Net privatization might affect higher education

David Hyland

If President Clinton has his way, the days of Internet addresses ending in “.com” or “.org” are numbered.
But while the change may not immediately affect the University’s Internet connections, the further privatization has some University officials worried about the medium’s new relationship with higher education.
Earlier this month, Clinton proposed to dismantle the monopoly of Network Solutions Inc., the private company contracted until March to hand out Internet domains on the government’s behalf. The proposal suggests vesting Network Solution’s powers into the hands of non-profit private entities.
Domains are the names given to Internet users or connections. Functioning like addresses, the domains ensure Internet traffic is routed to the proper destination. For example, the University’s domain is “umn.edu”.
Controversy erupted two years ago when companies started complaining about being charged for domains because of the limited number of addresses available. Many also criticized the government for not keeping pace with current technology.
“There’s a lot people across the country that have been complaining about the poor way this service has been run in the past — long waits, long delays, poor service on the server side,” said Jim MacDonald, assistant director of the University’s Computer Science department.
Originally, the Internet was created and developed by the U.S. government for research and defense department purposes. In 1992, it was commercialized.
While most aspects were put into private hands, some technical aspects remained within government control under Network Solutions. Clinton’s plan would privatize the remaining government-controlled areas.
Carolyn Parnell, director of the University’s Networking and Telecommunications department, said Clinton’s proposed changes would have no impact on the University’s current Internet domain.
She said there has been talk of spinning control of the “.edu” domain, which is used by American universities, into a private company as well.
But McDonald said the change will have a greater effect on the private companies and individuals that want to register under specific address names. Some of the newly suggested domains are “.web” for World Wide Web sites, “.firm” for online companies and “.nom” for personal sites.
But the proposed domain changes and the increased role of private industry only scratches the surface of problems that plague the Internet, University technology experts say.
Physics professor Tom Walsh said he is concerned about the government treading the line of running the Internet as a private enterprise versus as a public service. In 1985, Walsh was instrumental in bringing the predecessor of the Internet — ARPAnet — to campus.
“My only concern would be that some of these things, when you privatize them too early, you start turning something commercial before its really ready,” Walsh said. “You discover that people don’t want to actually pay for it because it isn’t functional.”
The Director of Computer Services, Shih-Pau Yen, said that although the proposal may improve the management and productivity of the Internet, Clinton’s plan will not benefit the country’s universities.
With further privatization of the Internet and decreasing government subsidies to help the universities, Yen said he fears higher education will face a losing battle for resources and technology access with private businesses.
“We’re not rich so we can’t compete with industry to get better service from private sectors,” Yen said.
Yen said the Internet was originally intended for researchers and higher education but as the government further privatized it, companies quickly moved in and dominated.
The Internet 2 — which is now being developed by a coalition of schools including the University — could remedy the dwarfed role of higher education on the Internet. But while Internet 2 is supported by the government and geared towards researchers, Yen said he worries about who will pay the operation costs if the government backs away.