February 26, 2004 5:19 PM PST

VeriSign sues ICANN to restore Site Finder

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A long-simmering dispute between the two organizations that control the way Internet domain names and addresses are run became public Thursday, after VeriSign filed a lawsuit claiming it had unlawfully been prevented from adding new features to .com and .net.

The suit, filed in the central district of California, claims that the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) has transformed itself over the last six years from a modest technical coordinating body into the "de facto regulator of the domain name system." The lawsuit, which alleges breach of contract and antitrust violations, was filed just three days before the beginning of ICANN's meeting in Rome next week.

A focus of VeriSign's brief, which lists 43 pages of grievances, is the controversial and currently suspended Site Finder service, which redirected expired or nonexistent .com and .net domains to the company's Web site. Last fall, ICANN ordered VeriSign to halt Site Finder, which had drawn fire from some network administrators and software developers who said it was disruptive.

"We have still to receive any information saying that Site Finder was going to be a threat to the stability or security of the Internet," said Tom Galvin, VeriSign's vice president for government relations. Galvin said that the two organizations had been butting heads for years, and VeriSign eventually "realized our best option was to try to get some sort of clarity in the legal sense."

At one level, the lawsuit represents a straightforward business dispute between two powerful groups, one for profit and the other not for profit, over terms in a contract. At another, though, it represents the first outbreak of public hostilities between the twin titans that effectively control the domain name structure that is the defining characteristic of the modern Internet. The two organizations have grown estranged in the six years since ICANN's birth.

"VeriSign is absolutely right to complain that there's no predictability about ICANN's procedures," said Michael Froomkin, a law professor at the University of Miami who has been critical of Site Finder. "ICANN sort of makes it up as they go along."

The lawsuit asks the court to bar ICANN from doing anything to "interfere with" the reinstatement of Site Finder. VeriSign, based in Mountain View, Calif., has sparred with ICANN over a number of issues besides Site Finder. Details surrounding a "Wait-Listing Service," which establishes VeriSign as a central place to buy all expiring .com and .net domains, have also been a sore point.

Under its contract with ICANN, VeriSign operates the master database of all .com and .net domains and collects a few dollars a year for each domain name from the scores of ICANN-accredited registrars that sell domain names to the public.

ICANN general counsel John Jeffrey could not be reached for comment.

The suit also asks for damages and a requirement that VeriSign be treated in a "fair, reasonable and equitable fashion" from now on.

The lawsuit comes as ICANN's control of Internet addresses and domain names--it is tasked with adding new ones such as .museum and .biz--is being challenged. On Thursday, the United Nations' International Telecommunication Union (ITU) held a "workshop on Internet governance" in Geneva. And as long ago as October 2002, the ITU prepared a report that expressed increased interest in edging into areas overseen by ICANN.

 

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