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For two days in July 1998, one hundred and fifty people gathered in a windowless hotel convention room in Reston, Virginia. The crowd comprised techies in T-shirts, trademark lawyers in suits, academic and business people, and a small but significant number of Europeans, Latin Americans, and Asians. The meeting had an ambitious goal: to 'prepare a model, a set of common principles, a structure and general charter provisions' for the formation of a global governance body for an Internet naming and addressing authority. [1 ]The meeting was compared to an Internet 'constitutional convention' by some. But the delegates to this convention were not diplomats or legislators, and its participants held no formal credentials. There had been some attempts to encourage preregistration, but for all practical purposes attendance was completely open-anyone who walked in could participate. A call had been issued by a self-appointed, hastily assembled, and loosely defined steering committee, whose membership remained fluid and controversial for weeks afterwards. Aside from a few basic agenda and scheduling decisions, the process was made up on the spot. There were no formal committee chairs; facilitators either volunteered or were appointed. There were not even arrangements for breakout rooms for subgroups to work in, so the committees had to huddle in corners of the same noisy room and sometimes shout to make themselves heard.
The Reston meeting was the first in what turned out to be a series of four such conferences known as the International Forum on the White Paper (IFWP). Reston, Virginia, was an appropriate location for the inaugural meeting; it was ground zero of the commercial Internet explosion of the mid-1990s. The region was home to Network Solutions, Inc. (NSI), the government contractor that had turned domain name registration into a multimillion dollar business and that was the site of the critical A root server, the central source of data for coordinating the world's Internet names. Reston itself was the headquarters of the Internet Society. The Pentagon and the National Science Foundation, whose sponsorship of the Internet had pushed it to the brink of global critical mass, were only a few miles away. So was the Corporation for National Research Initiatives (CNRI), which hosted the secretariat of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and once served as the organizational home of Robert Kahn and Vint Cerf, the joint inventors of the Internet protocol. Commercial firms that had risen to prominence with the Internet, such as MCI, PSINet and America Online, located their headquarters nearby.
For several years it had been clear that the Internet was no longer a subsidized tool of education and research but a vibrant new global medium. The Internet was growing at exponential rates, and its importance to the economy was becoming increasingly evident. But key technical functions such as name and address management were still performed under contracts with the U.S. military and the National Science Foundation. Foreign governments were becoming increasingly restive about unilateral U.S. control of such an important part of the global communication infrastructure. Network Solutions' unplanned-for and increasingly lucrative monopoly over domain name registration was also a point of growing contention.
The transition process, everyone knew, would be risky and controversial. Domain names and IP (Internet Protocol) addresses stood at the core of the Internet's operation. If they were handled poorly, the Internet could break. As the stakes grew higher, however, the Internet community had fallen into rancorous battles over policy and control. The years of escalating tension became known as the domain name wars. Finally, in July 1997, the U.S. Department of Commerce initiated a formal proceeding to privatize the domain name system (NTIA 1997). The result was a policy document officially titled 'Management of Internet Names and Addresses' but universally known in Internet circles as simply 'the White Paper' (NTIA 1998b).
With the release of the White Paper on June 3, 1998, the U.S. government took an unusual approach to the transition. Instead of using its rule-making powers to settle issues, instead of creating an organization and specifying the rules it would follow, it threw the responsibility back to the warring parties, back to what it called private sector stakeholders. The government's announced intention was to 'recognize . . . and seek international support for a new, not-for-profit corporation formed by private sector Internet stakeholders' (NTIA 1998b, 31749). That new corporation, not the U.S. government, would make the difficult policy decisions. It was up to the Internet community itself to form this organization and come to the U.S. government with a single proposal that commanded the unified support of the global Internet community. This had to be done in only four months.
[1 ]The IFWP call for participation, June 1998. Some materials from the original IFWP has been archived by Ellen Rony at <http://www.domainhandbook.com/ifwp.html >.
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