It has been the genius of the Internet that it does as little as possible. Packets enter, announce their desired destination and are forwarded without concern for what they contain. Function is added at the edges of the Net by mutual consent of the parties involved—not imposed in the middle by self-styled service providers.
There is one intrinsic behavior, though, that turns the Net into the Web: the ability to translate domain names—for example, www.eWEEK.com— into IP addresses, like the corresponding 126.96.36.199. That translation must follow known rules and must not create advantage for any party.
VeriSign violated Net custom and procedure when it changed its translation services for the .com and .net domains. Instead of responding to unknown names with "no such address," the company sent users to its own search-and-advertising portal sites as default destinations.
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers promptly demanded that VeriSign abandon this change to the Nets behavior. In an unprecedented public meeting early this month, ICANN called VeriSign on the carpet to hear complaints from affected parties about the effects of this change and about the lack of notice before it went into effect.
VeriSign, we regret, has been adamant that its action was not improper. Company officials assert that specific disrupted services, such as spam recognition algorithms, are not sufficient grounds for finding that its action was damaging to the Net. The company has insisted that the Net remained stable and secure—and that anything else is in the domain of fair competition. We disagree. Moreover, VeriSign officials refused to make any commitment to give advance notice or invite prior discussion of such changes in the future. We find this position unacceptable.
We reject VeriSigns attempt to characterize its action as the introduction of a service. It looks, smells and quacks like the exploitation of a monopoly—albeit one that is lawfully granted and technically necessary—to gain commercial advantage, while disrupting a facility of which VeriSign is the custodian, not the controller.
We suspect that this is not the last time the impartial infrastructure of the Net will be tested by commercial endeavors flying under the false colors of innovation. Its vital for those who depend on the Net to be aware of the ways that it can go wrong. Its appropriate for user communities to take just as much interest in making the Net go right as they would take, for example, in a zoning decision or a highway project that could have comparably significant effects on their lives and fortunes.
Theres a tendency for long-established Net users to think that the way it works is the only way it can work. Thats a fragile assumption, waiting to be disproved by those who would tie specific content and function to specific services and devices. We laud ICANNs prompt, effective action to protect a content-neutral, standards-based environment.
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