A Quiet Revolution

There’s a quiet revolution taking place on the Internet. It’s not the noisy success of electronic commerce, not the breakthrough of high-quality digital audio formats, nor the astonishingly quick adoption of extensible languages on the Web. It’s a revolution at the Web's core: a transformation of who controls the fundamental services of the Internet.

If you’re like me, you have probably heard the old story that no single organization, government or company runs the Internet. In broad terms that’s true -- the Internet is characterized by massive distribution, cooperation and interoperability, with no center or focal point. There is one service, however, that has been part of the Internet since the 1970s, hidden away, working in the background, unknown to all but a tiny minority of Internet users. That organization, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), was a small, university-based, federally funded office that governed many of the core services of the Internet on the basis of two rules: trust and engineering excellence.

IANA (www.iana.org) was responsible for three things: doling out IP addresses, the four octets -- such as 206.135.10.2 -- that every Internet router, server and workstation uses to identify itself; running the root name servers that provide the essential base for the Domain Name System; and acting as final arbiter and editor for the key standards developed by the Internet community.

When controversy erupted over the Domain Name System two years ago, IANA proposed extending the system so commercial domain names could end in characters other than .COM. Initially proposed were domains such as .FIRM, .WEB, .NOM, .INFO and .SHOP. The controversy escalated into a global battle for control of the Domain Name System and its infrastructure. The debate led to close examination of a simple question: Who really controls all this stuff anyway?

The answer was astonishing. The U.S. government had contracted with a tiny office at the University of Southern California to provide the fundamental services without which the Internet as we know it would collapse. Last year, the U.S. government, recognizing that the global expansion of the commercial Internet required a foundation better than an old-boys network of Internet techies, decided to move the work of IANA to a new, non-profit organization -- outside the control of the U.S. government.

After accepting worldwide public input on the structure and function of an organization that would administer IP numbers, domain names, and protocol numbers and documents, the U.S. Commerce Department asked two organizations to draft a set of bylaws for the new organization. In addition to IANA, the government asked Network Solutions Inc. (www.nsi.com) -- the monopoly registry for the top level domains .NET, .ORG, and .COM -- to participate in the development of the new bylaws.

The process of drafting bylaws to replace IANA was an excruciating and prolonged form of torture. IANA’s executive director, Jon Postel, had been the one unwavering, neutral father figure that everyone involved with Internet infrastructure trusted. But as Jon and Network Solutions developed new versions of proposed bylaws, they came under attack from almost every corner of the Internet community.

Just as the fifth, and hopefully final, draft of the bylaws was published, Jon Postel -- the man who had shepherded the fundamental Internet services of IANA for decades and was leading it through its transformation into the global, commercial Internet -- tragically died.

Unlike many revolutions in history, this quiet Internet revolution did not end because its flag bearer suddenly passed away. Instead, a new, non-profit entity has surfaced to take up the work of the old IANA. The new organization, called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN (www.icann.org), emerged from the bedlam and is starting to shape Internet administration into an organization that is representative of the broad range of users and organizations that are the reason for the success of the Internet.

The Internet community is welcoming the new organization in its traditional way: It is enthusiastically raking ICANN over the coals. The diversity of the current Internet presents a real challenge when your goal is representative and accountable management of the fundamental services needed to make the Internet run. That’s why ICANN is concentrating on a few basics: establishing trust, confidence and reliability at the core of the Internet.

Like the privatization of the Internet’s backbone network, the transition from IANA to ICANN represents a profound revolution in the way the Internet works. If you haven’t heard about it before I can’t blame you: As revolutions go, it’s a quiet one. --Mark McFadden is a consultant and is communications director for the Commercial Internet eXchange (Washington). Contact him at mcfadden@cix.org.