.Com Rules

Stratton Sclavos, CEO of VeriSign, says his company didn't intend to break anything on the Internet when it launched its Site Finder wild-card service . In fact, Sclavos told me a few days ago, VeriSign spent months testing Site Finder. And it did conform to existing standards. And when Site Finder went live and some things broke, VeriSign went to work fixing them as quickly as possible.

Do I believe him? Sure. But what matters more is that on Oct. 3, when the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers unambiguously told VeriSign to pull the plug on Site Finder, the company complied.

That was the right thing to do. Yes, it came after weeks of brinkmanship, with ICANN issuing advisories and responses and recommendations about Site Finder, and VeriSign declining to reverse its changes to the way the Domain Name System worked, with the level of sound and fury rising daily. But when ICANN finally made a formal demand under its contract with VeriSign, VeriSign did the right thing.

Now the question is whether ICANN and VeriSign will keep doing the right things.

VeriSign needs to rebuild the trust that we all want to have in the company that controls a critical part of the Internet's infrastructure -- the .com root DNS servers.

ICANN needs to successfully resolve the Site Finder dispute -- and then set up rules and processes that will make this kind of dispute less likely to happen again.

Sclavos says that's what he wants. His company has invested a bundle in upgrading the system for delivering all those .com domain names. Now VeriSign needs to make money leveraging that investment. But to do that, Sclavos says he needs to know what the rules are.

Even if those rules put the keeper of .com names on a shorter leash than, say, the people running minor-league top-level domains like .info or .biz?

"I fully understand the argument that .com is different," Sclavos told me. "If they want to be discriminatory toward .com and VeriSign, that's fine -- just give us the rule book by which we get to play in the market. But to have no rules, or to have those rules change on you as you're trying to make investment and research-and-development decisions, is not commercially reasonable."

If that's really the case, then there's an opportunity here for both ICANN and VeriSign.

Make those rules, guys. Hammer them out informally. Keep the legalisms and fear of loopholes out of them. Be practical. Be brutally pragmatic about what will fly. But draft those rules.

Sure, they'll be tentative. Yes, they'll be off the official books. And before they become formal policy, they'll have to go through ICANN's full deliberative process.

But they'll create a clear working understanding between ICANN and VeriSign. That means VeriSign gets the clarity it's looking for, and ICANN gets the cooperation it needs.

More than that, those rules will represent the model for a fast-track process at ICANN. That may not sit well with all ICANN constituencies -- especially the people still smarting from VeriSign's reluctance to ax Site Finder.

Dealing with those concerns will require real leadership from ICANN -- and maybe a few sacrifices from VeriSign, to show that it's acting in good faith. But if it works, we'll have a new process for domain-name innovation -- one that's faster than ICANN's full deliberative process and a lot more orderly than today's try-it-and-see-if-anyone-objects approach. That will go a long way toward restoring credibility for both ICANN and VeriSign.

Especially since the alternative may be watching the Internet get broken again -- and again, and again.

Frank Hayes, Computerworld's senior news columnist, has covered IT for more than 20 years. Contact him at frank_hayes@computerworld.com.

See more Frankly Speaking columns.


Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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