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 image—an 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, .mil—and 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 rates—at that time $100—to 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 domains—things like .art, .video, .museum, .cam—then invited users to come up with their own choices.
“The idea,” says Garrin, “was to shift the naming paradigm from one based on commercialism and branding—you know, ibm.com—to 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 settings—a 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 art—a 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.
“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.
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 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.
“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.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 3, 2001