Internet Control and Ownership issues

Jim Whitehead (
Sun, 24 Nov 1996 17:17:58 -0800

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November 23, 1996 [Image]


Rebellion Over Who Controls the Net


[L] ast month, when a small band of ------------------
nonprofit organizations with Note to Readers
murky ties to the United States
Government floated a master plan for Because of the
the further colonization of large number of
cyberspace, they inadvertently Internet
sparked a rebellion for control of organizations and
the Internet. acronyms used in
this article, and
The uprising took these groups by because of the
surprise. For 30 years the small, complexity of
tight-knit clique of academics that their
control these organizations -- many relationships, we
of whom actually dreamed up the are offering
Internet using Defense Department readers a special
seed money -- had acted as a de facto names glossary.
Ministry of Highways for cyberspace. Users of Netscape
Navigator 3.0 or
Indeed, the current map of 3.1 can simply
cyberspace, the network of addresses place the mouse
that route information worldwide, is pointer over a
based on a memo -- in their parlance, highlighted name
a "Request For Comment" or "RFC" -- and a Window will
circulated 15 years ago by this small pop up with a
band of academics with an unnatural definition. Users
love for acronyms. Thanks to them, of other browsers
the World Wide Web today features six can click on
international top-level domain names highlighted names
(iTLDs), .com, .org, .edu, .mil, to be linked to
.gov, and .net, as well as a the glossary.
first-come, first-served system for
registering and assigning domain Glossary of
names, the root portions of all Internet
Internet addresses. Organizations
Through the decades when the first
rudimentary network of military and academic computers
was evolving from the Arpanet to the Internet, no one
questioned the right of this group to have its way with
what was basically a research tool built and owned by
the United States Government.

But by September 1996, when the group ------------------
released its proposal, the nature of Related Article
the Internet had undergone profound Battles Over Web
changes. For one thing it was now an Addresses Grow As
international network, fully the Internet
privatized, open to anyone on the Explodes
planet and attracting billions of (Sept. 11)
dollars of investments worldwide. For ------------------
another, it was running out of domain
names, and international fights were breaking out over
rights to these increasingly valuable addresses.

It was under those conditions that one of these
organizations, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority
-- known by the acronym IANA (pronounced eye-ANN-uh) --
announced an ambitious plan to settle the remaining
frontiers of cyberspace by adding as many as 150 iTLDs
and creating a series of privately owned "global

IANA is a nonprofit organization based in Marina del
Rey, Calif., consisting primarily of one person, Jon
Postel, under contract with the United States Department
of Defense.

[Image] Postel and his colleagues seemed
taken aback by the flap their
Jon Postel proposal touched off. To many
-------------------- people outside Postel's tight
Internet clique, however, the
reaction did not come as a surprise, because the IANA
plan addresses the meat-and-potato issues of cyberspace:
Internet security, ease of use and allocation of
increasingly scarce addresses.

And beneath all the squabbles over details there simmers
a much more fundamental and disturbing question: Will
these founding fathers of cyberspace now willingly yield
their brainchild to the oversight of an appropriately
constituted international body? Or will a small band of
United States Government contractors continue to rule
cyberspace, assuming as their only mandate a fast-fading
cold war legacy?

In fact, IANA's proposal was viewed by many as a
cyberspace land grab to rival the Homestead Act -- but
with no "act" by any sovereign recognizing or creating
the group's authority. As a result, a wide spectrum of
critics, ranging from anarchist groups to foreign
citizens to United States Government bureaucrats, have
accused IANA and two closely-related groups -- the
Internet Society ( ISOC) and the Internet Architecture
Board (IAB) -- of committing an equally broad range of
sins, from arrogating power to being too United
States-centric to the ultimate high crime of the
information revolution: attempting to control the

-------------------------- "What is new here is the
IANA's proposal was amazing apparent belief that
viewed by many as a they still are -- or should
cyberspace land grab to be -- in control of key
rival the Homestead Act. components of the Internet,"
-------------------------- says Tony Rutkowski, a former
member of the Internet
Society and now the group's most outspoken critic. "It's
a case study in how a small group of people who one time
had absolute control over the Internet when it was a
DARPA/research and academic infrastructure, and operated
through their own closed processes, and provided mutual
assistance, carefully constructed an institution that
they believed could give them significant permanent
global control over key components of the Internet, and
a significant revenue stream to sustain the effort."

But the groups involved deny they are overstepping their
role. "This is not 'governing' the Internet, which I
believe to be about as governable as a herd of cats,"
insists Fred Baker, chairman of the Internet Engineering
Task Force (IETF), another nonprofit organization
related to ISOC by, if nothing else, interlocking

Baker asserts that there is nothing more fundamental or
profound at stake in the IANA proposal than "this
business of names and IP addresses."

