net.wars: What's in an assigned name?

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 03 July 2009

There's a lot I didn't know, at the time, about the founding of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, but I do remember the spat that preceded it. Eventually, after that spat, ICANN was created under the auspices of the US Department of Commerce - and was intended to become independent once it had fulfilled certain criteria. We're still waiting.

Wendy M Grossman

Until 1998, the systems for assigning domain names (DNS) and assigning Internet numbers (IANA) were both managed by one guy, Jon Postel, who by all accounts and records was a thoughtful and careful steward and an important contributor to much of the engineering that underpins the Internet even now.

Even before he died in October 1998, however, plans were underway to create a successor organization to take over the names and numbers functions.

The first proposal was to turn these bits of management over to the International Telecommunications Union, and a memorandum of understanding was drawn up that many, especially within the ITU, assumed would pass unquestioned. Instead, there was much resentment and many complaints that important stakeholders (consumers, most notably) had been excluded. And it ended up, as I said, when ICANN was created under the auspices of the US Department of Commerce intended to become independent once it had fulfilled certain criteria.

As you might expect, the US under Bush II wasn't all that interested in handing off control.

The US government had some support in this, in part because many in the US seemed (and still seem) to have difficulty accepting that the Internet was not actually built by the US alone. So alongside the US government's normal resistance to relinquishing control was an endemic sense that it would be "giving away" something the US had created.

All that aside, the biggest point of contention was not ICANN's connection to the US government, as desirable as that might be to those outside the US. Nor was it the assignment of numbers, which, since numbers are the way the computers find each other, is actually arguably the most important bit of the whole thing. It wasn't even, or at least not completely, the money (PDF), as staggering as it is that ICANN expects to rake in $61 million in revenue this year as its cut of domain name registrations. No, of course it's the names that are meaningful to people: who should be allowed to have what?

All this background is important because on September 30 the joint project agreement with DoC under which ICANN operates expires, and all these debates are being revisited.

Surprisingly little has changed in the arguments about ICANN since 1998. Michael Froomkin argued in 2000 (PDF) that ICANN bypassed democratic control and accountability. Many critics have argued in the intervening years that ICANN needs to be reined in: its mission kept to a narrow focus on the DNS, and its structure designed to be transparent and accountable, and kept free of not only US government inteference but that of other governments as well.

Last month, the Center for Democracy and Technology published its comments to that effect. Last year, and in 2006, former elected ICANN board member Karl Auerbach argued similarly, with much more discussion of ICANN's finances, which he regards as a "tax".

Perhaps even more than might have been obvious then: ICANN's new public dashboard has revealed that the company lost $4.6 million on the stock market last year, an amount reporter John Levine equates to the 20-cent fee from 23 million domain name registrations. As Levine asks, if they could afford to lose that amount then they didn't need the money – so why did they collect it from us? There seems to be no doubt that ICANN can keep growing in size and revenues by creating more top-level domains, especially as it expands into long-mooted non-ASCII names (iDNs).

Arguing about money aside, the fact is that we have not progressed much, if at all, since 1998. We are asking the same questions and having the same arguments.

  • What is the DNS for?
  • Should it be a directory, a handy set of mnemonics, a set of labels, a zoning mechanism, or a free-for-all?
  • Do languages matter?
  • Early discussions included the notion that there would be thousands, even tens of thousands of global top-level domains. Why shouldn't Microsoft, Google, or the Electronic Frontier Foundation operate their own registries? Is managing the core of the Internet an engineering, legal, or regulatory problem? And, latterly, given the success and central role of search engines, do we need DNS at all?

    Personally, I lean toward the view that the DNS has become less important than it was, as many services (Twitter, instant messaging, VOIP) do not require it. Even the Web needs it less than it did. But if what really matters about the DNS is giving people names they can remember, then from the user point of view it matters little how many top-level domains there are. The domain info.microsoft is no less memorable than microsoft.info or microsoft.com.

    What matters is that the Internet continues to function and that anyone can reach any part of it. The unfortunate thing is that none of these discussions have solved the problems we really have. And four years after the secured version of DNS (DNSsec) was developed to counteract security threats such as DNS cache poisoning that had been mooted for many more years than that, it's still barely deployed.

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