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Network+: Without a domain name system, the Internet could effectively come to a halt on 1 April 1998

Last Thursday in the High Court, Prince plc, the UK information technology services company, won its action against Prince Sports Group Inc, the US tennis racquet manufacturer, over the right to use the Internet domain name "prince.com".

Prince plc has been using the name continuously since 1995 and now estimates that some 10 per cent of new business leads come via the World Wide Web. In January 1997, Prince Sports Group sent a letter to Prince plc. It accused Prince plc of infringing its trademarks and threatened legal action if Prince plc didn't assign the domain name to them and undertake not to use the name Prince in any new domain name.

Our domain name is more than just an Internet address - it is our electronic brand name for the 21st century. We had to fight for our name and the High Court agrees that Prince Sports' allegation of trademark infringement is unjustifiable. This is a significant case for non-US holders of domain names because it proves that the Internet is a level playing field with fair access for all.

However, fighting the case has led Prince to a far greater understanding of the wider implications for the future of the Internet. The current domain name system - the way in which Internet addresses are assigned to organisations - is due to come to an end in eight months' time. There is at present no universally agreed replacement. Without a domain name system, the Internet could effectively come to a halt on 1 April 1998. Most of the commercial world seems blissfully unaware of this problem. It is the big sleeper issue that could derail the Internet.

Under the current domain name system, there can only be one exclusive holder of a domain name and assignment is usually on a first-come, first- served basis. This is a recipe for litigation as many organisations around the world start to compete for names.

In Geneva last April, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed which proposed seven new domain names in a bid to ease the situation. At Prince plc we looked carefully at the new proposals, hoping that there might be a solution for the predicament we found ourselves in. But far from solving things, we fear the MOU will complicate matters still further. We believe it to be both technically and practically flawed and few of the major players appear to be backing it. However, we welcome it as a start towards defining a new system.

The most significant point for me is that most of the management and administration of the Internet is currently undertaken by private individuals and organisations. These people are not truly accountable to anyone for their actions. They are free to determine policies and make changes without full consultation. Their actions can affect rights in law as we have found to our cost.

Having said this, we must also realise that the commercial world owes these people a debt of gratitude for nurturing the Internet. It is poised to become the most important commercial medium for the 21st century. But the future Internet cannot continue to be run in this way. The domain name problem is just one example of the issues of governance that will continue to occur as the medium matures. What is urgently needed is a system of self-governance that is truly representative, responsible and above all accountable.

As part of its IT services, Prince plc provides Internet consultancy and development. Research into the domain name issues has taken us to Washington, where Congress and the White House are beginning to become acutely aware of the problems and current lack of a system of governance. But the Clinton administration is keen to take a back seat on Internet matters and is looking to the commercial world to take a lead.

The Information Technology Association of America held a two-day conference in Washington last week to look at some of the issues. This brought many of the major players together for the first time. John Wood, senior Internet consultant at Prince plc, was speaking on domain names and trademark issues. Unfortunately, we seemed to be the only non-US company in any way represented in the debate, which is undoubtedly moving towards shaping the framework of governance for the Internet. There are so many really important commercial, legal and technical issues at stake that non-US views must be fully represented.

Prince clearly sees the need of a forum for discussion. To this end, we are planning a series of international summits in the autumn where regional representatives from the legal, commercial, technical and constitutional stakeholder groups can meet to discuss plans and come to a consensus on the way forward.

Prince would encourage any organisation interested in taking part in the debate and the international summits to make contact through our Web site, which is still www.prince.com. The e-mail address is: Internet@prince.comn

Sally Tate is joint managing director of Prince plc.

Eva Pascoe's column returns on 19 August.