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When the company under contract to run much of the Internet’s core decided last fall to launch a new online search service, it saw an opportunity to help lost Web surfers find their way. But critics saw it as a bald grab for dollars and worried that the Site Finder search system could cause Internet instability. The Internet’s key oversight agency responded by pressuring the company, VeriSign Inc., to pull it. That dispute has turned into a key test of whether financial or public interest ultimately drives decisions on how Internet users worldwide visit Web sites and send e-mail. A federal lawsuit that grew partly from that dispute has a hearing Tuesday in Los Angeles. The lawsuit, filed by VeriSign, is the latest threat to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which was selected by the U.S. Commerce Department in 1998 to oversee key aspects of cyberspace. “If VeriSign prevails, ICANN really is going to be legally prohibited from doing all sorts of stuff that it sees as a key part of its mandate,” said Jonathan Weinberg, a Wayne State University law professor who has examined ICANN’s contracts with VeriSign. In addition to the complaints by VeriSign, some developing countries are trying to shift ICANN’s authority to an international body, perhaps under the United Nations. Both challenges grow out of frustrations over ICANN’s scope and procedures. ICANN chief executive Paul Twomey said such strife is to be expected in a 5-year-old organization pieced together not through laws or treaties but through nearly two decades of contracts, amendments, memorandums and informal arrangements. “There’s no other organization like it partly because the Internet is so unique,” Twomey said. “ICANN has been a startup going to a more mature stage.” The disputes may seem arcane, but ICANN decisions could have broad impact on the Net’s stability. Until ICANN stepped in, for instance, Web sites ending in “.ly” temporarily disappeared this spring because of private disputes in Libya over the country’s central directory of domain names. ICANN coordinates the Internet’s addressing system, a set of databases that tell computers how to route e-mail, chat messages and Web traffic. VeriSign has the contract to run the databases listing the 250 or so domain name suffixes — such as “.com” and “.fr” — as well as “.com” and “.net” subdirectories that point to specific sites like “Microsoft.com.” Those databases typically get more than 11 billion inquiries a day worldwide, and shutting them off would be akin to removing all the world’s road signs and burning all maps. Last fall, VeriSign introduced Site Finder, a service for guiding Internet users who mistype “.com” or “.net” addresses. Instead of an error message, Web surfers get suggestions on where they might have wanted to go. VeriSign gets money for directing traffic to some of those sites. Because Site Finder made some spam filters and rival search services stop working properly, ICANN threatened legal action. Critics said VeriSign was trying to make millions from its management of what is essentially a public resource. Hours later, VeriSign agreed to suspend the service. But it eventually sued ICANN over Site Finder and what the company considers unnecessary delays and conditions placed on other planned offerings, including domain names in foreign languages. The company complains ICANN decisions have been inconsistent. It also says services like Site Finder aren’t covered by its ICANN contract, while ICANN considers them fundamental to VeriSign’s role on the Net. Tuesday’s hearing involves ICANN’s motions to throw out most of the case. Esther Dyson, former chairwoman of ICANN, said a ruling against the organization could establish that “special interests prevails over the general interest.” But Tom Galvin, VeriSign’s vice president of government relations, said a ruling for ICANN could discourage innovation. Even if ICANN prevails, it still faces the international challenge. A U.S. task force is being formed this summer to consider an alternative governing arrangement. Developing countries take issue with the California-based ICANN’s roots and ongoing ties with the U.S. government, even as the organization opened a new Brussels office in January and has three-fourth of its board members from outside the United States. Operators of scores of country-specific domain names continue to resist signing contracts with ICANN. And some critics say ICANN takes too long to rule on disputes over management of their databases, many of which were arbitrarily assigned in the 1980s when those countries barely had an Internet. ICANN officials say the organization is trying to make its procedures even more open and clear. In response to the Site Finder controversy, it is also developing ways for companies like VeriSign to get such services approved more easily. Hans Klein, chairman of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, said ICANN was designed to run more like a condominium board than a government. At times, he said, that leads to “amateurism, casualness and lack of due process.” Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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