he date was March 1998. The Internet was at a critical decision point, as the U.S. government considered what infrastructure should be privatized, how to share or cede responsibility to other nations and how to transition to an e-commerce based future over the following decades.
IANA (the Internet Assigned Names Authority) was a U.S. government run entity at that time. The following are some of the more interesting portions of Robert E. Kahn’s testimony to the House Science Subcommittee on Basic Research on the subject of Internet Domain Names, on 28 March 1998.
The U.S. Government helped create the Internet
I felt pride, as a U.S. citizen, yes, call it patriotism (it is NOT a sin, you know!) as I read this:
"The Internet would not exist if it were not for the U.S. Government. It helped to create the Internet, and has been an excellent steward for over 25 years. It funded the necessary research, made sure the community had responsibility for its operation, and insulated it from bureaucratic obstacles and commercial matters so that it could evolve dynamically... The U.S. Government has enabled an enormous industry to be created and to grow, such that a large part of our economic base can be attributed to the Internet... this situation is likely to occur in other countries around the world."
Apparently, the issue of domain names was quite a pressing concern. There was a Green Paper that proposed a specific approach, but that only provoked more suggestions, none of which could be agreed upon. The situation had become urgent:
"Certain steps could be taken to neutralize temporarily the legal risks and economic concerns associated with the current Internet structure and its transition to "whatever comes next". One such step would be to institute a temporary immunity time-zone [to work out these matters, and avoid taking] preemptive action to ward off law suits pertaining directly to the current Internet infrastructure management. Another would be to create an interim period of competition for the "registrar" functions while existing registries are operated on a cost-recovery basis."
Robert Kahn and Vinton Cerf
Robert Kahn and Vinton Cerf were central to the development of the Internet during the 1970’s and 1980’s.
"The key technical contribution which enabled a "network of networks" to become the Internet was an architecture of gateways (routers) placed between the networks, and a protocol, now known as TCP/IP, used by the computers and the routers. [Robert Kahn and Vinton Cerf, then at Stanford University, are widely credited with development of TCP/IP.] It was presented in September 1973 in Sussex, England and published by IEEE in May 1974."
Overall management of the Internet was handled by DARPA through Kahn and Cerf.
"Robert E. Kahn was President and CEO of the Corporation for National Research Initiatives (CNRI), a not-for-profit scientific research organization established in 1986, in Reston, Virginia. CNRI hosted the Internet Service Providers group known as iops.org..."
Cerf was with DARPA from 1976 to 1982. Vinton Cerf joined Google some time after 2000. Robert Kahn did not.
IP addresses versus domain names
The critical thing needed by the Internet Service Providers and all Internet applications programs is for IP addresses to work reliably. Domain names are a simple way of using names instead of numbers and, while they have become tightly associated with use of the Internet, they are not a fundamental requirement for operation of the Internet.
IANA handled policy for both domain names and IP addresses. Kahn recommended that domain name management be separated from IP addresses.
The American Registry for Internet Numbers (ARIN) had recently been set up. Kahn suggested that separate global registries be formed, and each would have responsibility for IP address reliability. IP addresses are crucial for internet functionality, unlike domain names. Kahn was concerned that measures were taken to ensure that IP addresses were:
"insulated as much as possible from bureaucratic, commercial and political wrangling"
Brief history of IANA in the early days
One of the decisions we made during that period was to delegate responsibility for maintaining information about key Internet parameters to Jon Postel, a researcher at the University of Southern California who had been carrying out similar functions for the ARPANET. While DARPA retained the ultimate authority for decisions about policy and procedures, Jon Postel assumed primary responsibility. During that period, there was no need to second guess his decisions.
This function, performed by Jon Postel under USC's contract with DARPA, eventually became known as the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA)
and included policy for domain names as well as IP addresses and protocol parameters.
When the Domain Name Service (DNS) was first proposed in the 1980’s by Paul Mockapetris (also from USC) most sites could be characterized as
- educational (EDU),
- US government (GOV & MIL),
- network (NET),
- organization (ORG),
- commercial sites with research labs (COM), and
- special cases e.g. testing or global experiments (ARPA and INT).
With DARPA's permission, Jon delegated certain clerical and operational functions to SRI International
, while retaining other functions. Among the former were the maintenance of a database which mapped Internet names to Internet addresses and making this resource available on the Internet.
Initially, the number of domain names was so small that it was trivial to download the entire database from SRI on a daily basis.
SRI should have been very grateful to Jon Postel. He gave them a wonderful opportunity.
The end of the ARPANET
"The ARPANET was phased out in 1990 and replaced by a higher-speed backbone built by IBM, MCI and Merit under a National Science Foundation (NSF) award. With help from DARPA, NSF took over responsibility for maintaining most of the Internet management infrastructure from DoD, and recompeted the contract that the DoD had with SRI International."
SRI should have done whatever was necessary, spared no expense, nor balked at any requirements, in order to keep that contract! Instead, Network Solutions, Inc. (NSI) won the competition for providing the domain name registration services. There were a few exceptions, most notably, country codes.
"...two letter country codes were domain names that could be managed by individual countries according to policies developed by the countries themselves... IANA made the determination of who in a given country would be responsible for that countries domain, but gave deference to the legitimate government of the country if it chose to weigh in."
Robert Kahn goes to Washington
I knew that I was going to like Robert Kahn’s testimony, after reading this:
"The US is still in a position to insure that a stable management structure for the Internet is put in place without the need for government involvement in its day-to-day operations... In many other countries of the world, telecommunication providers are closely associated with governments, if not actually run by governments. Thus, it is likely that any privatization approach will bring other governments into the picture either directly or indirectly. A reasoned plan for how the Internet can run, that takes into account the international dimension along with the commercial dimension is critical. I believe the U.S. Government has a responsibility to do the right thing, not the most expedient thing or the most politically acceptable solution of the moment, even if it takes time to discover what it might be."
Emphasis mine. This was Kahn’s modest, but very realistic estimate:
"...with several million domain names in existence and the potential for many more in the future, theannual revenue derived from domain name registrations could easily exceed $100,000,000 per year... Although the fee for individual domain name registrations has been $50 per year (it has since been announced that the fees will be reduced somewhat), many individuals and organizations have expressed strong feelings that the existing fee structure and organizational arrangements are untenable in the long term and should be rectified."
Throughout the 1990’s, the National Science Foundation (NSF) had been subsidizing NSI’s domain name registration service. At some point, the NSF stopped subsidizing NSI, and put them on pay-as-you-go. The NSF contract with NSI was due to expire later that year, in 1998.
This was the crux of the matter! How to assign responsibility for domain name registration going forward: privatized, with regulatory oversight, or with some amount of government involvement, and if the latter, then which governments? And the future of IANA?
Postscript: About Digital Object Identifiers
CNRI also provided registry services for an alternative identifier system (known as Digital Object Identifiers or DOIs), with U.S. and European publishers. DOI’s were developed with support from DARPA and were used by the Department of Defense, the Library of Congress and digital library research. They are still used today.
DOI.org was run by Esther Dyson. I thought it was her primary contribution to the Internet. I was wrong. DOI’s are very useful. As Robert Kahn said, they are a registry that is a single logical entity, distributed in multiple locations, supporting open interfaces. The handle identifiers are part of this system.
One of my most admired librarians, he is more of a superuser, or “meta-librarian”, is Micah Altman, PhD of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has led recent work with DOI’s, since 2007. He is also a non-resident Brookings Institution Fellow. That does not mean that he spends rough nights sleeping between the stacks at the library, while Brookings tries to find him housing. I asked.