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The center of the free world, it turns out, is a putty-colored plastic box on a small aluminum shelf in Herndon, Va.

Measuring 18 inches square and just over 7 inches high, the box looks like the other 100 million personal computers that routinely surf the Internet. And it is pretty much like the others, except for one thing: Without this box, the Internet wouldn’t work.

From a squat brick office park on Herndon Parkway, this box directs traffic on the information superhighway. Known to the Internet intelligentsia as the “A” root server, this off-the-shelf Sun Ultra 2 workstation is the keystone in the most heavily used database mankind has ever assembled. The box is maintained by a company called Network Solutions Inc., under contract with the federal government—a contract that expires at the end of this month.

After that, the Ark of the Internet is up for grabs.

Corporations, courts, and even countries are caught up in a battle for the box and, more importantly, its contents. Network Solutions wants to limit the box to existing top-level domains, such as “.com.” The company has recruited an impressive team of lobbyists and corporate allies to press its case.

Internet founders, entrepreneurs, and citizens want to add new territory to the network by creating new top-level domains, like “.web.” They have cobbled together an international committee to oversee a transition.

The U.S. Department of Commerce last month released a proposal that appears to support Network Solutions’ interests. But neither the United States nor any other nation has legal authority over the box.

There’s an electronic screen mounted high on a wall inside Network Solutions’ technical center. It looks like a stock ticker. But instead of displaying stock quotes, it lights up with a parade of Internet addresses, like “aol.com” or “washingtoncitypaper.com.”

Network Solutions is the company that registers these names and operates the Internet Network Information Center—or “InterNIC”—which keeps track of which name goes with which computer. The “A” root server is the hub of InterNIC. It keeps track of which computer keeps track of which names.

Network Solutions is a subsidiary of Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC), one of the nation’s largest, most secretive, and most well-connected defense contractors.

SAIC takes in roughly $2 billion a year, nearly all of it from the federal government. The company has designed everything from computers for Seawolf submarines to cockpit systems for F-15 fighter jets. It spent more than $50 million researching former President Reagan’s “Star Wars” anti-missile scheme and is spending a billion dollars on an underground nuclear garbage dump at Yucca Mountain, Nev.

Even more impressive is the pedigree of the directors. Every U.S. president since Nixon has had an SAIC director in his cabinet, including former defense secretaries William Perry and Melvin Laird, as well as former CIA directors Robert Gates, Bobby Inman, and John Deutch.

SAIC purchased Network Solutions in March 1995. Though the formerly black-owned Herndon firm had been a successful telecommunications contractor, SAIC was primarily interested in Network Solutions’ exclusive contract to register new Internet addresses in the burgeoning “.com,” “.net,” and “.org” top-level domains.

SAIC quickly improved Network Solutions’ in-house systems, perfecting them to the point that the company was able to sign up 90 percent of its new customers “without human intervention,” according to company documents. The company quickly recouped the cost of these improvements by gaining the National Science Foundation’s permission to charge $100 for each new Internet address it issued. (Thirty dollars of each new registration is kicked back to a government Internet infrastructure fund.)

As the Internet has boomed, registrations have skyrocketed—from a total of about 7,500 when Network Solutions took control of the box in 1992—to 489,000 in 1996 and 960,000 in 1997.

New Internet addresses are flying across Network Solutions’ ticker these days. An estimated 125,000 were added in January. At that rate, SAIC is raking in an extra $8.75 million for each month the global fight over the Ark of the Internet drags on.

Only five years ago, most commercial enterprises were prohibited from doing business over the Internet. Today, Internet addresses ending in “.com” are everywhere, from the fine print on a cereal box to the broad side of a city bus.

The suffix has become so ubiquitous that many Internet users still don’t realize it is only one of more than 200 top-level domains currently in use. (Most of these are national domains such as Canada’s “.ca” or Japan’s “.jp.”)

But because so many individuals and corporations believed that “.com” was the only top-level domain available, a land-rush mentality took hold within that domain. Speculators known as “cybersquatters” registered obvious domain names—like “coke.com”—then sold them at a profit to the firms that needed them. And Network Solutions made money on every name registered—regardless of whether it would ever be used.

Unlike in the land grabs of the 19th century, however, there is no actual shortage of territory on the Internet. All that would be required to add a new continent—like “.web” or “.sex”—is the addition of a line of code in the “A” root server. But without that line of code, those new continents will remain undiscovered.

Dozens of high-tech entrepreneurs have attempted to pry open the box and insert their own continents. Some have taken Network Solutions to court, alleging violations of the Sherman anti-trust act. Others have gone offshore, selling Internet addresses within the little-used national domains of countries such as tiny Tonga. One even hacked his way into the “A” root server and temporarily diverted traffic from Network Solutions to his own site. (SAIC was not amused; the hacker awaits trial.)

But Network Solutions—which profits from its exclusive control of the “.com” and “.net” generic domains—has thus far resisted every attempt to create competing continents within the Ark of the Internet.

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In 1996, representatives from dozens of the world’s leading Internet organizations gathered in Geneva to discuss the future of the box. Many of these groups angrily accused both Network Solutions and the U.S. government of monopolizing the Internet without any legal authority. The group included several of the Internet’s founding fathers. They knew Network Solutions’ contract would expire in March 1998, and they wanted to pave the way for a more democratic Internet infrastructure.

“The committee…took in a tremendous amount of public input and produced an interim report, accepted more input, and then produced a final report to the Internet community,” says Jon Postel, a California scientist who helped create the Internet. “The process was as open and as available for public participation as the organizers and participants knew how to make it.”