For his part, Postel admits that "the authority question
is a difficult one. "

"Part of the problem is that what might be an
appropriate authority when the Internet has a certain
size and scope might not be appropriate when the
Internet is much larger," Postel said. "The IANA took on
the kinds of tasks it carries out in the early days of
the ARPANET, supported by funding by DARPA. This was
clearly the appropriate authority relationship at that

-------------------------- DARPA is the Defense Advanced
[Image]Are they Research Projects Agency,
arrogating power? Sure. which was financed by the
But that's the way the Pentagon and was the
Net got built.[Image] originator of the technology
that evolved into the
David Post
Professor of Law "Later on, in the early days
Georgetown University of the Internet," Postel told
-------------------------- CyberTimes in a recent e-mail
interview, "the U.S.
Government agencies involved in the Internet formed the
Federal Networking Council (FNC). The funding for the
IANA activity was coordinated by the FNC (and the actual
funding was by a contract with DARPA). At this point the
IANA authority derived from the FNC."

Legal scholars, meanwhile, fall somewhere between the
ruling clique and the rebels. "Are they arrogating
power? Sure," David Post, a Professor of Law at
Georgetown University and an expert on the nascent law
of cyberspace, says of IANA. "But that's the way the Net
got built. That's the nature of the beast. Someone says,
'I'm going to give out names' and does it."

Post adds: "They have simply asserted the right to do
so. You or I can start a nickname service and charge
$50. That's sort of what IANA is doing. The next step is
for someone else to say, 'If IANA can do this, why can't
I?' Or else, 'That's too valuable for two or three guys
in Southern California to control.' "

But those three guys in Southern California have a
number of advantages, not the least of which is that
they are moving at near-warp speed. Just last week,
ISOC, whose board of directors includes Postel and 17
other of the wizards who brought you cyberspace,
announced the formation of an International Ad Hoc
Committee (IAHC), which is assuming a mandate to
"resolve issues arising from the current international
debate" over Postel's "proposal to establish global
registries and additional international Top Level Domain

And that's not all. According to ISOC's last press
release, a "subset of the IAHC" will "implement" the
full committee's recommendations -- that is, begin
accepting applications for new Internet address
registries -- sometime in January 1997. IANA's most
recent proposal called for the application period to
close about a month after it starts and for the winners
to be announced and under contract (with IANA) by March

-------------------------- Would-be Internet registrars
The flap has netizens are already queuing their
debating one of the great covered wagons; at last one
koans of our time: Who has already tried to stake a
"owns" the Internet? claim by submitting an
-------------------------- application and $1,000 check
to IANA. Meanwhile, the flap
has netizens debating one of the great koans of our
time: Who "owns" the Internet?

"Nobody owns it, of course, any more than anybody owns
the international snail mail system," asserts Lewis
Branscomb, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of
Government and the chairman of last September's
conference on Internet governance. "But there is a
postal union to set the rules, and we need that for the
Internet. It should be a nongovernmental body that is
recognized by governments as legitimate."

And on Friday, Dick desJardins, The National Aeronautics
and Space Administration's representative to the FNC,
wrote: "As every U.S. schoolchild learns, communities
(we the people) pursue our goals by instituting
governments which derive their authority from the
consent of the governed. In the case of the Internet, as
an international community, its governance must be
determined -- and derive its authority -- from the
consent of the international Internet community."

Not surprisingly, others disagree.

Among them is Baker, whose Internet Engineering Task
Force is yet another United States Government-spawned
nonprofit group, and who is also a member of the ISOC

"I am not at all certain that there needs to be a single
someone in charge of the Internet, any more than there
needs to be a single someone in charge of the
international telephone network or the international
mail system," Baker says. "Tell me this: why should
there be a single power on high? There have been
proposals that have gone so far as to call for a
Constitution of the Internet, my question being: who is
giving up their national citizenship to get Internet
Access? Why don't we need a Constitution of the
Telephone System?"
Telephone System?"

-------------------------- Such
[Image]This is not angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin
'governing' the Internet, debates overlook an important
which I believe to be practical consideration:
about as governable as a access to the Web is
herd of cats.[Image] "controlled" by Network
Solutions Inc. (NSI), a
privately held company under
Fred Baker contract with InterNIC, yet
Chair of the IETF another United States
-------------------------- Government-financed
enterprise. To get a domain
name, applicants must pay NSI $50 a year for a minimum
of two years.

