TORONTO (04/04/2000) - As the world grapples with how and whether to control the Internet, a model has surfaced at the Computers, Freedom and Privacy conference held here this week to let control -- and individuals' civil liberties -- flow not from legislation but from the Net's infrastructure itself.
"We're trying to use technology to build a civil-liberties infrastructure," said Lenny Foner of the Media Lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), during a panel discussion at the conference today.
One sticky Internet issue with control implications is the domain name system which provides the human-friendly monikers such as Amazon.com and their corresponding numerical IP (Internet Protocol) addresses.
Currently, the company most associated with the domain name system, Herndon, Virginia-based Network Solutions Inc. (NSI), manages TLD (top-level domain) servers, including .com, .net and .org, under a four-year contract awarded last November by the U.S. Department of Commerce. NSI is not the sole naming player in the system, but the vendor's clout is evident from the US$21 billion stock deal that VeriSign Inc. worked out last month to acquire NSI. [See "UPDATE:
VeriSign to Acquire Network Solutions," March 7.]"Whoever gets to decide who gets the names gets to decide, in a sense, how visible" people and companies are on the Internet, MIT's Foner said.
Panelists here today contemplated how to confound that near-centralized control of the Net while retaining its operational value.
One possibility would be to permit multiple names, Foner said. Such a move would cut into the power of an organization to grant the name and would also thwart "land grabs," where squatters purchase all possible permutations of a company's name, Foner added.
An initial search for a specific company's Web site using the current convention, for example, ibm.com, might list multiple, dramatically different sites. However, once the IBM Corp. site was reached, its location could be cached on the user's computer, so that a second query on "IBM" would quickly bring the user to that same site, according to Foner.
But one panelist was concerned that relying on caches was not in keeping with the way people use computers. Increasingly, users access the Internet from many sources, not from just their home or work PC, said Lance Cottrell of Anonymizer.com. "People will have an expectation that, if they've always typed in one name to get to a place," they will always be able to use that name, Cottrell said.
Another panelist said that a system in which names were not unique would never pass muster with powerful electronic commerce players.
"They're going to hate the idea that a user could type in 'AT&T' or 'British Telecom'" and not get to those corporate sites, said Jonathan Weinberg of Wayne State University. "Major e-commerce players are not going to use this."
Important e-commerce companies are not the only ones who value having unique and easily reachable names, according to Phil Zimmermann, the creator of Pretty Good Privacy.
"I would like to be able to know that if I type in 'barnesandnoble.com' that I get Barnes and Noble," Zimmermann said.
More information about the proposal, and the conference, can be found at http://www.cfp2000.org/.