UPDATE - US Commerce Dept. set to favour ICANN-VeriSign deal

The US Department of Commerce yesterday said it was close to completing a review of a controversial proposal that would extend...

The US Department of Commerce yesterday said it was close to completing a review of a controversial proposal that would extend VeriSign's right to manage the .com Internet domain name registry until 2008.

According to a statement issued by the Commerce Department, representatives from the agency have been meeting with officials from VeriSign and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to discuss the proposed agreement they announced two months ago.

"The Department of Commerce has been reviewing the VeriSign-ICANN proposal," said Ted Kassinger, the agency's general counsel. "We have communicated our general thinking, are pleased with the progress and are confident [that] an agreement can be reached in the near term."

The Commerce Department, VeriSign and ICANN have all declined to comment on what the agency's "general thinking" about the deal entailed. They also refused to discuss the progress that has been made towards finalising the agreement, which requires Commerce Department approval before it takes effect.

"We haven't finished meeting yet," said VeriSign spokesman Brian O'Shaughnessy. "In fact, the Commerce Department is meeting [again] this morning, and there may be something else on this later this afternoon."

The board of directors at ICANN, which manages the Internet domain name system, approved the proposed agreement with VeriSign last month by a 12-3 vote. The deal would allow VeriSign to continue administering the .com and .net domain name registries for at least the next five years; in return, the company would relinquish the .org registry next year.

ICANN officials have said the new contract is needed because of changes in the domain name marketplace since a 1999 deal that awarded management rights for the three registries to Network Solutions, which later was acquired by VeriSign. In addition to overseeing the back-end registries, VeriSign has a separate unit that registers Web site names.

The original agreement called for VeriSign to divest either its registry or registrar business before the .com contract came up for renewal in 2003. But under the terms of the new agreement, that requirement would be dropped and VeriSign would get first call on renewing its control of the .com registry as long as the company met all of its contractual obligations.

In exchange, VeriSign's .net registry contract would be shortened by 22 months and then be opened up to competitive bids when it expired at the end of 2005. The .org registry would be transferred to another company by the end of next year. Even so, critics said during a public comment period on ICANN's Web site, the proposed changes are too friendly to VeriSign.

Meanwhile, ICANN today said it has finalised accreditation agreements with the companies that will run the registries for the planned .biz and .info top-level domains (TLDs). Those are among the seven new TLDs that are due to be added to the domain name system under a decision made by ICANN's board last autumn.

The .biz domain, which is reserved exclusively for commercial and business uses, is to be managed by NeuLevel. Vancouver-based NeuLevel announced that next Monday it plans to launch a process under which companies and individuals can stake claims to business trademarks by filing an intellectual property claim with a domain-name registrar.

Formal applications for .biz domain names will start being accepted in early July, and the Web site addresses are scheduled to become active in October. If multiple applicants are vying for the same domain name, NeuLevel said, a winner will be chosen after the applications are "completely randomised".

Afilias will oversee the .info registry, which will be available for use by businesses, public groups, government agencies and individuals. Afilias said it expects to begin the trademark application process in late June, pending approval from the Commerce Department.

ICANN said accreditation agreements for the other five new TLDs - .name, .pro, .museum, .aero and .coop - are expected to follow shortly. The organisation initially hoped to have the registry deals in place by the end of last year, but the process of finalising the agreements has taken longer than expected.

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