June 30, 1998


by Andy Oram
American Reporter Correspondent

CAMBRIDGE, MASS.—Do you know how hard it is to boot a system? Programmers have always found “bootstrapping” (initial start-up) one of the most difficult tasks when writing a compiler or operating system. But now it is an international regulatory body that needs the boot; and the coding the project spans the world.

The new organization has a narrow mandate, but the creation process is widely viewed by Internet users as a model for how decisions will be made regarding Internet policy in the future. Not just one, but two conferences in July will focus on the organization; participants on both sides see this as their biggest opportunity in many years to put in a bid for their view of how to run Internet affairs.

At issue is who can give out domain names: the words like american-reporter.com and cpsr.org that every Internet user types in email addresses and Web browsers. It’s hard to understand how such a narrow (even apparently trivial) topic could become the subject of spats between national governments, but a quick walk through the controversies involved shows that it’s worth some attention. End users may see a very different Internet if we don’t stand up for our needs.

For instance, suppose a new domain like .sex or .xxx is created for erotic content (as has often been suggested). Those looking for such material would not really find the domain a convenience, because they still need to sort through the voluminous offerings to find that which meets their taste. But it would be a boon to countries and jurisdictions who want to prevent their populations from savoring such wares. Restrictions on freedom would be even worse if some countries forced sites to register in that domain unwillingly—thus possibly censoring information about abortions, safe sex, or gay/lesbian issues.

Or suppose the current trend continues of giving trademark holders the right to kick anybody with a similar-sounding name off the Internet. In one case, a company had to give up its domain name even though the name was trademarked—it turned out that the court didn’t consider its state-level trademark as good as another company’s national trademark. Since lots of money and effort go into publicizing a Web site, small businesses and organizations will have trouble establishing themselves online if they must live in terror of the trademark.

My own organization, Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, has intervened several times in the DNS debate. This week we are releasing a position paper recommending, “The corporation’s board should include public interest representation, in the form of members who do not have direct financial stakes in the issues being addressed by the corporation.” Specifically on the issue of trademarks, we say, “The corporation should not create policy that extends the already considerable rights of large trademark holders.”

A bit of history will help to explain why the Internet community now stands at the crossroads. Like all Internet services, the Domain Name System (DNS) is a brilliant concept that has spread through consensus. But it is subtly different from other services, because a modicum of centralization is required.

DNS is a tree-like hierarchy in which all names in a given domain (like microsoft.com, ibm.com, or oreilly.com) have to be found or “resolved” through a computer called an “authoritative server” at the next higher level (the .com domain). And the top-level domains (such as .com, .org, and the domains assigned to countries) have to be resolved by a small set of coordinated servers called root servers.

During the early years of DNS, names could be counted in the thousands and stored on a few computers. When the increase in names made informally maintenance unwieldy, the problem bounced around in the haphazard way that has characterized the whole DNS issue until recently. The major U.S. domains, including .com (for commercial sites), ended up being dealt out by Network Solutions, a small company with government connections.

In those days, the .com domain was used by only a few high-tech companies who used the Internet to maintain personal and research contacts with their partners in government and academia. But then the information revolution predicted by so many futurists took effect. Millions of companies discovered the value of an Internet connection—partly to reach ordinary consumers, but even more to communicate with suppliers and large clients—and every company wanted a name in the .com domain.

Network Solutions’ assets reached into nine figures. And a number of customers started to complain about a bevy of issues ranging from cost to service to the resolution of increasingly frequent disputes over who was entitled to a particular name. Many foreign companies that hand out names in country-code domains faced similar complaints.

As the expiration of Network Solutions’ contract approached, Internet experts realized that DNS administration would require them for the first time to put together a unified and broadly respected organization—one whose solution would be universally adopted.

The one organization with a claim to represent the entire Internet community was the Internet Society (ISOC), a guiding body created by several leading Internet experts in 1992 to provide funding and other elements of a firm foundation to the Internet so it could meet new requirements in a commercial age. ISOC created an ad-hoc committee to come up with a new plan for administering the domain problem, expecting that a consensus reached by the committee would be widely accepted just as technical standards had been in the past.

But the issues of Internet governance raised dilemmas that the technical issues never had, and the Internet community had grown to include too many people with contending opinions. A strong reaction arose against the ISOC-brokered solution. In stepped the United States government, which had given power to Network Solutions and other administrative organizations in the first place. The Commerce Department held meetings, released a draft proposal, and accepted comments from a wide range of individuals and organizations.

On June 5, the Commerce Department announced its decision. But nothing was decided! The final paper deferred all disputed issues to a new non-profit corporation. The final paper, in fact, was less specific in its recommendations than the early draft.

Apparently the drafters decided just to cut anything that was found controversial. This is not necessarily a weakness; in fact, they can be commended for resisting the temptation to stifle debate and force a government-sanctioned solution on everyone.

But the pressure is on, for the corporation is expected to “carry out operational responsibility” in October. In the next few months someone must choose the 15 members of its governing board, who must somehow represent the “functional and geographic diversity of the Internet.” The Commerce Department paper does not specify how the choice will be made and by whom.

No wonder a large collection of organizations (some of whom are almost at each others’ throats) are holding a conference about the corporation that starts tomorrow. The Internet Society—which is loath to work with one of the major sponsors of that conference, Network Solutions—has announced that the new non-profit corporation will be discussed at its regular annual conference on July 21-24.

It is clear that not all parties can reach agreement and find satisfaction with the choice of the board. But it is important that all parties express their views at this moment, one of the most fluid in Internet history. The process we are going through right now may never be repeated, while its outcome may be fixed in place for decades to come.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Editor, O’Reilly Media
Author’s home page
Other articles in chronological order
Index to other articles