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Re: <nettime> Who will own and control the Internet's infrastructure?
Alexander Galloway on Mon, 10 Oct 2005 12:39:17 +0200 (CEST)

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Re: <nettime> Who will own and control the Internet's infrastructure?

> The struggle over who will control the Internet's infrastructure  
> escalated last
> week at a meeting in Geneva. Following is an article describing  
> what is happening.
> It would be good to see discussion about this as it is a  
> significant development.
> [...]
> <http://www.ohmynews.com/articleview/article_view.asp? 
> menu=3DA11100&no=3D25=
> 1118&rel_no=3D1>

"How can one country control the Internet?"

I'd like to add my support to the voice of critique underlying the anti-ICANN
movement. ICANN sucks. It should be abolished.

The last thing I want to do is start a flame war, but it's important to be very
specific here and I'd like to point out a few mistakes in this article.

The internet's "names, numbers, and protocols" are developed and organized in
three very different ways by three very different populations. Internet names are
controlled in a variety of ways: host names and user names are controlled entirely
at the level of one's local machine. Control over these types of names is
syntactically limited to the types of characters that may be used in naming.
Domain names are limited syntactically too, and also limited by the various
registries enlisted to propagate these names globally. Top level domain (TLD)
names are controlled by ICANN. As for numbers, they historically fell under the
control of IANA (Internet Assigned Numbers Authority) but today are managed by
ICANN. Protocols are developed, vetted, and maintained primarily by two
organizations, the W3C and the IETF although there is lots of spill over here to
other standards bodies such as IEEE.

ICANN does not "have control over the Internet," despite various popular notions.
ICANN does have control over something important, so let's be specific. ICANN has
control over one part of one technology: the TLDs of the DNS. I certainly don't
have to remind nettimers of this, as ICANN and DNS issues have been very active on
this list over the years. But to think that control over the TLDs is equal to
control over the internet is misguided.

DNS is a massive, decentralized database of name server information; as a cohesive
technology it is spread out and embedded in many thousands of local machines all
around the world. It is a decentralized technology, not a centralized one. ICANN
in fact only controls a very small number of those machines. The machines they do
control, granted, are very important because they live at the "peaks" in the
hierarchy of the decentralized database.

Additionally, the technologies that ICANN controls are voluntary technologies, not
required. Voluntary means you don't have to use them. While it strikes me as risky
that Brazil is using "ICTs" for taxes and votes, if the Brazilian Ambassador
doesn't like ICANN, he should stop using the DNS. There are many applications and
technologies that circumvent the DNS entirely.

Domain names are an afterthought. The DNS system as we know it today was proposed
in 1983 by Paul Mockapetris, a year after the ARPAnet's mandatory roll over to the
TCP/IP suite and fourteen years after the ARPAnet went online. DNS is entirely
unnecessary for the functioning of distributed networks such as the internet. It
is simply a convenience: people prefer to read addresses as words rather than as
numbers. If DNS and the domain names disappeared tomorrow, the internet would work
just fine. We'd all be using IP addresses and the other name spaces already in
existence. (I'm hesitant to say that control over IP number assignment means
control over the internet, but I'd be interested to hear that argument if someone
wants to make it.)

Additionally sites like google have made domain names more and more obsolete.
Instead the google search term "name space," if we can call it that, has become
exceedingly important in recent years. Likewise I don't need domain names when I
use instant messenger, or when i play a game like World of Warcraft, since these
are two technologies which employ their own proprietary name spaces for user
handles and account names.

Another example: peer-to-peer technologies such as Gnutella have essentially zero
reliance on the DNS. (Yes, domain names are conventionally used when bootstrapping
with a web cache, but strictly speaking web caches are a convenience not a
necessity, and IP addresses would work just as well.) Fully distributed p2p
applications are widely available for most of the things we do online: email,
chat, file transfer, etc.

So, yes, by all means let's continue the important critique and political activism
directed against networked power. But let's be clear about where networked power
actually resides and where it doesn't. News articles like this, which sublimate
legitimate anti-American sentiment into illegitimate claims about technology, do
little to assist the movement.

The internet is a complex, global, distributed network. The structures of command
and control embedded in it are infinitely more sophisticated and far-reaching than
one non-profit organization in California.

In the spirit of ongoing discussion...

+ + +

Mockapetris's RFCs on the domain name system:



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