NSI, in turn, forwards 30 percent of its revenue to a
fund maintained by ISOC for "maintenance" of the World
Wide Web. NSI, however, says that no money has ever been
disbursed from the fund, which now exceeds $7 million,
because the Internet "community" has never agreed on
guidelines for how it should be spent.

Not surprisingly, Network Solutions' role as Internet
gatekeeper has been challenged by a small number of so-
called "anarchist service providers" who have created
their own domains with extensions like ".biz" and
".web." And while legal experts point out that NSI has
never asserted in court that it is the exclusive arbiter
of domain names, they also acknowledge that it really
hasn't needed to, since the companies that provide
routing services tend to ignore the upstarts.

"That's, in effect, just a custom," says Post. "If you
and I want to go into the business of providing
top-level domain names (iTLDs), we can do it. We just
have to convince a system administrator to use them. The
difficulty is to convince the routers that you have a
set of names that they should recognize." To some
degree, this
represents a legacy of deference to the wizards who
created cyberspace. But critics assert that IANA and
ISOC are taking advantage of that deference for purely
Darwinian reasons; like any organization swilling at the
federal trough, these critics say, ISOC and its sister
organizations are eager to ensure their survival by
capturing a revenue stream.

"One might ask why that $7 million allegedly in an
'Internet fund' from the existing registration activity
isn't going back into the U.S. Treasury that funded much
of this stuff," says Tony Rutkowski. "As the Internet
has become a thriving commercial market and
infrastructure, it has become increasingly embarrassing
that the U.S. Government is still funding this. Everyone
assumes that the U.S. Government funding to NSI and ISI
[the Information Sciences Institute, housed at the
University of Southern California, which is home to
IANA] will not continue beyond next year because of the
embarrassment factor."
embarrassment factor."

-------------------------- Indeed, according to the
[Image]One might ask why IANA's proposal, an
that $7 million allegedly unspecified number of new
in an 'Internet fund' Internet registries will pay
from the existing $2,000 per year, "plus a
registration activity small percentage (2 percent)
isn't going back into the of the revenue from
U.S. Treasury that funded registrations," into an
much of this stuff. "Internet infrastructure"
[Image] fund to be administered by

Tony Rutkowski A number of observers point
Former ISOC Member out that other international
-------------------------- communications systems,
ranging from the telephone
system to international recognition of trademarks, are
governed by international treaty. And in an apparent
effort to have its actions ratified by international
treaty organizations, ISOC has named representatives
from several United Nations-chartered groups to the
IAHC: The International Telecommunications Union (ITU),
the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and
the International Trademark Association (ITMA) have each
been allotted one representative on the 11-member panel.

But critics point out that the legacy groups -- ISOC,
IANA and the IAB -- each have two representatives on the
panel, and they argue that the relative weight of the
United Nations' appointments suggest that this nod to
internationalism is more a political maneuver than an
acceptance of shared governance.

For their part, the UN-based organizations remain
somewhat noncommittal.

"This basically boils down to 'who gets to decide such
complex policy issues?' " says Robert Shaw, the ITU
executive who has been named to the ad hoc committee.
"This is an area under considerable debate in many
forums, and ITU's participation in the IAHC should not
be construed as specific endorsement of any solution."

On Wednesday, the United States State Department issued
a statement calling for Internet governance to
"transition away from the U.S. government and its
contractors." The statement further suggests that this
transition "should be conducted in a fully open and
public manner by a public body or a broad industry

Critics say that the legal issues are complex enough to
demand broader input and study.

"It's obvious you don't have the real parties in
interest involved," says Rutkowski. "The service
providers and their various organizations, major user
communities and their organizations, governmental
authorities, the legal community and their organizations
-- especially considering that disputes over domain
names are legal in nature."

A number of observers say that the proposals could make
the Web less secure for conducting business
transactions. And some trademark experts, in turn, say
that adding new iTLDs will simply complicate existing
problems reconciling trademark law with the current
first-come, first- served method of claiming domain

For example, under United States trademark law, a
trademark owner must police against unauthorized use of
its mark; thus, the IANA proposal could, theoretically,
result in companies' having to patrol or claim their
mark in 150 new iTLDs rather than just six.

But the defenders of expansion disagree.

"It's hard to say whether new domain names would make it
more or less complicated," says Post. "If you can get and I can get, it might make things

However these issues are resolved, and irrespective of
who or what ultimately governs the Internet, the global
network is certain to face a growing assault on its
independence. In the United States alone, a wide
assortment of government authorities, ranging from state
and local tax collectors to the Federal Communications
Commission to the Office of Patents and Trademarks, is
eager to claim of piece of the regulatory turf. Just
last week the patent office announced that it would hold
January hearings into issues of "Internet governance."

But of course, by then the de facto governors of
cyberspace may already have acted.

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