Master of His Domain Paul Garrin is fighting to keep his Internet registry firm alive and the Web from being dominated by big business
(FORTUNE Small Business) – Paul Garrin, 42, is angry, verbose, self-important, annoying, a tad paranoid, and possibly brilliant. A video artist of some importance in the 1980s, Garrin is now making a name for himself running an Internet domain name registry and Web hosting company he founded called Name.Space. Backed by investors he knew from his art days, the modest, five-year-old New York City venture has yet to show a profit. Still, business looked promising until November, when Garrin was forced to transform himself from an entrepreneur into a crusader. His mission: keep his business alive and the Internet from being dominated by big business.
He may hate the Don Quixote analogy, but Garrin is up against some pretty imposing windmills. Foremost among them: the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the quasi-governmental agency responsible for regulating Web addresses. In November, ICANN assigned seven new top-level domains (TLDs), including .biz for businesses and .pro for professionals such as lawyers and accountants. Garrin was one of 47 business owners hoping to see his company selected as a new TLD registry. (They all paid a $50,000 application fee just to be considered.) ICANN's 19-member board said adding new TLDs would foster competition, but many rejected applicants are skeptical. All the firms given the nod are either big businesses, consortia of big businesses, or nonprofits. While ICANN supporters point out that small businesses may not have the resources to run an international registry, folks like Garrin claim this isn't true.
Needless to say, Garrin was not selected, a fact that could put him out of business. He has no intention of closing shop, though. He has been through this kind of thing before. In 1998 he sued Network Solutions, the company initially appointed to control TLDs. Garrin alleged illegal monopolistic practices and took the case to the Supreme Court before money got too tight to continue. And so, Garrin continues to man Name.Space's servers alone, and he has been on the phone to Congress, his lawyers, and anyone else he can think of.
In February he hopped on a plane to Washington D.C., where he could be found handing out leaflets at a congressional hearing on the subject. In fact, during an impromptu Q&A with reporters following that hearing, ICANN chairman Vince Cerf had to ask Garrin to pipe down.
Garrin's in-your-face tactics haven't endeared him to the Internet's powers that be. Says Michael Roberts, CEO of ICANN: "He has some idiosyncratic ideas about the domain name system and intellectual property rights, but so far he hasn't been able to convince anyone he's right."
That's not completely true. The other small businesses that feel thwarted by ICANN may not like Garrin or his particular plan for an egalitarian Internet. But many agree that ICANN seemed to favor big companies over small ones. Garrin is sure of it: "I'm being punished for being ahead of my time," he says. He's an old-fashioned zealot with a zealot's sense of impending victory. "It's inevitable," he says about his dream of infinite TLDs and an Internet where anyone, no matter how small, could have the domain name of her choice. "It is the best way. It is the most practical way. It will happen, one way or another."
To say that Garrin's dream appears to be a long shot is to be kind. But who's to say really? After all, no one ever said visionaries had to be fun to be around.