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WSIS and the Splitting of the Root

There’s talk that in the battle between the USA and Europe over control of ICANN, which may come to a head at the upcoming World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis, people will seriously consider “splitting the root” of DNS.

I’ve written a fair bit about how DNS works and how the true power over how names get looked up actually resides with hundreds of thousands of individual site administrators. However, there is a natural monopoly in the root. All those site admins really have to all do the same thing, or you get a lot of problems, which takes away most of that power.

Still, this is an interesting power struggle. If a large group of admins decided to switch to a new DNS root, different from ICANN, they could. The cooperation of Microsoft, which includes the default root list for IIS, and Paul Vixie, who puts that list in BIND, would play a large part in that as well.

In fact, many times in the past people have split the root by creating alternate, “superset” roots which mirror the existing .com/.org/.net/etc. and add new top level domains. Some of these have been “innocent” efforts frustrated at how slowly ICANN had created new TLDs, but in truth all of them have also been landgrabs, hoping to get ownership of more generic terms, furthering the mistake that was made with .com. ICANN is also furthering the mistake, just more slowly. (The mistake is ignoring what trademark law has known for centuries—you don’t grant ownership rights in ordinary generic terms.)

All of these superset attempts have also failed. I don’t think I have ever seen anybody promote a URL using one of the alternate root TLDs, or give me an email address from an alternate root TLD. I consider that failure.

This is, of course, what creates the natural monopoly. Few people are interested in setting it up so that two different people looking for a domain get different results. That applies to the fact that most people get an error for www.drug.shop (in the new.net alternate TLDs) and a few get the registrant’s site, but it applies even moreso to the idea that Americans would get one answer for foo.com and Europeans a different one.

Because of this, Larry Lessig recently suggested he wasn’t worried about a root split because there would be such strong pressure to keep them consistent.

The difficulty is, what’s the point of creating your own root if you can’t actually make it any different from the original? The whole point of wanting control is to have your way when there is a dispute, and to have your way does not mean just doing it the same as everybody else lest we get inconsistent results.

It’s possible that a group of nations might try to wrest control in order to do nothing at first, but eventually create a superset of TLDs which would, for the first time, be a success. That might work, since if all the nations of the world except the USA were to go to a new root set, it would be hard for the private individuals in the USA who control name servers not to follow. But then the new group would no doubt attempt at some point to issue policies for the existing top-level-domains and country code domains.

People do want their own way, and that’s bad. The truth is that nobody should be in control of the root. Not the USA, not Europe, not the UN. It is actually possible to build a root under the control of no nation. Instead, it could be under the control of a committee dedicated to a set of very simple principles. Principles so simple that disputes over them are few, and deviation from the principles is obvious. That means all real disputes must be pushed down a level, to where specific, actionable entities are in control, and that’s fine if there are lots of them, and they are truly competing—on policy and jurisdiction, and not just on price as we have today.

Since this plan calls for the eventual slow wasting away of the generic TLDs (over which we are doomed to have global and local battles) I’ve refined my proposal there. There need be no fee for new, non-generic TLDs, and the fee for the generics should go up, exponentially. This year 25 cents, then 50 cents, a buck, 2 bucks and so on. Gives everybody plenty of time to migrate away from .com, but also makes very clear to even the very richest that they can’t sustain ownership of terms in the generic space forever. (In 20 years the fee would be over $250,000 per year) After everybody migrates away, the non-generics would have to pay minimal fees instead of getting subsidies.

ICANN could even allow this plan to start by allocating one of the rare single letter top-level-domains (it doesn’t matter much which) to a trans-national group. Domains of the form yourname.{coinedterm}.i would be almost as saleable as yourname.{coinedterm}.

Posted from Brad Ideas blog.

By Brad Templeton, Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) Boardmember, Entrepreneur and Technologist

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The Famous Brett Watson  –  Nov 15, 2005 4:53 AM

A critical analysis of this article could take a very long time. I’ll therefore restrict my comments to the part of your article which sets off every mental alarm bell I have: the phasing out of generics, like “.com”.

This proposal doesn’t pass the laugh test. At July 2005, there were over forty million registered “.com” domain names. What force on earth is going to persuade those registrants that they should subject themselves to the financial thumbscrews? What percentage of Internet users are going to welcome the inconvenience of their “.com” email address being phased out? Or the URL of their favourite portal, search engine, or bank changing? Or the breakage of every legacy URL involving a “.com”?

If you don’t like “.com”, you’re welcome to mask it out in your local resolver configuration. Good luck persuading the rest of the world to join you, though! VeriSign might like your idea of exponentially increasing fees (if they get to keep the cash—not part of your plan, but they can try), but even they are likely to see that this isn’t going to work, dollar signs notwithstanding. The rest of the world will ask you the very pointed question, “why on earth would we want to do that?

