Who is really behind the internet?

Back when the internet was a gleam in the eye of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the question of control was easy. The people that controlled it were the people that built it, and they could be counted on the fingers of two hands.

Back when the internet was a gleam in the eye of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the question of control was easy.  The people that controlled it were the people that built it, and they could be counted on the fingers of two hands. 

Now that the internet has grown into a huge commercial force, understanding who controls it becomes more difficult – especially given that parties are fighting for dominance at different layers of the stack.

Consider its naming policy. The history of name allocation is a long and chequered one, centring on the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann), the organisation created by the US government to govern certain naming functions such as the creation of top-level domains (TLDs) such as .com. Icann also ensures that internet addresses entered under the Domain Name System (DNS) are universally resolvable.

Icann has been criticised by industry watchers who accuse it of a lack of accountability, no more so than when it recently finalised an agreement with domain name registrar VeriSign, which administers the .com registration and DNS name resolution process.

The agreement, which failed to gain backing from 40% of Icann’s members, gave Verisign the right to increase charges for .com domain registrations by a compound rate of 31% over the next six years, along with the right to renew the administration of the .com domain in perpetuity. In short, VeriSign now owns the .com TLD.

Paul Twomey, president and chief executive of Icann, said the market is being liberalised, which always causes consternation. But it is difficult to see how it is being liberalised when one organisation owns the .com domain. Why can there not be more than one registry?

“The problem is that you cannot go faster than the speed of light,” he said. “If you set up two registries to operate .com, and you registered a domain in one and I tried to register one in the other, it is feasible that you could end up with a domain registered to two people.”

But this is A-level computing stuff, surely? Couldn’t you run everything using a two-phase commit database, operating on the established principles of atomicity, consistency, isolation and durability?

“Who pays for it?” countered Twomey.

He said the presumptive renewal agreement was already awarded as part of an existing agreement made in 2001. In return for the agreement, VeriSign will drop litigation against Icann sparked off when in 2004 Icann forced VeriSign to close its controversial Sitefinder service, which intercepted internet searches that would have normally resulted in a “no such domain” response and redirected them to VeriSign-specified websites. Icann could have fought on with the litigation, but wanted to minimise its costs, said the organisation.

Domain registrants Network Solutions, which used to govern the .com domain and was owned by VeriSign, and Go Daddy are both concerned about Icann’s decision. And the Canadian Internet Registration Authority has effectively boycotted the organisation because of what it sees as unfair practices. It has suspended the voluntary contribution of funds and consideration of any accountability framework, and declined to host, or be a major sponsor of any Icann event.

No wonder that name allocation figures so highly in discussions of internet governance. But the question of control is just as much about the traffic that travels over the network and how it gets to the end-user, as it is about naming structures.

Delivering the internet has been a crucial issue over the past few years. In the US and the UK, the telecoms unbundling process enabled DSL providers to deliver local loop broadband services to customers, opening up choice beyond incumbent suppliers and creating competition. But the coming battle in the US – which could easily slip into the European market – is now over double charging, and it has Vint Cerf hopping mad.

Cerf, commonly described as the father of the internet, has been representing Google (for whom he is chief net evangelist) alongside organisations including Microsoft, eBay and Amazon in lobbying the US House Committee on Energy and Commerce on what he sees as a threat to the freedom of the internet.

The issue revolves around a concept called “net neutrality”. Proponents suggest that the internet’s status as an inherently dumb network that simply passes data packets along is linked to the democratic nature of the network at a fundamental level. This model is inherently different to the model used in conventional telephone networks, where the intelligence is in the centre of the network rather than at the edge.

Cerf and his cohorts may have designed the internet to be dumb, but what happens if the telcos try to make it “smart”?

We might soon find out, if telcos such as Verizon, Comcast and AT&T have their say. Congress is currently considering ways to update the US Telecommunications Act, introducing a regulatory framework for the internet and telecoms. As politicians mull this over, the larger telcos are lobbying for a relaxation of net neutrality rules, enabling them to provide (and charge for) different levels of service according to what users are doing.

