A Milestone Day for the Internet?

On January 1, 1983, not a single one of us noted a very important thing happening: the DoD’s “ArpaNet” network was implementing the switchover to the TCP/IP inter-networking protocols for the then-quasi-experimental “Internet.” You would have had to be awfully prescient to recognize what we recognize today — that the transformative global network was as of that date in place. Something similar might — or might not — have happened this past Thursday, when the US Department of Commerce and ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, executed a strangely-titled “Affirmation of Commitments.”

Unfortunately, this more recent event involved mostly lawyers, rather than systems engineers, and it is therefore almost impossible to know exactly what’s going on. But the gist of it can be summarized as follows (and if you want more detail about the background here, which is really quite extraordinary, have a look at Chap. 10 of my Jefferson’s Moose book). ICANN, a private non-profit corporation, was formed in 1998, and the US government handed over responsibility to it for management of the Net’s “domain name system” — the complex global network of registration services and databases and nameservers that allow the net to accomplish the remarkable task of resolving domain names (“Volokh.com”) into IP addresses (necessary for the correct routing of messages). In the original “Memorandum of Understanding” between DoC and ICANN, the government retained some “oversight” over ICANN — basically, a kind of “If you act in some way we really don’t like, we’ll take it all back” clause. The government also retained final authority to make any changes in the “Root Zone file” — the little file that resides on 13 “Root Servers” around the world that sits at the apex of the millions and millions of interlocking databases that comprise the DNS.

This new “Affirmation of Commitments” appears to be a US government hand-over of its retained authority over the DNS — although the document is phrased in such a way that it is in fact impossible to tell if that is precisely the case. No mention, for example, is made of the Root Zone Files, and whether ICANN is now in charge. But if in fact the government is handing over its legal claim to control the DNS (which I suspect we won’t know for several months or even years), it’s a (small) moment in the history of the Internet that will be noted by future historians.

Small, because the US government’s authority to control the Root Zone files, and the DNS in general, was itself deeply problematic – so it’s never been clear exactly what authority it retained under the MOU (or transferred to ICANN).

But whatever else may be said about it, ICANN is a strange new kind of international organization — nothing quite like it exists anywhere. It’s not the UN, or the Internet Engineering Task Force, or the International Chamber of Commerce, though it takes some features (possibly the worst) from each. And while claims that ICANN “runs the Internet” are wildly off-the-mark — the DNS is not “the Internet,” and ICANN’s power over “the Internet” is constrained by many technical and administrative features of the current system — it is a critical resource on which current operation of the net depends. So if Oct. 1, 2009 turns out to be the day that the US government in fact relinquished its claims to authority to manage the DNS and turned it over to ICANN for good, it’s a pretty big day.