I put it to you that if you were granted the position of Supreme Benevolent Dictator of ICANN, and made phasing out “.com” part of your stated policy, you’d precipitate a popular uprising faster than you can say “Jon Postel”. Regardless of whatever else happens, “.com” is a legacy we’re going to be stuck with for a long time to come.

Brad Templeton  –  Nov 15, 2005 5:37 AM

Indeed, phasing out the generics like .com would be perhaps insurmountably hard.  In fact, that people would cling to it so much is to some degree evidence of why it was a mistake.

As I’ve noted in the related essays, trademark law has known for centuries that you should not grant monopoly rights over generic terms.  Yet that is, in essence what we have done.  No wonder that people want so much to have them.  The dark side is easier, quicker, more seductive.  Who wouldn’t love to own generic terms?

So what ways are there to correct the mistake, where we made .com special, and created a foolish scarcity in what should have been an infinite sea?  The ever-escalating rates are simply an example proposal.  The real core idea is that no one entity should control naming—instead there should be many competing systems, competing on policy as well as price, all on a level playing field.

We can’t have that level playing field when a few generic TLDs are elevated above the rest for legacy reasons.  Until we fix that, we’ll have battles, like the potential one between the USA and EU.

The Famous Brett Watson  –  Nov 16, 2005 5:02 AM

That people would cling to “.com” is evidence that we’ve grown somewhat dependent on names in that space. That it became so disproportionately popular in the first place is evidence that it was a mistake—perhaps. Given that the larger companies tend to buy their name in every available namespace, it’s not clear to me what naming strategy would have been better up-front, even with the benefit of hindsight. Cornucopia, perhaps, although I’m obviously biased on that account, and it takes hindsight to see its benefits.

I’m still highly dubious that trademark law is a pattern we want to follow. Trademark is specific to a region and to a field of business, whereas domain names are absolutely global. If we were to genuinely apply trademark to the DNS problem, we would insist that all registered names include the region and field of business (in addition to the trademark name) to remove ambiguity. Given that geography, at least, is hierarchical in nature, we would probably have names like “joes-pizza.tm.san-jose.ca.us”, and “ibm-computer.tm.int”. The “tm” sub-component is included in order to allow names that aren’t trademarks (e.g. government entities) room in the overall namespace. Details aside, anything that doesn’t involve this level of verbosity isn’t really following trademark.

You say, “no one entity should control naming—instead there should be many competing systems, competing on policy as well as price, all on a level playing field.” This sounds very nice, but it’s the kind of statement that can have “and every girl should have a pony” appended to it without impacting its practicality. And aside from the fact that there’s no suggestion of a practical means to achieve the end, I’m not at all persuaded that your prescription for a better world actually results in the better world you describe. The idea that an oversight committee could have a set of principles which were both adequate and so simple that “disputes over them are few, and deviation from the principles is obvious” sounds more like wishful thinking than a plan. I’d like to see these principles spelled out, since I suspect they’ll be controversial in actual practice.

In short, if you’re saying, “this is a bitter pill that I offer, but it’s for your own good,” people are going to agree with the part about it being bitter, and doubt the part about it being good. Some hard evidence of actual benefit is in order.

Brad Templeton  –  Nov 16, 2005 9:02 AM

I see a few options.  The ICANN system has a single entity with battles for control.  It hands out monopoly rights over generic terms like .com/.museum/.mobi and people battle over them.  It gets battles over .xxx and the like.

The alternative is multiple competing systems.  Instead of battle, most contention is solved by competition.  You don’t like how one autonomous TLD does it, you try another.  The only contention comes from those who want not just their own way but to control everybody else.  They exist, but there are fewer of them.

I don’t think that’s a pipe dream, we have systems like that in many spaces.  The hard part is how to make a level playing field for the autonomous TLDs.  If they get ownership of generic terms, then there is contention because one is inherently better than another.  I am not proposing we adopt trademark law with its jurisdictions and geographic locales (where did you get that?) but that we listen to the lesson of centuries of trademark experience—you don’t let people get monopoly rights on generics.

There are other options for level playing fields, but I think the lessons from the field of branding are probably the best understood.  But I’m happy to see other suggestions.  It’s hard to defend the status quo in my book, no playing field at all, just one player.

I’m also very open to alternate suggestions for how to move to a level playing field.  The legacy makes it hard, but even competition in an unfair system, where Network Solutions gets a leg-up for legacy reasons, is better than one body setting all the rules for naming when there’s no good reason for that to exist.

