October 16, 2003

SCO and Verisign, the Techno Bobbsey Twins?

It was reported today that Verisign is going to revive its internet-damaging "sitefinder".

My guess is that this is headed towards litigation involving ICANN, Verisign, and the US Department of Commerce.

And my guess is that this is exactly what Verisign intended to happen.

It appears that Verisign has followed a well planned strategy to create the appearance of technical debate and a colorable (albeit technically empty) claim that there is no reason to fear irreparable harm.  This strategy seems designed to create a long and expensive legal fight in which Verisign will argue that judges should refrain from imposing their lay decisions on questions on which technical experts are purported to be divided.  And Verisign will probably argue that due to the absence of irreparable harm "sitefinder's" DNS wildcard redirection mechanism should be allowed to operate, and generate revenue for Verisign, during the legal proceedings.

Verisign seems to be taking a cue from SCO.  Both are creating a thick techno-legal fog to hide what is in essence an attempt to hijack a major public asset.

ICANN may not have the financial resources to fight this fight.  And ICANN may discover not only that lengthy, highly detailed contracts are very likely to contain holes but also that ICANN's behavior, such as its loose use of the concept of "consensus", has created contractual ambiguities.  ICANN has created a situation in which Verisign could perhaps dance around the contracts for years and years and years.

Will the US Department of Commerce do anything?  The DoC has over the years demonstrated an amazing degree of self-inflicted blindness, immobility, and unconcern for the public good.  But there is something else that may eliminate the DoC as a player:

Over the years the question has been asked again and again: What is the source of authority upon which the Department of Commerce and NTIA base their actions in these matters?  The Department of Commerce and NTIA have never articulated clear answers.  Perhaps this is because they are like Wiley Coyote in a Roadrunner cartoon -  they have run off of a cliff and are standing in mid air, seemingly immune to gravity and sources of authority - but we all know that eventually the lack of support will noticed and they will crash to the ground.  Verisign could, and probably will, try to deflect any move by the Department of Commerce by asking the Department to prove that its source of authority is something more than hand waving.

We can add to this whole smelly brew the fact that virtually everyone is terrified of what might happen should .com go off the air even for a short time.  (And we ought not to forget that there are some patents lurking around out there that might have a big impact.)

My late night prediction is this:

  • That there will be litigation, that it will be prolonged and expensive, and that during the months and years of legal proceedings Verisign will be able to avoid an order restraining the continued operation of sitefinder's DNS wildcard based redirection.

  • I'm not sure that either ICANN or the Department of Commerce will prevail - they may lack the will, the authority, the staying power, or the contractual provisions.

  • But even if they were to prevail, the net will change long before this case is concluded.  The DNS could split into distinct (but generally consistent) systems - in this case watch for Verisign to become a uncompromising advocate of draconian database copyright laws so as to prevent anyone copying the unordered collection of facts that comprise the .com zone.

(I would predict that ICANN will disappear except for the fact that ICANN will continue to be a nice curtain behind which the whole IP address allocation system can be hidden.)

Verisign is indeed screwing the pooch, the long-term public good, and poisoning the end-to-end principle that has allowed the internet to become what it is.  Verisign is a for-profit company and it is expected, and even obligated, to behave in ways that optimize its short-term assets with little concern for the long-term cost to the public.  If we want to lay blame, it is to be placed at the feet of ICANN and the US Department of Commerce; the former for its obsession with protecting intellectual property at the expense of the technical stability of the internet and the latter for its unwillingness to give unambiguous commands backed by unambiguous authority.

The real issue here is how to heal the wound that this situation is causing.  I don't see any path that will not cause a significant disruption in the internet.  In other words, we are probably facing a period of significant internet instability.

Posted by karl at October 16, 2003 2:10 AM