Casting a Wider Net

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

"I've invested five years of my life and savings doing this," Garrin continues with fervor. "We broke all the models. We listened to people to give them what they want. We didn't just create all these domains out of greed or fiat. This is the people's choice."


But with only several thousand customers, Garrin's revolution is losing steam. In addition to being shut out of the root zone, his company is now facing far stiffer competition from New.net. A spinoff of Idealab (the people behind the ill-fated eToys), New.net last month began offering customers 20 extensions that function as top-level domains—from .chat to .xxx. Most are already offered by Garrin and other alternative roots. What gives New.net's scheme added heft is that the company has partnered with Earthlink, Excite@home, Net.Zero, and MP3.com, creating a market of 16 million customers. And New.net has copied Name.Space's idea of allowing users to vote on new domains, giving them the potential to monopolize the alternative market even further.

Until now, ICANN could easily ignore folks running alternate root zones. Tiny Name.Space and ORSC have never been able to garner enough users to pose a serious threat to the unified order of the Net. But with marketing power, New.net could change that. Already, customers on the PacificRoot servers have complained that their Web addresses are being put up for sale by New.net, setting a scenario that's ripe for confusion.

The growing rebellion threatens to balkanize the Net. With companies competing to sell space in the same alternative domains, being able to view a particular Web site could depend on which Internet service provider or browser you use. Already, foreign country-code operators are balking at U.S. control and the hefty fees ICANN has attempted to impose; China recently bolted the ICANN root and set up its own root system using Chinese characters; it can be accessed through PacificRoot.

As the debate over how to govern the Net intensifies, Garrin's company is hanging by a thread. He has cut his staff of programmers, and the computer stations in his loft off Broadway sit empty. But things may be looking up. In March, Garrin began negotiating with a group of high-powered investors who have offered to pump several million dollars into Name.space. While Garrin won't name the investors, he's optimistic the deal will go through, and says if it does, his company will have the leverage to gain access to the root zone. With money for marketing and staff, Garrin believes Name.Space could earn up to $70 million over the next three years. "We'll completely change the landscape of the Net," he says.

Of course, the deal could very well collapse. But the fact that such well-heeled investors are even considering a partnership with a small innovator like Name.Space is indicative of the pressure to expand the number of domains.

There again, the fact that Garrin—a guy whose own site, MediaFilter.org, is filled with avowedly antiauthoritarian and anticorporate content—finds no contradiction in seeking to become one of those vested interests says something larger about the market imperatives of the Web. The Internet's is the first revolution whose pioneers believed they could create a better world while making themselves rich. So far the Net has made quite a few people rich. The jury's still out as to whether it has made the world that much better.

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