Casting a Wider Net

Paul Garrin Says Monopolies Choke the Web. Now Congress Is Starting to Listen.

"We're de-territorializing the Net," Garrin boasted, "bringing it back to its original ideal of virtual space without borders or hierarchies."

But having a uniquely expressive domain name doesn't mean much if the rest of the world can't find it. In March 1997, Name.Space petitioned Network Solutions to enter its new top-level domains into the root zone. When the company refused, Garrin sued, charging that its policies violated antitrust laws and the right to free speech. It was a bold and controversial move: Here was Garrin, a New Yorker better known in activist circles for videotaping the 1988 Tompkins Square riot, taking on a multibillion-dollar behemoth with deep ties to the Pentagon. After three years of legal wrangling, the courts ruled in January 2000 that Network Solutions had immunity from antitrust claims because it operated the root zone under a cooperative agreement with the U.S. government.

Asked to select three new domain names, Paul Garrin insisted he needed 118.
photo: Dennis Kleiman
Asked to select three new domain names, Paul Garrin insisted he needed 118.

By that time, the battlefront had shifted to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the nonprofit authorized by the Clinton administration to oversee expansion of the Net's addressing system. Last November, ICANN agreed to add seven new domains: .biz, .info, .name, .pro, .coop, .museum, and .aero, which are slated to go live this summer. Far from appeasing critics, ICANN's meager and rather lackluster selections have only provoked further controversy, to the point where ICANN's own board members have complained that the approval process was arbitrary and biased toward inside players.

For Garrin, who ponied up the nonrefundable $50,000 application fee, ICANN's selections were a double-loss. Not only did ICANN reject Name.Space's plan for 118 new domains, but it gave ones Name.Space was already operating—.museum, .pro, and .info—to other companies. Fees from new registrations plummeted, Garrin says, from as much as $3000 a day to barely $100. "ICANN killed our business," he says.

But Garrin's problem may be simply that he wants too much. Given ICANN's stated intention of adding a "modest" number of new domains in this "proof of concept" phase, observers say there's no way he could have ever won approval for 118. Yet when the board members asked Garrin to select three from his list, he refused.

This shocked even some of Garrin's sharpest critics and competitors. "People at the hearings were watching this, saying, 'Come on, Paul, pick three,' but he wouldn't do that," says Richard Sexton of the Open Root Server Confederation, a network of alternative root servers. "His mentality is, it's my way or the highway."

Garrin defends his stance, saying that limiting his application to three would have meant abandoning customers in all his other domains. "My business model is based on an economy of scale," he explains. "If I only pick one or two domains, they may or may not work, but if I have lots of domains, the profitable ones can subsidize the less commercial ones."

In fact, many of Garrin's proposed domains—like .music, .sex, or .shop—could easily have enormous commercial potential were they entered into the root zone. Even the supposedly noncommercial .sucks would have been a good bet given the penchant for disaffection on the Net. So why not settle for less now, with the hope of gaining acceptance for more in the future?

Garrin's refusal to compromise has put him at odds with most in the alternative root community. There are currently 15 alternative roots, ranging from adamant free-marketeers to the noncommercial collective OpenNIC. The scene is rife with strife and ego, as you'd expect from any collection of geek mavericks. Nevertheless, all but Name.Space have begun to cooperate by banding together under two shared alternative root networks: ORSC and PacificRoot.

"All of the other alternate root servers are working toward a single entity—one alternate root zone," says ORSC's Sexton. "That means we agree that there can only be one .cam, one .music, etc. Name.Space doesn't care. They don't care who they collide with, or when. Other people had some of the same top-level domains that Name.Space has before they started operating them."

Chris Ambler of Image Online Design, which runs the .Web registry, is even more emphatic. "The problem with Name.Space is [Garrin] wants something that no one else has: 500 top-level domains and the ability to create new ones at will. He's trying to claim everything! He makes lofty claims about having a shared system, but it requires people to use his system, and he gets a piece of every new registry! In my book, that's called communism, or socialism at best."

Garrin is ‘trying to claim everything!’ says one critic. ‘He makes lofty claims about having a shared system, but it requires people to use his system, and he gets a piece of every new registry! In my book, that’s called communism, or socialism at best.’

Garrin counters that while others may have put their stakes on certain domains, they weren't actually registering people for those sites when Name.Space placed them online. As for his concept of sharing domains, Garrin says the idea would be to create a collective server network, with funds going to upkeep, so that everyone would get equal access and reap equal rewards. "I'm not looking to build an empire," Garrin insists. "I'm looking to build an infrastructure that supports the public good. We have 500 top-level domains, but how many other words are there in the English language? How many other languages are there? If somebody else wants to set up something, let them invest and do it. There's enough scale that everybody can make money.

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