The Famous Brett Watson  –  Nov 16, 2005 11:57 AM

Brad, my point with regards to trademark and branding is that the differences between those ideas and the domain name system render dubious any “lessons” we might learn from them. Given the differences, are the supposed parallels actually parallel in any meaningful way? Are the lessons from trademark applicable to the DNS? Yes, they have superficial similarities, but they also have deep differences. Do the reasons why generic terms are not allowed as trademarks apply to the DNS? I’m highly sceptical that they do.

That’s not to say that generic terms aren’t significant in some way. On the contrary, I’d argue that they are, but I don’t think trademark law can shed any useful light on why it’s so—it just confuses things. Basic economics, on the other hand, gives us something of a model by which to understand the situation, and you’ve been adopting economic language in talking about a “level playing field”. I think you should abandon analogies with trademark and concentrate on the economic aspects: the whys and wherefores of trademark aren’t always applicable to DNS, but supply and demand is supply and demand.

Given that you simply can’t get rid of “.com” in any time-frame worth talking about, what additional naming structure would you put in place as an alternative? Would anyone be interested in adopting it as a matter of free choice, or would we need to engage in active governance (in the form of subsidies) in order to create incentives? Explain how your policy with regards to generic terms furthers your goals.

Brad Templeton  –  Nov 16, 2005 7:06 PM

While some see getting rid of .com as impossible, I think anything is possible over a decade horizon.  After all, to most of the world, .com didn’t even exist a decade ago.

However, to counter what I’ve just said, it is the case that DNS is starting to replace the trademark system, which is why its lessons are important.  Today, it is the norm, before choosing how to brand a product or a startup, to make sure the a good domain name for the brand will be available, most of the time with an insistence on .com.  If you can get your brand as a domain in .com, it is believed you simplify a great deal the path to finding your web site.

People are also considering other things, like whether you will be able to find it in google.  That’s a two edged sword.  A coined term will be readily found in any search engine, but will also make criticism easily found.

My main point is that we’ll never get the best system through committee meetings and trans-national bodies.  Not even close.  Only when the public can choose among competing systems will that happen.  And there is no reason (unless you feel a need to control everybody, everywhere as WIPO does) not to have competing, largely autonomous systems.

However, they won’t compete well if one is inherently better than the others on day 1.  If I can have a domain like .museum or .xxx, then no matter how bad I am in other ways, I am still the likely choice for certain types of users.  And of course, .com/.net/.org and the rest have a big legacy boost which ideally we would like to be rid of.

Though I do agree we won’t be rid of it any time soon, I don’t pronounce that goal to be impossible.  However, we’ve had to deal with the problem of encouraging the flourishing of competition in the face of a legacy monopoly before—there are solutions.

John Palmer  –  Nov 18, 2005 3:43 PM

I think that significance of domain names as identifiers of personal and
corporate entities is QUICKLY vanishing.

Look at how most internet users use the net. If they want to find something,
the go to Google or another search engine and enter a search phrase and
click on links that come up. How many of them notice the domain name in
the URL? Not many.

Domain names are still used for other things, but they are quickly becoming
like IP addresses - behind the scenes identifiers.

It used to be that domain names were human-readable, easy to remember identifiers
for hosts. People remember names easier than numbers. Its also easy to renumber
your hosts if need be without loosing your identity on the net.

Now, the end user doesn’t worry about domain names anymore - we have another
level of indirection, which is even more intuitive for the average user.

Soon, domain names will only serve a purpose to allow a link between search
engines and hosts. IP addresses are neccessarily organized in a hierarchy for
structural, technical reasons and renumbering is sometimes neccessary if you
change ISP’s for instance. Domain names will serve the purpose to maintain a
link from search engine to host name, but end users are increasingly insulated
from them.

All of this hullabaloo over domain names in Tunisia is just a bunch of
political chest-thumping because the world doesn’t like George Bush and what
he’s done in Iraq. I think the era of domains as identifying monikers is over
already. Time moves on, old technologies vanish or loose some of their original
use. Such is the case with DNS.

Brad Templeton  –  Nov 18, 2005 5:56 PM

People are using search more but not to the extent you say, and people are still fighting over domain names.

Domain names were primarily created for E-mail, and they are still used for that today, and every person in the world puts their e-mail address on their business card, and it needs to be readable, memorable and typable.  And people don’t want to use search in this context for a variety of reasons.  When you give a domain on a business card or brochure, you want people to use it to easily get to you and only you.  The importance of that is not going away.

Once you get into replies the domain goes into the address book and becomes less relevant, but the intial contact needs the domain.  And doesn’t want search because the consequences of sending an e-mail to the wrong place are vastly greater than accidentally picking up the wrong web page.

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