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National Academy of Science and the Domain Name System Controversy

The National Academy of Science (NAS) has been brought into the controversy over the future development of the Internet and its domain name system, a controversy recently fueled by the creation of ICANN. The US Congress under Public Law 105-305 mandated that the NAS undertake a study of the domain name system, which is to include options for its development, and the potential impact of the various alternatives. The $800,000 expenses for the study are to be funded by the National Science Foundation and the US Department of Commerce.

In Public Law 105-305, the US Congress asks the National Research Council (NRC) of the NAS to do a comprehensive study which offers recommendations regarding the short and long-term effects on the protection of trademark rights and consumer interests of increasing or decreasing the number of generic top-level domains. The study is to take into account the diverse needs of domestic and international Internet users. The mandate of the NAS is to study problems involving science and technology.

Historically the NAS relies for its studies on unpaid researchers with personal expertise. The definition of the scope of this newly constituted committee states that the committee is to explore the ability of the Internet’s domain name system to serve the growing needs of the Internet, and to explain the other options. It is good to see this slightly broader phrasing of the problem. The US Congress only identified the problem of the protection of trademark rights, which is too narrow a focus. How can the request be interpreted to make it possible to provide scientific advice? Domain names and trademarks are not the same, and the efforts to equate them have led to misunderstanding and subsequent conflicts.

The general nature of the problem is how to scale the Internet and, in particular, its domain name system. This broader focus would take into account the trademark problems that have developed, the ways a directory system might be desirable to provide some of the functionality the domain name system is now being asked to meet, and other pressures on the domain name system or other aspects of the Internet’s infrastructure.

Members of a committee to conduct such a study would need to be knowledgeable about the nature and development of the Internet. Relevant experience would be knowledge of how aspects of the Internet’s infrastructure in the past have been developed and scaled. Other appropriate expertise would include knowledge of the vision that gave birth to the Internet and how that vision helped to support its evolution.

The members who have been chosen for the NAS DNS committee, in general, have a different expertise. Several on the committee appear to have little knowledge of the developments or vision that set the foundations for the Internet. There are three lawyers on the committee, one of whom has her expertise in "corporate" governance. Under certain conditions, lawyers with diverse expertise might be called upon to offer their advice to a study at the NAS. But in this situation, there is a need for an understanding of the technology and its technical and social development, and the needs of its users. This is not the kind of scientific expertise that the lawyers who are appointed to the committee appear to possess. Internet governance is not the same as "corporate governance." These are very different fields of knowledge. One wonders if another problem is potential conflict of interest. This would apply to any committee member with ties to multinational corporations with a commercial self-interest in the direction Internet development takes.

There is a basic problem with the committee’s composition and definition, which is of a more serious nature. In his book Government and Science, Don Price describes the role that science and technology have played in the evolution of the US government. He also discusses the difficulty that government officials have making policy decisions in areas that require scientific or technical understanding. Price explains though there is a need for advice from those with the appropriate expertise, especially important is the need for advice from diverse perspectives so that the problem can be adequately understood and an actual solution found.

In both the composition of the committee created by the NAS and the scope of the study, there continues to be a narrowing of how the problem facing Congress will be investigated. Instead a broad ranging perspective is needed to understand the problem and find a solution. For example, there appears to have been no effort to include on the committee those whose expertise involves the needs of the science, research, and educational communities. Nor does there seem to be anyone with expertise in the need for Internet users to interact and collaborate. Instead the committee reflects the narrow view in its scope definition of the Internet as encompassing "multinational corporations, small businesses, and individuals." This denies that online users are often part of a much broader community.

This critical weakness was presented to a staff person at the NAS. His response was to suggest looking at a book written by one of the members of the committee. The chapter of the book that is made available online is based on a theory of how technology develops, but not on any actual study of the Internet to see whether the theory fits the circumstances of the Internet’s developments.

Also, in response to questions about the nature of the DNS study, an NAS staff member recommended looking at another NAS study, Funding a Revolution (NAS, 1999). This study is about the research processes, which made it possible to develop the Internet and related computer technologies. It includes a helpful section on the management techniques developed by the Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO)(1962-1986).

This study describes how IPTO protected and supported researchers, encouraging collaboration. The IPTO management style and funding made possible the research creating the Internet, interactive computing and other new computer communications technologies of our times. The study takes a historical approach, recognizing that the future will not replicate the past, but that studying the past teaches what is feasible and how to build on the lessons from those experiences.

The scope of the NAS DNS study, on the contrary, does not include any provision to study the early development of the Internet so as to understand how it was able to become an international communications infrastructure. Nor has there been any effort to include on the committee those with such personal expertise. Also there is no indication of anyone on the committee with any expertise in understanding the successful role that government played in the early development of the Internet. Instead the committee is composed of a number of people whose research, it appears, has been geared to trying to change the general structure of the public Internet into a more narrowly oriented privately owned commercial network.

The committee that the NAS has constituted and the definition it has created as its scope do not reflect the needs or general-purpose viewpoint of those in the Internet community and so are likely to make the controversy over the future of the Internet and the DNS even worse. This will not help the US Congress to understand the problem nor how to contribute to a solution.

The scaling of the Internet requires the best scientific expertise available to the US Congress. The current composition of the DNS committee and the scope of its definition do not demonstrate any recognition of the public nature and the international scope of the Internet and its future development. Only a scientific approach to the problem can serve those needs. A narrow approach serving vested interests will not be helpful. This is an important challenge and it is the responsibility of the NAS to take up the challenge. Will the NAS include anyone on the final committee with the critical expertise that is now missing? Such people were recommended to the NAS but not invited to participate on the committee. Also there is a need to rework the definition of the scope of the committee to welcome input from the Internet community utilizing online processes. This is the kind of process needed for the NAS study that will support the broad ranging needs of the Internet community and the future of the Internet.

*This article was originally published by Telepolis on 3/30/2001. For a  follow up to this article please click here.

By Ronda Hauben, Author & Researcher

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