Network Solutions is no longer the only company assigning Internet domain names. As of April 26, five more companies can assign domains with the .com, .org, and .net suffixes: America Online (AOL), register.com, France Telecom, Melbourne Information Technologies Australia, and the Internet Council of Registrars (CORE).

The addition of these five companies to the list of companies authorized to assign domain names was the first phase of expanding the system for assigning domain names. Starting June 24, AT&T, Verio, and 27 other firms will also assign domain names. Each assigning company will pay $10,000 to Network Solutions to use its 4 million domain-name database, then $9 for each name the assigning company registers.

These companies will begin bundling domain names as part of Internet business services. The companies might give the names away or make the names part of the package price. Under this new system, ownership rights to the domain name can vary—caveat emptor—depending on the contract. If you change ISPs, your branded domain name might not travel with you. Industry experts don't expect the larger ISPs to retain domain-name rights, but the smaller ISPs very well might.

The new domain-name assignment system is the first of many changes expected from the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a nonprofit group that the US Department of Commerce (DOC) created to oversee domain-name assignments. For information about unregulated domain-naming activities that have led to the need for ICANN, see the sidebar "Play for Fun or Profit."

Since 1993, Network Solutions operated this government-chartered monopoly and charged $70 to register a domain name for a 2-year period. Network Solutions sold $93 million worth of registrations in 1998.

The introduction of new companies to Internet name registration is the first of many changes to come in the next 6 to 12 months to Internet domain names. ICANN is considering adding additional domain suffixes to the registration pool. Web addresses have the standard top-level domains (e.g., .com, .org, .net, .gov, .mil) and country codes (e.g., .ca for Canada, .au for Australia). ICANN might add more top-level names and some generic names.

In the next year, we'll see other Internet happenings. The President's Export Council Subcommittee on Encryption (PECSENC—which the Bureau of Export Administration created) is also at work, so you can forget about protecting communications across the Internet. And recently, South Dakota Governor William J. Janklow vetoed legislation that would have taxed commerce on the Internet.

The Internet game will acquire many new players in the coming months and years. This game will be interesting to watch, because—clearly— the Internet is a game with no rules.

Play for Fun or Profit
Naming domains has taken on the feel of comic opera in the past few years. Individuals and companies have bought common domain names to later sell to other companies or organizations. For example, you can go to http://www.industry.com and make an offer on this domain name. Domain name squatters have taken names of major corporations, and Network Solutions hasn't policed these assignments. If your company doesn't possess a trademark, Network Solutions won't even talk with you about a dispute.

If the pending Mobil and Exxon megamerger goes through, the new company might have a hard time finding an unused domain name. You can search the InterNIC database for combinations of Mobil and Exxon, such as MobilExxon, Mobil-Exxon, and ExxonMobil, to find 32 combinations of the names—none of which either company owns. The lucky owner of the right combination might make a windfall.

But recently, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), which is an arm of the United Nations, proposed to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to outlaw the practice of cybersquatting. Under this proposal, any owners of a trademark could claim rights to any Internet domain that infringes on the trademark. Although ICANN's board of directors agrees with the proposal in principle, the group deferred the matter (pending further investigation) and created the Domain Names Supporting Organization (DNSO) to conduct a study.

Tuvalu is a small Pacific island nation that has added a twist to domain-name squatting. Tuvalu has the country domain suffix .tv and has retained a Canadian law firm to represent it and negotiate for the rights to domain names in its country domain. The country sees the marketing potential of domain names ending in .tv and has set starting fees in the $10,000 range for domain names with the .tv suffix. Imagine http://www.cbs.tv and http://www.music.tv—many companies do. Now this poor small island nation has a money-making scheme that might greatly raise the per capita income of its few inhabitants. The island has a high point of only 12 feet above sea level, but when global warming comes, Tuvalu might have the money to buy a lot of dirt.