DNS Antigora: looking ten years back

DNS Antigora: looking ten years back


It is not possible to me to comment on Jarons's essay in total in toto; I'm simply not qualified. As a googling, paypal using iTunes listener I use parts of the net but only really understand small parts of it as a whole. You want antigora? Look at the Domain Name System and the (lack of) creation of new Top Level Domains.

Thus the revelation that occurred when reading Jaron's essay, for it recapitulates on a very wide scale what I've seen happen to the DNS: an end of innovation, massive government regulation bordering on interference and corporate influence.

And that's being kind.

These would not be bad things if both government and industry knew what they were doing, but they'd failed to do their homework and arrived on the scene - massively undereducated. Mikki Barry said it best around 1998 when the first "Internet blue ribbon panel on domain names" was imposed, err, "assembled": "if you think these are the best and the brightest the Internet has to offer, guess again".

Most of us said "who are these guys?" for they were not well respected points of light from the community, they were sycophants to one particular side of the debate plus some folks from WIPO, the ITU and a raft of organisations that start with "small i". It went rabidly downhill from there. "Hi, we are in charge. Now go sit down."

In case you don't happen to remember the DNS political feel of the day in the last half of the 1990s it went like this: somewhere around 1996 the US government through the NSF decided it was time to stop subsidising the registration and maintenance of domain names and IP addresses. So it ordered it's contractor - Network Solutions - to begin charging for domain names.

Remember that look on Tevya's face when he was leaving Anatevka? ("...where I know everyone I meet"). Domain registration had been a tradition on the Internet. Domain names and IP addresses were free. To us. And we were clever people that did clever things with them back then. And there were a lot of things we wanted to do that required putting different letters in that part of the "web address" that usually says "com", "net" or "org". Who knew what was to come? What application of the worlds largest decenralized database (the DNS protocol) would we see come to light? An index of all living things? Nothing, it turned out. Back to the simple act of registering a domain.

Surely automating the domain registration process was merely a minor administrative task that we could, perhaps with some hubris, handle ourselves thank you. These weren't billboards selling ad space, web-sites were, these were names and numbers used to identify machines on the network. Recalling that there is no central authority in TCP/IP, it's merely a protocol suite we all agree to use, and by following the rules (codified in the Internet RFC series) we could more or less guarantee your computer and my computer could interoperate. Your network (even if you obtained access to it through a $29/mo dialup account) and my network could interoperate to the point where the landscape appeared to be one big seamless network.

Recall that the US government and trademark holders (read that as "big business") had nothing to do with the advancement and development of this. In face quite the opposite, the office currently holding oversight to all Internet names and numbers administration was 20 years ago actively deploring the deployment of TCP/IP and mandating the now dead ITU/ISO standard. While it can be argued that big business paid for a lot of the infrastructure it can be shows this was for uucp, not TCP/IP access, it wasn't until 1996 that the TCP-IP network was larger than the UNIX email and news uucp network.

Nonetheless, in 1996, it was agreed by the overwhelming majority of people actually working in this area that hundreds of new top level domains were required, and required right now.

It was never really clear what the obstacles were to this, or to the expansion of TLD space. Certainly while not without contention, the Usenet namespace had been expanded, not quickly, but fairy quietly. Perhaps not to anyone was actually there but it sure flew under the legislative radar. But that was 1988 and long before the $29/mo AOL account. The net wasn't mainstream yet. The creation of and sci.aquaria went unnoticed. But I digress.

Word came out, back-channel, whispered, sounding ridiculous, that it was the "trademark people" that were standing between us and say, ".WEB", .800, .INDEX.

"Trademark people" ?!? Odd, they hadn't shown up on the radar. A quick perusal now of the four of five mailing lists that had been the sole open and transparent exchange of ideas we're used to in Internet engineering would demonstrate to anyone, I think, these people didn't exist.

Ah but they do, and they grow in the shadows, creeping and skulking, and like cockroaches, when you finally see one it means they are not alone. The tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars spent in DC lobbying went unnoticed and undiscovered until years later, ditto the back-room dealings that derailed the IFWP process and created ICANN. Look at the discussion during that period, then look at the ICANN board? See the disconnect?

It became well understood over the next decade that these were the dominant players and they in turn brought in the government involvement. Separation of church and state is one thing, separation of business and state is not something I've seen. And they weren't on the side of the engineering community. They seemed to be convinced they needed new laws to deal with their problem. An odd concept; trademark - and other intellectual property - laws exist and are well understood. That is there exists a stable and predictable legal framework under which trademarks are, uh, enjoyed by all? But no such conceptual framework exists for the rights of domain name holders, let alone domain name creators. Let along experimental names or testbeds. In fact if you look you'll see the only RFC's that came out about domain names (as opposed to minor alterations of the underlying protocol) were a couple that announced "the following names are never to be created". Not too tough, nobody is making any new ones anyway. The set of all tlds was probably not the intent of that RFC but I swear you just have to wonder sometimes.

What about the rights of domain name holders in a world where this didn't exist a decade prior? Did we get new laws when TV became ubiquitous? Or is the net just another medium like print, radio, satellite?

Has the way trademarks are codified and administered been altered by domain names? Nope.

Have domain names had their properties altered because of greater rights afforded on the net than trademark holders enjoy in the real world? Yes, you bet, sunshine.

Recall then this DNS mess reached a crisis point in the late 1990s, it had been years in the coming, but ICANN was born... and quickly set about putting trademarks as the dominant agenda item for years. I suppose to one school of thought would have it that now. 10 years later, that trademarks and domains are well understood the landscape is now, uh, "safe" enough to rationalise the creation of a small number of tlds. Never mind the fact during this period 200+ "cctlds" became operational (thus causing 200 countries governments to go "huh, we have a top level what" when they found out years after the fact.

The other school of though says that where we are now in domain-land is a little sick. People are devising policy for the registration, modification and display of domain data that have never managed or owned a domain in their lives.

The current domreg software is non-intuitive, complicated, too complex, unpredictable and at times downright unsafe. It's where I'd expected to be in Q1 1997 and would hesitate call it "alpha ready". So while it's not fair to say government and business involvement in technical administration of the net kills innovation, my God does it stifle it. I wasted 10 years on that mess and have sat out the last 3 just watching ICANN trip over it's feet. And boy does it have a lot of feet.

Government should have a say. They're users too. But the need or desire for their overt control over significant areas of intellectual infrastructure is, I feel most blatenly pointed out by a stunt I pulled in Berlin during the creation of the organisation that now ownz the names and numbers of our network. During a public discussion ie, forcing us to accept something that, again, came out of the blue and was going to happen despite any thoughts the community it pretended to represent had against it) of the formation of a "Government Advisory Committee"(the only part of ICANN that is allowed to meet in secret), I asked for a quick straw poll asking if this type of government involvement is appropriate or desirable. 13 out of several hundred people thought it was a good idea. These were all government people of course and yes they did look a little nervous. This video is still in the Berkman Center archives.

In an interagency meeting in the late 80's it was decided to hand the domain name mess over to NTIS effectively making the DoC the Department of .COMmerce; in the setting of that meeting it probably made sense, it would give the American born Internet a more receptive ear for American business and that can't be a bad thing for America. I can see the agencies involved: the DoC, NSF, CIA, FBI etc deciding this was an appropriate thing so do for America.

But as ICANN learned when it was bitch-slapped by the bush administration last year over .xxx, live by the sword die by the sword: "Hi, we are in charge. Now go sit down."