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When Did We Give Away the Internet?

I’ve been following the recent news on the World Summit on the Information Society, and it’s getting really bizarre. The Wired article is one example of out of the out-of-this-world coverage on the World Summit; I heard a similar spin yesterday on a radio show that often shares material with the BBC.

What king or dictator or bureaucrat has signed the document giving power over the Internet to one organization or another? Did I miss the ceremony?

One laughable aspect of news reportage is that the founders and leaders of ICANN always avowed, with the utmost unction, that they were not trying to make policy decisions and were simply tinkering with technical functions on the Internet. Of course, there is rarely such a thing as a merely technical function, and that truth has been borne out by the effects of ICANN’s policies on “intellectual property” and on the allocation of domain names in general. Perhaps it’s good for people to be talking openly of ruling the Internet.

But, in whatever ways ICANN has managed to wield its three-pronged fork (domain names, addresses, and assigned numbers such as protocols), it has never come close to being master of the Internet.

Now that the mainstream media have announced that the Internet is up for grabs, they are presenting the debate falsely as a two-sided fight between ICANN and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). That body that has regulated telecommunications for over a century, eventually came under the auspices of the United Nations, and has been searching for several years for a way to gain new relevancy in the Internet era. (I wrote an article on one of their forays some time ago.) It has never gotten anywhere close.

The WSIS meeting has generated the most news coverage of the ITU I’ve ever seen, so it must already be a success for them. If they can bully the U.S. government and ICANN enough to wrest some piece of the ICANN treasure from its grasp, I suppose they will consider the summit even more of a success.

So what is up for grabs? Certainly the right to define new top-level domain names (anybody visited a .museum site lately?) and to hand out to various favored organizations the plum of domain name registration (which really should be a nearly pure technical function, and has been turned into a heavy-weight, politicized activity by the “intellectual property” interests). But that’s not really very much.

The fears that seem to be circulating around the domain name fight is that governments or other organizations will use control over domain names to censor the Internet. Ironically, the biggest threat to freedom in the use of domain names has been from the private sector, specifically the “intellectual property” interests. But the danger is present that governments will catch on (China seems to be doing so) and manipulating the system to restrict free speech. Still, with search engines becoming more popular and more powerful all the time, domain names are not the prime prizes they seemed in the late 1990s.

IP addresses are also a potential source of control that Internet users should be conscious about, if not worried about. Addressing can be abused mainly in a context of scarcity, and there has been debate for years over whether IP addresses are getting scarce. (They’re certainly scarce when you ask the average local ISP for more than one!) A vigorous campaign to adopt IPv6 would remove most of the worry over this potential choke-hold.

And who ultimately is in charge of the Domain Name System? You are. You determine what domains you view. Somewhere on your personal computer is a configuration option that determines where you go to resolve top-level domains, and you can go far beyond what ICANN would like you to see. Visit the Open Root Server Confederation (ORSC).

Well, I don’t really mean to say that the Domain Name System is totally open and that nobody has control over it. ICANN is still enthroned. The ORSC is mostly a form of protest, not a model for the future. (It doesn’t solve the problem of name collisions, for instance.)

My point is that the Internet is a subtle ecology that has always rested on the cooperation of multiple parties. This cooperation spans a spectrum from the individual home user on his PC to the peering agreements between major backbone owners. As these peering arrangements and the history of ICANN show, systems have evolved historically in a rough, unsystematized way, and some participants do not like the terms of cooperation.

For instance, underdeveloped countries complain about the interconnection fees they have to pay to more powerful backbone operators in developed countries. Expanding interconnection points is a way to bring down costs without trying to change the politics of peering, but a review of the politics would also be pertinent.

While ICANN has bumbled many tasks and exceeded its authority on others, its leaders have a sense of the fragility of the Internet ecology. The ITU, in contrast, is tromping all over the grounds just in the process of mapping it. I find it amusing that, in their search for a boogie man, they have ceded to ICANN far more authority than anyone else has.

(The U.S. government reviews its contract with ICANN every year or two. It’s generally unhappy with what it sees and gives ICANN a tongue-lashing each time. But so far no one in the government has had the guts to propose something new. Given the problems of dealing with Internet ecology, I can understand their reticence.)

There are so many people who have spent years fighting within and outside ICANN to change the policies on domain names, that the view of Internet policy as ICANN vs. ITU is truly insulting.

Anyway, it’s time for some responsible journalists to untangle the mess caused by the current spin.

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Reproduced with permission from O’Reilly Network.

By Andy Oram, Editor at O'Reilly & Associates

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Comments

Mike O'Donnell  –  Dec 13, 2003 7:08 PM

“And who ultimately is in charge of the Domain Name System? You are. You determine what domains you view. Somewhere on your personal computer is a configuration option that determines where you go to resolve top-level domains, ...”

I think it’s time to take this point more seriously as a basis for action. Some modest deployment of new names entirely within the current DNS software and authority structure could devalue the ICANN “throne,” and let alternatives such as ORSC act as potential models for the future.

Imagine a root with no meaningful TLD names, only meaningless numerical handles, assigned promiscuously to all requesters. Since no individual handle has inherent value, there is little or no conflict over handle claims. Nobody tries to remember these handles. Rather, we embed selected ones in our own software tables, just the way we now embed IP addresses of our chosen name servers. Instead of thinking of top-level handles as horrible domain names, think of them as permanent portable IP numbers.

The owner of a handle may attach it to any service whatsoever, including a 2d-level DNS zone. A natural consensus favoring one particular 2d-level zone may return us to a natural monopoly similar to the current one. But that monopoly is always subject to challenge through the open registration and advertisement of alternatives, without resort to governing bodies.

In order to try out this proposed regime, there’s no need to stage a coup and capture the current root. Implement the handle zone at the third level (e.g., handlezone.sponsor.org) of the current DNS. Any sponsor capable of operating a name server for a busy zone could do this (e.g. ORSC). If the service is sufficiently popular, users and coders will gradually promote it by bookmarking, by recognizing it in browsers’ URL-completion functions. Eventually, root zones (perhaps starting with ORSC) can actually map the handles as TLDs, but that isn’t essential to success.

The best part of this proposal is that there is no serious downside. If it flops, nothing is lost from the current DNS. The handle zone only challenges the DNS root for user attention, not for any resource allocated by ICANN or Verisign.

Mike O’Donnell
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More info:

Bob Frankston proposes dotDNS.

A variety of draft articles.

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