Gee, when did we give away the Internet? (An analysis of news about WSIS)

by Andy Oram

Related link: http://www.wired.com/news/politics/0,1283,61527,00.html



I've been following the recent news on the
World Summit on the Information Society,
and it's getting really bizarre. The Wired article cited above 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 (but I haven't seen a story about WSIS on the
BBC Web site yet).



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 href="http://www.praxagora.com/andyo/ar/govern_itu.html">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.



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.


What's up for grabs at WSIS?


2 Comments

michael_odonnell
2003-12-10 19:15:56
Rescuing a piece of DNS
The resolution of meaningful, mnemonic, guessable, attractive names to IP addresses will always attract conflict. While engaging in that conflict, we should also rescue as much functionality as we can and return it to purely technical governance.


We should have a system of meaningless, permanently owned handles, directable to the owner's current IP address. It can be implemented right away as a zone within the DNS (e.g., handlezone.nicesponsor.org). Handles can be self-assigned hashes of public cryptographic keys, so the nicesponsor needs no assignment authority and need acknowledge no responsibility for registrant behavior.


The Handle Zone (Bob Frankston's dotDNS) is not a complete solution to the DNS conflict. Rather it is a beneficial step, with no downside, that can be taken immediately to change the ground of the conflict.


More discussion at
http://www.circleid.com/article.php?id=P225_0_1_0_C
http://people.cs.uchicago.edu/~odonnell/Citizen/Network_Identifiers/


Mike O'Donnell

andyo
2003-12-11 08:46:16
Justification of ORSC
Since putting up my blog I have heard from two proponents of the Open
Root Server Confederation, Einar Stefferud and Simon Higgs. Here I
will print Einar's comment, which shows the extensive thought and
caring he has long invested in Internet activities, followed by a
brief reply.


------------------------------------------------------------


Hi Andy;-)...


ORSC is not any kind of protest activity.


It is simply the operator of an Inclusive (versus Exclusive) root
service.


ORSC includes all ICANNic TLDs, directly copied from ICANN as is our
right, in that ICANN is obligated to mount its root service without
restrictions on access by anyone, and we do not mess with changing any
data from the ICANNic root.


Unlike ICANN, ORSC never mounts a new TLD that is is service in some
other root service. ORSC has no need to collide, since ORSC simply
would include any such non-ICANNic root as it is maintained.


In its last (actually its only) round of adding new TLDs, ICANN
deliberately and knowingly created a collision with two of the ORSC
TLDs, thus ICANN violated the primary mutual respect rules of Internet
interworking and collaboration, while pretending that ORSC does not
exist.


Being intentionally blind does cause certain difficulties for any
organization that is supposed to be coordinating the activities of a
large body of independent operators of any global system.


We did notify ICANN that it was colliding with ORSC TLDs, which you
might view as our protesting their actions, but it was really more of
a request to be recognized as an injured party by the actions of
ICANN.


In the end, ORSC concluded that ICANN was unlikely to ever add another
new TLD, so our exposure to future ICANNic collisions is very small.
So we are sort managing to sleep with an Elephant. It may or may not
be malevolent. but it is a bit hard to get a good night's sleep;-)...


I have not heard any stories about lack of sleep lately, so we are
just continuing to run an INCLUSIVE root for those who wish to use
it. No protest intended and the label is, we feel, unfairly tied to our
tail.


We will thank you to correct your text suggesting that ORSC is a
Protest Activity. Please feel free to mount this message text if you
wish, to help explain our intentions and our actions.


A prime fact of all this is the ORSC has never caused any collision
with any other TLD in any other root service, although others have
caused collisions with ORSC TLDs. More often than not, ORSC has ben
able to resolve these situations with proper arrangements. Thus, our
practice is to work with others to resolve collisions. rather than to
just let collisions fester without being resolved.


Cheers...\Stef


------------------------------------------------------------


Andy replies:


Stef shows what ORSC strives toward and what it could be. By calling
it a protest, I was simplifying things for the purposes of speaking
from the ramparts. I'm glad Stef and Simon have gone into more depth.


I can't really accept their view of ORSC (even though I've used one of
its root servers on my own system) until I see non-standard roots
advertised on billboards and strung across glossy ads in mainstream
business publications.


Without the widespread assurance that people are using the new roots,
the choice to define non-standards TLDs and point to an ORSC root
remains more of a protest than a way of using the Internet on a
day-to-day basis.


And somebody's got to do something when two organizations start
advertising the same TLD.