This ability could enable companies to charge end-users more for using technology such as voice over IP, or perhaps block it altogether. It could also empower them to provide different levels of service to back-end content providers based on how much they can pay for prioritised traffic.

Telco executives are already complaining about having to carry the traffic of successful web-based firms. “They don’t have any fibre out there. They don’t have any wires. They don’t have anything,” Edward Whitacre, then-CEO of SouthWestern Bell, told BusinessWeek last November. “They use my lines for free – and that’s bull. For a Google or a Yahoo or a Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes for free is nuts.”

Deutsche Telecom chief executive Kai-Uwe Ricke is also eager to get more revenue from the local loop. “Customers should not be the only ones to pay for this new world. Web companies that use this infrastructure for their business should also make a contribution,” he told German paper WirtschaftsWoche. “If customers are not willing to pay and Google and [others] are not willing to pay, there will not be any high-speed data highways.”

But why should the internet have to pay for the failings of the telcos, asked Cerf?

“They are saying ‘we can’t make our business model work’ and my reaction to this is that you chose to build this broadband service, and you did it without having a business model that would support it,” he said.

He likened the telcos’ stance to the protection racketeers who operated during Prohibition in the US, charging businesses “insurance” while implicitly threatening damage should they fail to comply.

People may be disappointed to see this happen, but no one should be surprised. “It used to be that the internet was sold through speeds and feeds. It was about the price of internet connectivity and how fast you could get it. Now you are starting to see providers talk about clean pipes, because no one wants to be in the business of selling commodities,” said Craig Labovitz, director of network architecture at Arbor Networks, who has directed several US National Science Foundation research grants.

Opportunities for bundled services and innovations such as TV over DSL have helped to buoy revenues, but telcos’ core competency was never content; it was pipes. Faced with competition from adept content providers online, it is no wonder that these companies are becoming defensive.

The US administration’s friendliness towards big business promises to exacerbate the situation. Verizon now owns MCI, and Whitacre is now chief executive of AT&T, following its acquisition by South Western Bell, further reducing the number of local loop options for consumers. The anti-neutrality sabre rattling among large telcos should be particularly worrying for advocates of internet democracy.

“This is at best an anti-competitive and anti-innovative step. Most of the interesting new applications on the net have been introduced by parties that did not have much in the way of resources,” said Cerf.

Even those companies with substantial resources, such as Microsoft and Adobe, which support the net neutrality stance when it comes to the local group, could be doing their own bit to control the internet. Rich internet applications, which use proprietary markup languages to create a better experience for the user, ostensibly aim to fix the internet by resolving the problems created by HTML, but Cerf is unhappy about that too.

“What you see here is a fundamental tension between innovation and an opportunity to try to grab market share and lock customers in, which is what non-interoperable protocols tend to do,” he said.

Microsoft executives have already admitted that the non-Windows version of its Windows Presentation Framework will not have the same level of graphical capability as native Windows version. Ask them whether they are breaking the internet, and they will argue that they are offering an “augmented web experience”. Adobe simply refuses to comment. 

Addressing this issue, the World Wide Web Consortium has launched a working group for rich web clients. It said, “[We aim to produce] a deliverable that should be based on an existing application/UI format, such as Mozilla’s XUL, Microsoft’s XAML, Macromedia’s MXML or Laszlo Systems’ LZX, provided the owners of the format are willing to contribute.”

Which, as we prepare to deprecate HTML in favour of rich web markup, rather begs the question: who really does control the internet?

Creating your own TLD

If you do not like the way that the top-level domain allocation and domain naming system is working, you could always create your own. Several organisations have tried. New.net used a browser plug-in to interpret non-standard TLDs, such as .books, resolving them to a domain such as .books.new.net, essentially creating its own range of virtual TLDs. The practice drew complaints from organisations including Icann.

The Chinese, unhappy with the way that the internet is governed, have operated a similar plugin that enables people to type in what looks like .com in Chinese, but translates it into
.com.cn, essentially creating a local version of the .com subdomain behind what is in effect a digital Chinese wall.

This was last published in May 2006

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