable disputes that
will arise. (creating dictators is not a solution).334
* * *
Maher was a Harvard-trained patent and trademark specialist who liked to dabble in
esoteric subjects like electronic publishing and artificial intelligence. He claims that he was
actually sitting in his office, reading the issue of Wired in which Quittner’s article appeared,
when a MacDonald’s representative called seeking help. After bringing the case to an
amicable conclusion in 1994 he became active in the International Trademark Association
(INTA), and was appointed co-chair of its Internet Task Force. The group produced its report
in July 1995, just before NSI issued its trademark-friendly registration policy. INTA’s Board
International Trademark Association, “Request for Action by the INTA Board of Directors,”
incorporated the report in a “Request for Action” issued on Sept 19, 1995 in response to
NSI’s imposition of fees.335
The trademark community was pressing two types of demands. The first concerned
the legal treatment of domain names: INTA wanted recognition of the fact that domain
names were capable of functioning as trademarks and that their misuse would harm
trademark owners. INTA’s second demand was intended to provide the trademark
community with technical mechanisms by which they could seek to enforce their rights. In
other words, they wanted surveillance mechanisms built into all DNS registries. The demand
had been addressed directly to ISOC.
[T]he Internet Society, its affiliated organizations and the parties operating
under contract with them should make available to the public complete lists
of the domain names in a database format that is accessible through existing
commercial or private computer search techniques.336
Coincidentally, Denninger and Maher were both based in Chicago. But there was no
alliance or meeting of the minds; their strategies diverged ever more widely over time. Maher
was not a technologist by trade, but an outsider pressing a policy likely to cause discomfort
among libertarian-leaning computer enthusiasts. Many such technologists were inherently
suspicious of any attempt to require that Internet core resources – its protocols and essential
infrastructures – be redesigned to serve the purposes of traditional governments and
industries. But Maher showed he was an able politician. He managed to stay engaged while
avoiding antagonistic exchanges. He patiently made his case on newdom, opened
correspondence with many of the players, and even attended IETF meetings (At one, he
sought to endear himself within that surveillance-loathing community by wearing a T-shirt
branded with the logo of a popular encryption application – PGP). He finally won a speaker’s
slot at an upcoming conference on DNS reform, and became a leading player in nearly every
major development which followed.
See the agenda and links to presentations at, http://aldea.com/cix/agenda.html.
Denninger, on the other hand, seemed a likely candidate to become a leader in the
reform community. He was simultaneously entrepreneurial and technical, and came forward
just at the time ISPs were becoming the darlings of the Internet boom. He was also an
outspoken advocate of fashionable policy dogmas such open competition and letting markets
pick winners and losers among innovators. Yet, as we will see, his style was far more
abrasive than Maher’s. Within a few months Denninger would move to the periphery of the
debate and lose any chance of effectiveness.
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