The National Science Foundation (NSF), the Internet's Domain Name System (DNS), and The Privacy Act of 1974

Executive Summary

What we now call the Internet began in the early 1970's as the ARPAnet.

By the mid 1970's the infrastructure of the network had evolved to the degree that compilations were made of the people on the net, including their names, titles, affiliations, addresses, and telephone numbers.

Today those compilations contain information on perhaps more than a million individuals.  Many of these individuals are citizens or residents of the United States.  Many are in the compilations because of their government affiliations.

It is effectively impossible to obtain a "domain name" on today's Internet without being required to disclose personal information to organizations which have no obligation to protect the privacy of that information.

Although these compilations have been paid for through contracts from the Federal Government, there is virtually no privacy protection.  The lists are wide open to abuse.  Indeed these valuable lists are on the verge of being handed over to a private, for-profit corporation without any statutory authorization, compensation to the government, or promises of privacy protection for the information.

In 1992 the National Science Foundation, issued a solicitation for the "InterNIC".  This was a consolidation of existing practices for domain name registration and publication of information about individuals on the Internet.

The domain name registration portion of the InterNIC was awarded to Network Solutions, Inc.  The database and information publishing portion went to AT&T.  NSF used a contractual form used by Federal Agencies known as a "Cooperative Agreement".

The interaction of NSF with the InterNIC contractors, especially Network Solutions, Inc. contains many highly questionable episodes.

NSF has managed to transform a simple "cost-plus" arrangement into one in which virtually all of the valuable property rights from before the start of the agreement plus all those created at NSF's expense during the agreement become the private property of NSI.

In addition, NSF has twisted the notion of "cost-plus" into a situation in which NSI has been granted world-wide, monopoly rights to perform fee-for-registration services in the most highly valuable commercial top level domains.

And NSF has abandoned its contractual rights to reimbursement of its expenses out of those fees and has, as well, abandoned its contractual right to receive no-cost registrations in the .edu and .gov domains.  Indeed, despite NSF's payments to NSI of several millions of dollars to perform registration services, NSF has decided to start paying for registrations in those domains, in essence paying NSI twice for the same services.

And finally, NSF has required NSI to withhold 30% of registration fees and place them into a fund subject to only the most shadowy of control, but arguably for the benefit of NSF.  This could readily be characterized as a  "sales tax" that NSF has imposed on NSI's business without any authorization from Congress.

In mid-1997, NSF allowed NSI to spin-off part of its obligations under the Cooperative Agreement into a new organization named ARIN.  This organization, of which the board of directors and management are dominated by NSI, is empowered to allocated IP address space in the Americas; a position of substantial power, one which is effectively unregulated and self-perpetuating.  By allowing this spin-off, NSF has reduced NSI's obligations under the Cooperative Agreement, but has not reduced the compensation that NSF is paying to NSI.

On November 16, 1997, I made a request to the National Science Foundation (NSF) under the Privacy Act of 1974 (5 USC 552a) and NSF's own regulations implementing the Act (45 CFR 613).

I requested that NSF disclose to me whether or not my name appears in the system of records informally known as "the Domain Name database" operated by the NSF through its contractor, Network Solutions, Incorporated, under cooperative agreement No. NCR-9218742.

On December 24, 1997 the NSF responded.  Their letter did not answer my request, but, rather, stated that it is NSF's position that the Domain Name database is not subject to the Privacy Act of 1974.

This letter contained many statements which would surprise much of the Internet community, members of Congress, and US taxpayers:

harvbull.gif (257 bytes) The National Science Foundation has no interest in protecting the privacy of over a million individuals despite the existence of the Privacy Act of 1974.

Indeed the NSF has gone out of its way to mischaracterize the facts and to create an intricate and unsupportable legal theory why it has no obligations to protect databases of individual names, addresses, e-mail addresses, and telephone numbers that NSF has paid to have created, collated, and published.

harvbull.gif (257 bytes) Despite the fact that NSF has paid several million dollars over the years to create and maintain the "Domain Name Database", NSF has stated that it has no control over that database and that the data belongs to Network Solutions, Inc, a private corporation.
harvbull.gif (257 bytes) NSF considers the collection of names, telephone numbers, and other contact information associated with the operation of the domain name system to be a distinct and severable database from the "zone" files used to load the server computers of the Domain Name System.
harvbull.gif (257 bytes) NSF considers that the collection of names, telephone numbers, and other contact information associated with the operation of the domain name system is the property of Network Solutions, Inc, a private company, despite the fact that the NSF and its predecessors funded the gathering of this information.
harvbull.gif (257 bytes) NSF is  implicitly abandoning any right to obtain that information at the end of the Cooperative Agreement with NSF.  And without that information, the remaining "zone" files will rapidly become useless.
harvbull.gif (257 bytes) NSF is implicitly abandoning that information base to Network Solutions, Inc. for its exclusive use and for its own financial gain.
harvbull.gif (257 bytes) NSF can't even get back information about the .gov domain or information which NSI obtained from its predecessors.
harvbull.gif (257 bytes) NSF considers its funding of Network Solutions, Inc to be a "federal financial assistance grant".

In addition, these statements, given as they were in response to a properly formed request, are, in effect, binding statements of NSF policy regarding the ownership of the various records comprising the Domain Name database.

The purpose of this set of Web Pages is to analyze NSF's position as disclosed in their response.

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Updated: January 23, 1998