(eng)CAQ #59: Networking with Spooks

The Anarchives (tao@lglobal.com)
Fri, 6 Dec 1996 21:31:39 +0000 (GMT)


NETWORKING WITH SPOOKS
by John Dillon

THE INTERNET IS CHANGING FROM A PUBLIC
RESOURCE TO A LUCRATIVE OPERATION INFLUENCED
BY SPOOKS AND FORMER PENTAGON OFFICIALS. OPEN
ACCESS AND INFORMATION ARE INCREASINGLY
CONTROLLED.

The Internet, the mother of all networks, is a
sprawling congregation of connected computers;
almost anyone is welcome, almost anything
goes. *1 Now, one private company with strong
ties to the defense and intelligence agencies
has become the prime gatekeeper and toll-taker
for the millions navigating the maze. Network
Solutions Inc. (NSI) of Herndon, Va., has the
government-granted monopoly to issue "domain
names'' electronic addresses like
<microsoft.com> used to route e-mail and steer
traffic through the increasingly
commercialized World Wide Web.

NSI's spook connections and its lead role in
the privatization of the Internet have raised
alarms. Net activists were outraged by the
firm's September 1995 decision to charge $100
a year to register new addresses and $50 a
year to renew old ones. Later, NSI stirred up
even more anger when it began removing the
addresses of the thousands who refused to pay.
The company also has been sued half a dozen
times over its policy to give trademark
holders priority when a domain name is in
dispute. *2

WHO'S IN CHARGE
The furor over NSI raises basic questions of
who controls and regulates the Internet.
Although physically decentralized with
millions of computers linked around the globe
the Net is in fact hierarchically organized.
Anyone on the planet who wants an Internet
address ending with one of the popular
suffixes .com, .edu, .org, .net, or .gov must
register the domain name with the Internet
Network Information Center, or InterNIC, a US
government-created central registry. In 1993,
NSI took over the administration of that
listing.

This domain name system allows people to
substitute user-friendly names such as
<ibm.com> for the real Internet Protocol (IP)
addresses: hard-to-remember numerical strings
like <198.106.242.7>. When you enter an
address in your web browser like
<mediafilter.org/caq> to get this magazine's
site your computer first accesses a "name
server.'' The server then returns the unique
numeric IP address which your browser uses to
find the appropriate place on the Web. *

Critics say there is no good reason why
Network Solutions should have a monopoly
franchise on registering the user-friendly
domain names. But NSI has a great reason: By
controlling the keys to prime Internet real
estate, it has staked out a phenomenally
lucrative business. Although the company does
not release financial figures, the Internet's
astronomical growth fueled by the tens of
thousands of businesses coming on line each
month has triggered an explosion in domain
name registrations. In March alone, about
45,000 names were registered, a 25 percent
increase over February. NSI made an estimated
$20 million in the six months from September
1995 to March 1996 from annual registration
fees, with an additional $40 million projected
for the next six months. *3

"I would think they're making an obscene
profit,'' said Karl Denniger, head of Macro
Computer Solutions Inc., a Chicago-based
Internet provider that wants to enter the
domain name business. *4 "Their monopoly of
this isn't really legally defensible,'' said
Stanton McCandlish, an activist with the
Electronic Frontier Foundation in San
Francisco. *5

CONTROLLING INFORMATION
NSI's national security pedigree is even more
troubling to some than its monopoly-derived
profits. When the government administered the
InterNIC, the service was subsidized by tax
dollars and was free to users who simply
registered their names. In May 1993, the
National Science Foundation privatized the
name registry and is paying Network Solutions
$5.9 million to administer it.6

In September 1995, NSI instituted the fee
system. A few months earlier, it had been
bought out by Science Applications
International Corp. (SAIC). This privately
held company with 20,000 employees and 450
offices around the globe has close ties to the
Defense Department and intelligence agencies.
Its current board of directors includes former
National Security Agency chief Bobby Inman,
former Defense Secretary Melvin Laird, and the
former head of research and development for
the Pentagon, Donald Hicks. Ex-CIA Director
Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense William
Perry, and CIA Director John Deutch have been
past members. *7 Eighty-three percent of the
company's $2 billion annual revenue comes from
government contracts, including defense,
intelligence, and law enforcement contracts.
It is designing new information systems for
the Pentagon, helping to automate the FBI's
computerized fingerprint identification
system, and last year won a $200 million
contract to provide "information support'' to
the Internal Revenue Service. *8

Some of these contracts, along with the
company's strong intelligence and defense
links, raise fears that SAIC will abuse the
information it controls through its key
Internet role. "I don't want a spook
corporation, particularly a private spook
corporation, to be anywhere near a control
point on the global cooperative Internet,''
said James Warren, a writer and Internet civil
liberties activist. *9 But McCandlish of the
Electronic Frontier Foundation described *
SAIC's ownership of Network Solution as a "non
issue.'' "The Internet itself was a Defense
Advanced Research Project Agency project. It's
been true for a long time. It's not some big
secret.'' *10

PUTTING A HOLD ON NAMES
Another bone of contention is NSI's policy on
domain name disputes. For a long time, names
were registered on a first come, first served
basis. But then some quick-buck artists
realized they could register domain names
related to famous trademarks and sell the name
back to the owner, a process known as
trademark hijacking. In response, NSI
instituted a policy that gives trademark
owners priority in claiming a domain name over
someone who has already registered it. While
the domain names are in dispute, the company
can put the disputed name "on hold," so that
it can't be used until the issue is settled.

The company's dispute policy has swung too far
to protect trademark owners at the expense of
legitimate domain name holders, critics say.
They note that trademark law allows different
companies to share the same name McDonald's
hamburgers and McDonald's widgets, for
example. And they say NSI is ruling on legal
questions, such as who owns the name and what
it can be used for, without legal authority.

"They are serving as legislators,
administrators, judges, juries, and
executioners,'' said Kathryn Kleiman, a lawyer
and organizer of the Domain Name Rights
Coalition, a non-profit organization that
lobbies Congress on domain name issues. *11

The company's policy created major headaches
for a New Mexico Internet service named
Roadrunner Computer Systems, for example,
which used the <roadrunner.com> address for
itself and for its customers' e-mail. But last
year Warner Bros., which produces Road Runner
cartoons and holds a trademark by the same
name, tried to establish exclusive rights.
Roadrunner Computer Systems obtained a court
order barring Network Solutions from putting
its name on hold. *12

CHALLENGING THE MONOPOLY
But NSI's monopoly may soon crumble. Dozens of
new top-level domains (the .com or .edu
portion of the names) are being considered,
and they will be administered by new
registration services.

Paul Garrin, a New York media artist, has
plans to strike an even more decisive blow for
competition and Internet democratization. He
and his colleagues have designed an
alternative network of name servers. By
changing your browser's default settings to
find one of the servers Garrin has established
around the world, you could locate web sites
listed by any chosen name. *13 The system does
not yet work for e-mail.

"We would no longer be restricted to top-level
domain, such as .com or .edu," Garrin said.
"Under the existing system, there's an
artificial shortage of domain names driven by
InterNIC's desire to control. By adding new
suffixes such as .mag, .inc, .press, for
example, numerous companies could use their
own names." They could also eliminate NSI's
monopoly control. "We're de-territorializing
the Internet and bringing it back to the real
ideal of virtual space with no national
borders of hierarchies,'' he said. n

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** End of text from cdp:covertaction **

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