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1998 Web Study Finally Finished

Talk about turning in your homework late: The government just finished a report on Internet traffic that Congress requested seven years ago.

Lawmakers had demanded the $1 million federal study, ultimately called "Signposts in Cyberspace," under a 1998 federal law, the Next Generation Internet Research Act. Passed near the dawn of what became the Internet boom, it required the Commerce Department to seek a study about Web addresses and trademarks by the National Research Council and wrap up the report within nine months.

The research council was expected to publish its findings Thursday — two presidential administrations later and years after the implosion of what had been a bustling Internet economy.

"Time got extended," said Charles Brownstein, director of the research council's computer science and telecommunications board.

In the intervening period, Google emerged to dominate the Web, technology executives made then lost billions in stock options, lawyers shut down Napster over music piracy, high-speed Internet connections soared and the number of Web addresses climbed from 2.2 million to more than 65 million. The job of Commerce secretary, the top U.S. official responsible for overseeing the study, turned over three times.

Leading experts, including several who participated, defended the 283 pages of conclusions as significant and relevant. But some acknowledged so much time had passed — especially given the blistering pace of the Internet — that few people were anxiously awaiting the results anymore.

"To be honest, most people forgot it was ever going to happen," said Michael A. Froomkin, an Internet law professor at the University of Miami who reviewed two early drafts since 2001. "When it started, it seemed important; then it faded completely from sight."

Added Steven Crocker, a respected Internet pioneer: "It shouldn't have taken that long."

The research council concluded that the Internet's behind-the-scenes address scheme, called its domain name system, is remarkably robust and suitable to meet the Web's future needs. It urged minor technical improvements to secure the system from hackers and prevent outages from natural disasters, such as moving some of the Internet's 13 key traffic-directing computers outside Washington and Los Angeles.

It also recommended those traffic-directing computers continue to be operated by volunteers, organizations and corporations around the world rather than governments. And it advocated dozens of new Internet address suffixes — similar to ".com" and ".net" — be introduced each year to allow for new Web sites and e-mail addresses.

Brownstein said the government report was delayed substantially as the authors noticed dramatic changes in the same issues they were studying, including improvements to Internet search engines, better protections for safeguarding Web trademarks and emerging questions over the role for governments and the United Nations in the Internet. He also said the U.S. government didn't open its wallet as promised to pay for the study until 2001.

"I don't think there was any sense by the people on this committee that it would take this long," said Paul Vixie, another leading technologist who reviewed a confidential draft of the report two years ago. "But the Internet will do that to you."