Friday, January 20, 2006
OPEN PIPES: American politics contributes to rise of breakaway Internet addressing system
Posted Jan. 19, 2006
Endangered Domain: In Threat to Internet's Clout, Some Are Starting Alternatives
Rise of Developing Nations, Anti-U.S. Views Play Role;
Pioneer Sounds the Alarm; A 'Root' Grows in Germany
By CHRISTOPHER RHOADS
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
January 19, 2006; Page A1
More than a decade after the Internet became available for commercial use,
other countries and organizations are erecting rivals to it -- raising
fears that global interconnectivity will be diminished.
German computer engineers are building an alternative to the Internet to
make a political statement. A Dutch company has built one to make money.
China has created three suffixes in Chinese characters substituting for
.com and the like, resulting in Web sites and email addresses inaccessible
to users outside of China. The 22-nation Arab League has begun a similar
system using Arabic suffixes.
"The Internet is no longer the kind of thing where only six guys in the
world can build it," says Paul Vixie, 42 years old, a key architect of the
U.S.-supported Internet. "Now, you can write a couple of checks and get
one of your own." To bring attention to the deepening fault lines, Mr.
Vixie recently joined the German group's effort.
Alternatives to the Internet have been around since its beginning but none
gained much traction. Developing nations such as China didn't have the
infrastructure or know-how to build their own networks and users generally
didn't see any benefit from leaving the network that everyone else was on.
Now that is changing. As people come online in developing nations that
don't use Roman letters -- especially China with its 1.3 billion people --
alternatives can build critical mass. Unease with the U.S. government's
influence over a global resource, and in some cases antipathy toward the
Bush administration, also lie behind the trend.
"You've had some breakaway factions over the years, but they've had no
relevance," says Rodney Joffe, the chairman of UltraDNS, a Brisbane,
Calif., company that provides Internet equipment and services for
companies. "But what's happened over the past year or so is the beginning
of the balkanization of the Internet."
The Internet, developed by U.S. government agencies beginning in the
1960s, uses a so-called domain-name system, also called the "root," that
consists of 264 suffixes. These include .com, .net, .org and country codes
such as .jp for Japan. The root is coordinated by a private, nonprofit
group in Marina del Rey, Calif., called the Internet Corporation for
Assigned Names and Numbers or Icann. This body works under the auspices of
the U.S. Department of Commerce, which set up the organization in 1998.
CAST YOUR VOTE
Question of the Day: Does the U.S. government have too much control over
the way the Internet is run?Having a single root is central to the
universality of the Internet and critical to its power and appeal. Key
servers that are part of the root system determine whether the suffix of
an Internet domain name is on the official list. If so, the message is
directed within milliseconds to the administrator of each suffix for
further routing. In the case of .com, that administrator is Verisign Inc.
A single root helps ensure that when people type in a Web address such as
www.amazon.com, they all end up at the site of the Internet retailer no
matter where in the world they are or which Internet service provider they
use. All addresses must use one of the 264 domain names. Any changes must
be approved by Icann and ultimately by the Commerce Department.
Alternative roots form the basis for rivals to the Internet.
As the Internet's role grows around the world, some are uneasy with the
notion that a U.S.-based body overseen by the U.S. government has sole
power over what domain names are used and who controls each name. Other
countries such as China also say Icann is too slow in forming domain names
in non-Roman languages, hindering the development of an Internet culture
in those countries.
Concern about U.S. oversight increased last summer when the Commerce
Department persuaded Icann to postpone the approval of a new domain-name
suffix to be used for pornographic Web sites, .xxx. The department said it
had received letters of complaint from Christian groups. While other
countries also opposed the name, critics cited the incident as evidence of
The matter of control came to a head last November at a United Nations
summit in Tunis, where the U.S. delegation fought off demands from more
than 170 countries to give up unilateral oversight of Icann.
More than half of the Internet's users today are outside the U.S.
Governments increasingly are interested in how the Internet works. Brazil,
for instance, collects much of its tax revenue online. "The Internet has
become a critical part of our lives," says Abdullah Al-Darrab, Saudi
Arabia's deputy governor for technical affairs. "These policies should not
be left to a single country or entity."
U.S. officials counter that the Internet is too valuable to tinker with or
place under an international body like the U.N. "What's at risk is the
bureaucratization of the Internet and innovation," says Michael Gallagher,
the Department of Commerce official who administers the government's tie
to Icann. Mr. Gallagher and other backers of Icann also say that the
countries loudest in demanding more international input -- China, Libya,
Syria, Cuba -- have nondemocratic governments. Allowing these nations to
have influence over how the Internet works could hinder freedom of speech,
Others argue that a fragmented Internet is a natural result of its global
growth and shouldn't be terribly harmful. Governments already control what
their citizens see on the Internet by blocking some sites, making surfing
a less-than-universal experience, notes Paul Mockapetris, who invented the
Internet's domain-name system in the early 1980s.
Icann's master database of domain names is preserved in 13 "mirrors" --
servers that automatically copy any changes made to the original database.
The duplication makes the system robust in cases of attack or failure. Ten
of the 13 mirrors are in the U.S.; the others are in Amsterdam, Stockholm
Operating the 'F Root'
A nonprofit organization headed by Mr. Vixie operates one mirror called
the "F root." Working without pay or contract from Icann, he runs his
mirror from the basement of an old telegraph office in a brown stucco
building with a red, Spanish-tiled roof in Palo Alto, Calif.
