Internet warningLater this year, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is due to end its tenure as the body responsible for managing the domain name addressing system. Backed by the US government, ICANN will cede control of the Domain Naming System (DNS) to another, similar body to be decided at some point after the annual ICANN meeting in March.

But with just six months to go and no firm replacement in sight, the transition of responsibilities remains in question. Worse still, the uncertainty could result in major problems for Internet users across the world if the situation is not resolved quickly.

A historical precedent for problems

In computing terms, events that happened in 2001 are viewed as ancient history, but an issue surrounding the administration of domain names back then points to potential problems if the ICANN situation is not resolved soon. At the turn of the century, buying domain names was a relatively slow process, which many businesses and individuals found to be hugely frustrating.

In a scenario reminiscent of the recent release of the new global Top Level Domain (gTLD) names, ICANN had announced seven new web address extensions including .xxx and .biz. As with gTLDs, the right to administer and sell these new addresses was passed on to specific ISPs; in the case of .biz, an American company named Neulevel was selected. Confusingly though, .biz had already been happily running for six years buy that point, overseen by another organisation – the Atlantic Root Network.

The .xxx domain names were even more confusing, with three companies offering addresses for sale., ICM Registry and Name-space were all selling .xxx addresses before ICANN managed to formally decide who would be the officially approved registrar.

After a number of disputes, including appeals to the US Congress, ICANN finally managed to regain control of the DNS system and restructure the administration system. And it is this system that remains in place today.

Will history repeat itself?

In 2001, a lack of strong leadership, coupled with a number of pre-existing, “unofficial” alternative providers, threatened to undermine the unified DNS system. Left unchecked this could have resulted in a number of competing, and potentially incompatible, systems that would have fragmented the World Wide Web.

Come this September, there will be the potential for a similar situation to arise if a replacement for ICANN is not identified and implemented quickly. People and businesses will still want to buy new website addresses, and they will not wait for the election of a new organisation. It is not unfeasible that several entrepreneurial start-ups may use the confusion to launch their own competing services in the same way that happened in 2001.

The ICANN conference takes place at the end of March, and top of the agenda is how the DNS system will transition from September. Hopefully the transition strategy and replacement governing body will become clearer after the symposium, ending the speculation and possibility of a repeat of the 2001 débacle.

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