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Media activist Paul Garrin is obsessed with borders. Step into his East 4th Street loft and you're met by eight large TV monitors mounted in a wall of thick corrugated steel, and four video cameras that hop and pivot wildly as they track your every move. The setup's from an art installation Garrin devised called Border Patrol. When the screens are working, the cameras project a red target on your imagean unsettling metaphor for the way technology has rendered us all sitting ducks.
Right now, the artwork is busted, but Garrin's too busy to fix it. He's engaged in a far more real border war. For the past five years, he and his company, Name.Space, have been seeking to overthrow the U.S.-sanctioned monopolies that govern the Web.
A self-styled outsider, Garrin has recently heard his complaints echoed in the halls of power. The European Parliament has begun clamoring for more international control, and just last month, Montana senator Conrad Burns warned the Department of Commerce that the stability of the Net "could be threatened by a policy-making process moving forward under a legal cloud."
That cloud, for Garrin, hovers darkest over the issue of access to the "root zone," the master file listing the so-called top-level domains.com, .org, .net, .gov, .edu, .miland some 244 country-code domains. The root zone is the place that tells your computer where to locate any one of the 33 million existing Web addresses. Computer scientists call it "the truth."
From the moment the U.S. government moved to privatize the Net back in 1995, handing Network Solutions a lucrative contract to administer the .com, .org, and .net domains, critics have questioned why this "truth" has to be so narrow. Why should one company have the right to charge people premium ratesat that time $100to sign up for Web suffixes devised when the Net was still a Cold War military and education project? Why should an aspiring artist have to scrap to be www.sculptor.com when she could just as easily be www.erotic.sculptor or www.heavenly.form?
Even now that the government has licensed competing companies to register Web sites under .com, .net, and .org, Network Solution's parent, VeriSign, still operates the central registry and gets a $6 cut for every new site. It's such a sweetheart deal that last week, four ranking members of Congress, led by Billy Tauzin of Louisiana, called for the Department of Commerce to "analyze the competitive issues" stemming from a plan (approved Monday) to extend VeriSign's dominance over the .com market. The artificial scarcity of commercial domains has led to wild speculation and cybersquatting; Business.com sold for a record $7 million two years ago, and even in today's dotbomb fallout, name inflation runs rampant.
Enter Garrin's Name.Space. While other so-called alternative root servers began offering a limited number of unsanctioned addresses like .biz and .med in the mid '90s, Garrin had a much more radical idea. Working with former hackers like Phiber Optik and system administrators he'd met through media-art conferences abroad, he set up his own network of servers in the U.S. and Europe that allows users to register for just about dot-anything. "We started slowly, because back then everyone was operating under the assumption that if you added more names, it would break the Net," Garrin recalls. In August 1996, Name.Space lit up an initial list of 30 new domainsthings like .art, .video, .museum, .camthen invited users to come up with their own choices.
Paul Garrins network of servers allows users to register for just about dot-anything. Were de-territorializing the Net, he boasted, bringing it back to its original ideal of virtual space without borders or hierarchies.
"The idea," says Garrin, "was to shift the naming paradigm from one based on commercialism and brandingyou know, ibm.comto one based on content. I mean, look at all the interesting and expressive sites we publish now." His Web site, we.reclaimthe.net, now offers more than 540 extensions, from abc.news and balkan.monitor to queer.punk and sadistic.fun.
To access these, you have to tweak your computer's settingsa simple cut-and-paste maneuver. Then you can view everything Name.Space publishes, along with the entire contents of the root zone.
For Garrin, who won international acclaim as an artist working with video pioneer Nam June Paik, Name.Space is itself a work of arta challenge to the artificial barriers to access and expression on the Net. Inside his company's dark, spacious loft, real-time displays from Name.Space's server are projected on the walls. "There's a new registration right now, VP.mad," he says, pointing to a blinking green light scrolling down the wall. "Brits like .mad because it means you're wild or something, like soccer.mad."
In listserv groups, Garrin promoted Name.Space as the "ultimate shareware project." He and his partners signed a charter laying out principles for a new, more democratic naming system in which domains like .music and .food could be shared among cooperating registries. And Name.Space would offer free software to enable nonprofits and community groups to act as registrars for their own domains.