Located between a Walgreen's drugstore and an art gallery, the F root
building looks unimpressive, but it plays a critical role in the flow of
Internet traffic. Powerful servers inside a locked, metal cage translate
Internet domain names into a series of numbers, called Internet protocol
addresses, helping users find Web sites and send and receive email. Mr.
Vixie's center handles about 4,000 queries a second from several
Mr. Vixie, a high-school dropout, was a precocious programmer, helping
while still in his mid-20s write the domain-name software now used on most
servers. He now runs a company that services the software. He helped build
the F root in 1994 when he was 30 and helped foil an attack by hackers in
2002 that hampered all the mirrors except his and one other. Later he came
up with a way to bolster the system by replicating the function of the 13
mirrors at other servers.
Now Mr. Vixie is turning his attention to what he feels is an even greater
threat to how the Internet works: fragmentation.
Last June, Mr. Vixie emailed Markus Grundmann, a 35-year-old security
technician in Hannover, Germany. Mr. Vixie was seeking information about
the Open Root Server Network, or ORSN, which Mr. Grundmann founded.
Mr. Grundmann at first thought the email was fake. He was surprised that a
pillar of the U.S.-led system would want anything to do with him. He
explained to Mr. Vixie that he set up ORSN in February 2002 because of his
distrust of the Bush administration and its foreign policy. Mr. Grundmann
fears that Washington could easily "turn off" the domain name of a country
it wanted to attack, crippling the Internet communications of that
country's military and government.
Mr. Vixie says he has no interest in making political statements but he
agreed last September to work with Mr. Grundmann by operating one of
ORSN's 13 mirrors. Mr. Vixie has also placed a link to the once-obscure
German group on his personal Web site.
The moves roiled the Internet community of programmers and techies of
which he is a prominent member. Vinton Cerf, one of the founders of the
Internet, says he asked Mr. Vixie on the phone, "What were you thinking?"
Says Mr. Cerf: "I don't think it's helpful to give visibility to a group
that is fragmenting the Internet."
Mr. Vixie says he sees the European effort as a check of sorts on the
Icann system. The U.S.-backed group will be more likely to act in the
global interest if it knows that users have an alternative, he says.
Twelve other computer scientists -- mostly in Germany, Austria and
Switzerland -- have agreed to help run the new root. Close to 50 Internet
service providers in a half-dozen European countries now use ORSN.
For the moment, that is merely a symbolic step. The domain names in ORSN's
directory are identical to those in Icann's. Users of ORSN get routed in
the same direction as they would have if they were in the Icann system and
can communicate with the same Web sites. ORSN doesn't create or sell its
own domain names. If it did, Mr. Vixie says he would quit immediately. But
if ORSN disagrees with a move taken by Icann, it could refuse to follow
"The Internet is a child of the U.S. government," says Mr. Grundmann. "But
now the child has grown up and can't stay at home forever."
Choosing a Suffix
A company called UnifiedRoot, based in Amsterdam, has taken things a step
further than ORSN. In late November, the company began offering customers
the right to register any suffix of their choosing, such as replacing .com
with the name of their company. The price is $1,000 to register and an
additional $250 each year thereafter.
The company has established its own root and signed up Amsterdam's
Schiphol Airport, among other companies, according to Erik Seeboldt,
UnifiedRoot's managing director. These companies can use their own brand
name as a domain name to create addresses such as arrivals.schiphol, he
says. Users of UnifiedRoot can also access all sites using Icann-approved
domain names such as .com, but Icann users couldn't go to a .schiphol
address, he says.
"We want to bring freedom and innovation back to the Internet," says Mr.
Seeboldt. The Internet service provider Tiscali SpA, which has five
million subscribers in Europe, and some of Turkey's largest service
providers use UnifiedRoot's naming system.
Some countries with non-Roman alphabets are also taking matters into their
own hands. China has created three domain names in Chinese characters --
.zhongguo, .gongsi and .wangluo -- and made them available for public and
commercial use inside China only.
Similarly, Arab countries have in the past 18 months experimented with
country code domain names in Arabic, distinct from the Icann system, says
Khaled Fattal of Surrey, England. Mr. Fattal is head of Minc.org, a
nonprofit organization dedicated to making the Internet multilingual.
"There is no such thing as a global Internet today," says Mr. Fattal. "You
have only an English-language Internet that is deployed internationally.
How is that empowering millions of Chinese or Arab citizens?"
Icann is responding to the criticism. At its last meeting in December it
took steps to enhance the role of foreign governments in its decision
making and accelerated the development of non-English domain names.
Paul Twomey, the chief executive officer of Icann, says the divisions
reflect cultural differences between nations that operate under a strong
government hand and those, including the U.S., that put more trust in the
private sector. "We are more comfortable with messy outcomes that work,"
says Mr. Twomey, who is Australian. "But we need to integrate other values
and languages into the Internet and make sure that it still works as one
That's not enough for some. "We would like the process to speed up," says
Li Guanghao, the head of international affairs for the China Internet
Network Information Center, in an email interview. The center allocates
Internet-protocol addresses in China in conjunction with the Icann system
but is also developing the non-Icann Chinese character suffixes.
Mr. Vixie says he joined ORSN to make clear his view that such efforts
will continue unless Icann becomes more inclusive. "I realize that this
could help unleash the hordes of hell," he says. "But I hope it will make
people wonder: 'What if there are more of these?' "
Write to Christopher Rhoads at email@example.com
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