A New Domain for Bush To Pollute

How does the Bush Administration take care of valuable public property? It hands the asset to a private corporation and allows that business to exploit away. That's precisely what the Bush gang did with an important piece of Internet real estate.

On April 24, while you were busy reading e-mail or perusing Web sites, you probably missed the biggest electronic land rush in years. That day NeuStar, a Washington-based firm, started selling, via 70 online retailers, e-mail and Web addresses in the .us domain. (Think of yourname.us.) This was a big deal, as e-speculators rushed to grab addresses, and the public -- and their interests -- were largely cut out of the picture.

Since modern society has become webbed, Web addresses have become hot commodities. Within the popular .com domain, the best and most memorable addresses were snatched up long ago. Wouldn't you like to own the toys.com address? Or sex.com? There are about 27 million registered names in the .com domain. But the .us domain has not been widely used, providing maybe 60,000 addresses until recently.

So .us was mainly virgin territory -- and territory that belonged to the public, much in the way the broadcast airwaves are owned by the public. Yet, in a case of e-privatization run amok, much of this turf was sold off to Internet profiteers, without consideration of public interest.

Some background: The .us domain has been around since 1985. But few people and entities wanted to use it because of what one expert calls its "cumbersome geographical hierarchy." Don't ask me to explain further. The point is, it was mostly reserved for local government agencies.

Moreover, the domain was managed in a less than professional manner by volunteers. Records were lost. It was something of an orphan in the high-tech world.

For a while, the University of Southern California operated the domain. The school then notified the Commerce Department, which oversees the administration of domains, it wanted out. The department passed the domain to VeriSign, which runs the .com domain, but the company only agreed to handle .us for a year while the government looked for another steward.

Last summer, the Bush Commerce Department decided to put out a request for bids from companies who could assume administration of the domain, which would now become available to American businesses, nonprofit organizations and individuals.

"This was an opportunity to revitalize a public resource that had lay dormant for so long," says Rob Courtney, a policy analyst at the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT).

The few public interest groups that follow such matters urged the Commerce Department to recognize in the bidding process the public value of this virtual space. The advocates wanted the government to require that the domain be operated with the public interest in mind, that the management of the domain be open to public scrutiny.

No surprise, the do-gooders were disappointed. When the department released the official request for bids, it contained few public interest requirements.

CDT and others tried to work with the bidders to make their proposals public-interest-friendly. CDT pushed for the establishment of a policy council, representative of Internet users, that would advise the new .us domain operator.

NeuStar, one of the bidding firms, did not endorse this idea, but it promised it would "develop open polices and procedures with a high degree of responsiveness and accountability." But after NeuStar was selected by the Commerce Department last fall, it did no such thing.

It conducted its selloff, as the CDT complains, "with almost no public input or public accountability. As a result, many valuable names like churches.us, yellowstone.us, freespeech.us, or art.us are now owned by private speculators."

It was quite sensitive, though, to Corporate America. Trademark owners were allowed to apply for .us addresses before the general public. (That way, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals couldn't buy McDonalds.us.) More than 100,000 companies took advantage of this privilege.

NeuStar, a Lockheed Martin spin-off that operates the registry of all North American telephone numbers (to make sure no number is assigned to more than one party), did establish a ten-member policy council "to assist with critical policy issues" regarding the .us domain. But the company, which also handled the sale of .biz addresses last year, announced the council's formation the day after it started selling domain addresses. Moreover, NeuStar's policy council under-represents consumer interests and tilts toward industry.

So in this sell-off, NeuStar acted totally on its own, with little input from the Internet community. It designed its policies free of accountability. And then, with minimal public notice, it opened for business. speculators were poised and ran off with much of the public booty. Union.us -- gone. Environment.us -- gone. Music.us -- gone.

The firm did not sell every name it could. It reserved 52,000 names. But there were no public rules or standards governing how NeuStar did this. Georgewbush.us was reserved. So was laurabush.us. Yet tomdaschle.us was not. Nor was trentlott.us. Both are now owned by name speculators.

"There should have been a process for deciding this," notes Courtney. "There's a public value in the name nonprofits.us. They should have said, we're not going to let a private person buy it, until we figure out the best way to use that name."

Curiously, sex.us was neither on the reserve list nor available for buying. Many salacious names -- use your imagination -- were snatched. SamsDirect, one of the Net's biggest domain name registration companies, is boycotting the .us domain because NeuStar is allowing the purchase of sexually explicit domain names.

In a letter to the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate commerce committees, the Center for Democracy and Technology, Common Cause, and the Media Access Project protested NeuStar's for-profit free-for-all. They wrote that the new domain "held out the promise of a place on the Internet directly related to US activities, where, for example, American churches might register a name in churches.us or where American consumers could find non-profits in charities.us. Policies for .us must be developed in a way that includes the interests of American Internet users."

But, the three public-interest outfits complained, "the general public was almost entirely uninformed about the .us redelegation and re-opening. This lack of awareness permitted .us to become a lucrative business opportunity for those in the know at the expense of the public good."

What can Congress do now? Step in and say, we're taking everyone's name back and rebooting the whole process? That would be difficult.

Since NeuStar did commit itself to open and accountable policies, the committees might investigate whether the almost-anything-goes sell-off violated the company's contract with the Bush Commerce Department, which, as of yet, does not seem to be griping about NeuStar. But that won't undo the pillage done. The best CDT et al can ask for is "that a process be put in place to include public input and accountability in future .us management."

In the meantime, credit where credit is due. The .us domain sell-off may not be morally equivalent to permitting more pollution of the air and waterways, but the Bush Administration has despoiled another part of the national commons. Once again, its commerce-over-community ideology rules.

David Corn is the Washington editor of The Nation.

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