Top-level domains: if you or I can, do we need Icann?


WIRED:THERE WAS a time when the internet didn’t just have a father or a godfather: for a brief period, it had a fully fledged god. The god died and a private company, Icann, took his place. Now it’s time we asked – do we even need that?

In January 1998, Jon Postel, one of the most respected figures among the tech pioneers of the net, sent an e-mail to eight of the 12 operators of the internet’s “root name servers”.

In the e-mail, he used his personal authority to request that they reconfigured those computers to take their instructions not from the government-funded company Network Solutions, but from his own machine.

Postel was so well-known and well-respected in the community that they willingly did so.

The root servers are the machines at the very top of the pyramid of authority that determine which internet address points to which computer online, but at the highest pinnacle is that which the root servers serve: this, at heart, is a single text file.

Who exactly was in charge of that text file was a very contentious question. In 1998, the United States government felt it should have control. The Internet Society, of which Postel was a member, was preparing to move its management to an independent organisation based in Geneva, against the government’s wishes.

For a few days in January of that year, though, the real controller of the net’s most important file was shown to be Postel himself. He told the root servers to fetch his copy of that file, not that of the US government’s agent: and over half of them obeyed.

The United States government, in the form of Clinton’s senior science adviser Ira Magaziner, went ballistic. In a furious phone conversation, Magaziner demanded that Postel hand back control to Network Solutions, which he did.

Within a few days, the US government published the first document asserting that it had control of the internet domain name system.

Nine months later, Postel was dead from complications after heart surgery; his power was eventually transferred to a US-supported private company, Icann (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), which runs matters to this day.

Icann takes its funding from a cut from every domain name someone buys on the internet (so every .com, .org or .net site you visit has indirectly handed over some cash to Icann via its purchase). For an organisation that really still does what one man did in 1997, it certainly spends a lot of money: it had close to a $30 million budget last year; $6 million of that was on travel alone.

In June, Icann made a fascinating decision: after years of carefully rationing out the top-level domains (.com, .net, .ie, etc) and introducing only a few new ones (the less-than-successful .biz, .museum, .name and others you are even less likely to have heard of), it decided to provide for a free-for-all.

Soon, anyone attaining a set of objective criteria (more or less) will be able to run a top-level domain (one of the criteria, of course, will be to give Icann money).

What’s interesting about this is that it removes one of the pedestals that has kept Icann upright for so long.

Adding a new top-level domain isn’t hard work – it’s just a matter of adding a few line’s to Postel’s file – but much of Icann’s power comes from saying no. What happens when it stops having reasons to say no?

Perhaps very little will happen. Everyone claims that domain names are less and less important as we type keywords into Google or other browsers rather than laboriously typing out, or whatever. Icann’s role may pass to being what Postel always claimed his job was: the administrative function of a minor functionary.

Of course, if we’re all using Google for our pointers, that passes the potential power of names (a power that so worried Postel that he was briefly willing to stand against the US government to protect it) to another unanswerable corporation – Google.

And if we’re not all using Google, or Icann’s file, then we may not be talking about the same addresses as each other at all. To be able to send someone else reliably to a particular destination online, we all need to be able to agree on an authority for our internet names: an almanac shared by all.

However you cut it, if you have universal identifiers, whoever prints that almanac is going to have more power than anyone would be comfortable with.

They can make sites disappear or they can charge to be in the book. They can suddenly stop the book working for countries they disagree with or mislead them with false entries.

Icann’s free-for-all won’t change that; offering access to Postel’s file doesn’t mean it has forgone the power to withhold or meddle with it whenever they want to, or are told to by the US government. It just means that Icann has fewer critics among the domain name registrars. As they pay Icann’s wages, that means Icann will be happy and secure. But we’ll still not be able to pick who plays God with the net.