A Thoughtful Take on Site Finder

People wanting a thoughtful look at the law and policy issues swirling around VeriSign's Site Finder need look no further than Jonathan Weinberg's Site Finder and Internet Governance. I say this even though the conclusion makes me quite uncomfortable.

Here's the abstract:

On September 15, 2003, VeriSign, Inc., the company that operates the databases that allow Internet users to reach any Internet resource ending in .com or .net, introduced a new service it called Site Finder. Less than three weeks later, after widespread protest from the technical community, at least three lawsuits, and a stern demand from ICANN (the Internet Corporation of Assigned Names and Numbers, which has undertaken responsibility for managing the Internet domain name space), VeriSign agreed to shut Site Finder down. In between those dates, the Internet community saw a passionate debate over the roles of ICANN, VeriSign, and the Internet's technical aristocracy in managing the domain name space.

In this paper, I unpack the Site Finder story. Site Finder was highly undesirable from a technical standpoint; it contravened key elements of Internet architecture. ICANN had power to force VeriSign to withdraw it, though, only if VeriSign was violating the terms of its registry contracts. The arguments that Site Finder violated VeriSign's contractual obligations are plausible, but they don't derive their force from Site Finder's architectural or stability consequences. The registry contracts gave ICANN no hook to invoke those concerns; if VeriSign was in breach, it was by happenstance. Part of the lesson of Site Finder is that there needs to be an effective institutional mechanism for protecting the domain name space infrastructure from unilateral, profit-driven change that bypasses the protections and consensus mechanisms of the traditional Internet standards process. Notwithstanding ICANN's flaws, it may be better suited than any other existing institution to protect against that threat. Yet ICANN regulation is itself highly problematic, and so any plan to expand its authority must be approached with care.

I remain dubious about any proposal to strengthen ICANN, so I'm not sure I agree with the bottom line. While there would be a short-term gain to empowering ICANN to kill Site Finder, I think the long-term consequences would not be good at all.

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