June 5, 1997


by Andy Oram
American Reporter Correspondent

CAMBRIDGE, MASS.—When you listen to your radio, public service announcements and tests of the Early Warning System remind you that somebody (the Federal Communications Commission) is regulating the medium. Surcharges on your telephone bill may give you the same message. But most of us who pull up files over the Internet don’t think about who’s running the show. Now that the question of regulation looms large—concerning pornography, copyrighted material, domain names, and a raft of other issues—it’s a good idea to learn who is already responsible for governing the Internet.

The most active organization in making decisions affecting the Internet is the Internet Engineering Task Force. It determines the protocols used—that is, the types and structures of messages exchanged by different systems—which in turn has a ripple effect through all the software that you buy or download for free. The programmers of all these products have to support the protocols, or their software just won’t work with other systems.

Participation in the IETF is open to anyone who cares to attend. Consequently, it attracts a wide range of concerned users with impressive technical sophistication. These congregants have managed to work together for years to keep protocols open and functional during the Internet’s unprecedented growth.

The IETF’s creativity is attested to by well over 2100 Requests for Comments and innumerable shorter-lived drafts and proposals. RFCs, belying the casual sound of the term, are a remarkable body of work ranging from minor questions to official documentation for standards that affect millions of people daily.

The IETF is the best-known of a set of standards bodies that report to the Internet Architecture Board, a more general body that looks at long-term issues, directs issues to subordinate organizations, maintains communications between its subordinate organizations and outside organizations, and functions as an appeal board if necessary. The IAB has started reporting to a relatively new organization, the Internet Society (ISOC).

ISOC was formed in 1992 as key Internet leaders like Vint Cerf recognized that interest in the Internet was spreading to new sets of users, particularly businesses. A group with a broader view was needed, one that could help the Internet work well in a new age of commercialism. (The original sponsor of the Internet, the National Science Foundation, who had funded the first backbone across which all traffic went, gradually withdrew its involvement and financial support. In April, 1995 the Internet backbones became completely privatized with virtually no notice by their users.) ISOC encourages a broad range of people to join, with a particular pitch to business members. It votes on the members of the IAB, who are nominated by the IETF.

I have already mentioned one resource on the Internet that needs at least some central coordination so that everybody agrees on their meaning: domain names, which are strings like cpsr.org or microsoft.com. Other resources requiring common agreement are IP addresses (unique numbers assigned to computer systems on the Internet), well-known port numbers (which allow users to reach standard servers like FTP, the File Transfer Protocol), and Ethernet vendor address components (which ensure that every machine manufactured in the world has a unique address on an Ethernet Local Area Network).

Responsibility for these numbers are concentrated in the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority. This organization hands them out in blocks to other authorities around the world—notably the European IP number registry (RIPE) in Amsterdam, Netherlands, and the Asia-Pacific Network Information Center (APNIC) in Tokyo, Japan—which in turn subdivide them further among Internet providers.

As an open architecture with many layers (that is, one set of protocols running on top of another) the Internet allows entire new worlds of information exchange to grow up outside of existing regulations. This is precisely what happened with the World Wide Web. Tim Berners-Lee simply created the HTTP protocol and HTML language and made them public around 1991, permitting systems to exchange data in a new way, and in a few years this medium took off.

Recognizing the danger of having the Web splinter into a hodge-podge of different systems set up by different companies, Berners-Lee set up the World Wide Web Consortium in 1994. For a while, when Netscape seemed to be unchallenged ruler of Web browsers, some people dismissed W3C as slow and irrelevant. But now that Netscape and Microsoft are fighting over who can introduce the most extensions the fastest, W3C is increasingly recognized as a necessary force to set standards all browsers will recognize.

The Internet is attracting more and more attention from governments around the world, leading to new laws and rulings that affect Internet users. If these august bodies learned more about how the Internet has kept itself going over all the years, and consulted more often with the existing experts, fewer of these regulations would be clunkers.

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