After a year of debate, the international committee created the Council of Registrars (CORE), a broad-based group that would assume control of the box after Network Solutions’ contract expired. CORE would divide Network Solutions’ monopoly into separate parts.

The job of operating the Ark would be given to an international not-for-profit organization. (This group would also continue forwarding code to the 12 secondary root servers that now “mirror” the Ark throughout the world.)

The job of administering individual names within each top-level domain would be separated from the business of selling new registrations. In much the same way that traffic over the same telephone line is sold by many competing long-distance carriers, CORE would divide the domain name business into a handful of domain-operating registries and hundreds of name-selling registrars.

CORE signed up 88 prospective registrar-agents in 23 countries and hired California-based Emergent Corp. to build and operate seven new registries: “.firm,” “.shop,” “.web,” “.arts,” “.rec,” “.info,” and “.nom.” CORE envisioned that both Network Solutions and the new registrars would be able to sell names in all the generic domains.

By late last month, Emergent’s computer system was set up and undergoing final testing. Emergent’s system was ready to do pretty much the same thing that Network Solutions’ does—but at a far lower cost. Rather than charging $100 for a new registration and $50 a year after that, Emergent was going to charge each registrar-agent only 25 cents to add each new customer to its database. Twenty-five cents.

While the CORE team loped toward consensus in Geneva, SAIC’s cold warriors waged

a hot lobby against the plan in

Washington.

Network Solutions found allies within a trade group called the Association for Interactive Media (AIM), which comprises television networks, phone companies, and large Internet firms. These big businesses already own the “.com” names they want; so for them, fewer new domain names mean less competition. Also, many spent small fortunes to obtain and protect their brand names from cybersquatters—and have no desire to do this again within CORE’s new domains.

Network Solutions became a “governing member” of the D.C.-based association, and AIM president Andy Sernovitz led a campaign to discredit the CORE plan as a Swiss plot to take over the Internet.

“As we sit here,” Sernovitz testified before a House science subcommittee, “CORE is in the process of setting up a full administrative infrastructure for the Internet in Switzerland, entirely out of U.S. oversight.” He warned the stunned members of Congress that they would be “held accountable” if they allowed these “dangers and deceptions” to continue.

Public testimony by Sernovitz and others was reinforced by SAIC’s behind-the-scenes lobbying. Network Solutions’ lobbyists had no difficulty arranging one-on-one visits with lawmakers, to whose campaigns SAIC had donated hundreds of thousands of dollars over the preceding six years.

By the time CORE hired a Washington lobbyist, SAIC’s spin had become the conventional wisdom. “Everywhere we went, we were Johnny-come-lately,” one CORE representative said. “Everybody we talked to told us that SAIC and Network Solutions had already been there.”

As far-fetched as Sernovitz’s charges of a Swiss conspiracy were, they resonated with members of Congress who knew little about the Internet—and had heard nothing from the other side. Rep. Chip Pickering (R-Miss.) vowed to defend the “uniquely American” Internet—even though Congress does not have control over the global network.

A lack of legal authority didn’t stop White House senior policy adviser Ira Magaziner from stepping into the fray, either. After more than a year of encouraging the CORE team, Magaziner last month issued a proposed Commerce Department regulation that would prolong Network Solutions’ monopoly for up to two years—and after that, would not give CORE any special consideration over other entrepreneurs in the awarding of new domain names.

CORE members were stunned by Magaziner’s about-face. They had reshaped their plan several times based on Magaziner’s specific requests—and on his intimations that if such requests were met, the White House would support the international plan. Magaziner has offered no precise explanation for his turnabout. But in various speeches since the plan was issued, he has defended his plan with phrases torn directly from the SAIC playbook.

Stunned by the White House defection, CORE was more shocked by what happened next: On Feb. 15, Emergent’s computers were stolen. Someone broke into a San Francisco computer facility and took the hardware and software that was to register CORE’s new generic domains. The burglar or burglars did not touch the other million dollars’ worth of computer equipment housed at the facility—only the CORE servers and custom software.

Within hours, the Internet was hot with chatter among conspiracy theorists convinced this was the work of SAIC spooks. After all, they reasoned, what better way to prove the Emergent system was less reliable than Network Solutions’?

The burglary remains unsolved. But to Internet interests already frustrated by what they see as U.S. profiteering and political collusion, the crime has become a final straw. After months of open-meeting debate, the international committee views Magaziner’s proposed regulation as nothing less than a back-room power grab by the United States. And, like their conspiracist brethren, they see the hand of SAIC all over the deal.

“Here in Chicago, we look for where the money goes,” says David W. Maher, a lawyer who chairs an advisory committee linked to CORE. “The continued delay benefits Network Solutions. As a result of what Ira is doing…money will continue flowing into their coffers.”

As what once looked like an orderly transition devolves into what is likely to be years of nasty legal wrangling, Network Solutions continues to operate the box—and to profit from the “.com” registry. Magaziner is taking public comment on his proposal until mid-March (see www.ntia.doc.gov). And the CORE plan is on hold.

Maher and CORE members fear that if the U.S. does not loosen its grip on the Ark, chaos will result.

“There has been a very negative reaction from outside the U.S., and I think that’s going to grow,” says Maher. “What exactly will happen next—whether the G7 countries or the European Union will take a leadership position—I don’t know. But I don’t believe that the international community will tolerate this.”CP

Monte Paulsen (mpaulsen@aminc.com) is national editor of Alternative Media Inc.