Implications of Internet Governance

On the Competitive Internet Landscape

 

By Kenneth Neil Cukier

 

Keynote Remarks at

Re-Engineering the Internet Conference

London, 26 January 1998

___________________________________

 

"The impact of modernity was dissolving for so complex, indeed so subtle a structure. For how could organic institutions be rationalized, when relationships were so intricate that the very attempt to define them would merely serve to accentuate differences? ... It is in the nature of successful policies that posterity forgets how easily things could have been otherwise."

 

-- Dr. Henry A. Kissenger, A World Restored (1964), referring to the Austrian Empire, and the Treaty of Vienna.

*     *     *

 

"The nineteenth century invented the locomotive, and Hegal was convinced he had grasped the very spirit of universal history. But Flaubert discovered stupidity. I daresay that is the greatest discovery of a century so proud of its scientific thought."

 

-- Milan Kundera, "Jerusalem Address" (1985), in The Art of the Novel.

 

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I'd like to begin by noting an important mistake in the conference agenda. I'm billed as an "expert opinion" which I'm certain has been the catalyst to wry smiles if not outright peels of laughter. As many of you here today know -- since a large portion of you appear as sources for my articles in  CommunicationsWeek International -- I'm beholden to you, as my muse. Shy an "expert," I'd rather call myself an "adept parrot," helpfully chirping back that which I hear from the real experts: you here today.

 

Even if I've never frantically called you on deadline, the fact you've taken the initiative to attend this conference is a sign that you take these issues seriously. And as such, you in private industry, government and representative associations, are all experts.

 

But it is not completely ironic that I should address you this morning. Although you are experts -- you're also partisans. You have a stake in the outcome.  As a journalist, I'm supposed to be independent. (As an Internet user, clearly I'm not.)

 

How Internet governance issues will impact the private sector is a vast topic. To make my twenty minutes meaningful, I plan to divide the subject into three parts. The first, is to identify areas where the Internet industry has a stake in the outcome of the current debate -- and where it has a role to play. I'll explain the nature of the debate, and also explain what I mean by the "Internet industry." But I believe that these points can be better made by others here today, so I'll only offer some simple thoughts, as an outsider.

 

Secondly, I wish to offer a brief analysis of the previous year's Internet governance debacle. As a journalist, I strive for objectivity in my reporting. I am therefore particularly grateful for this opportunity to temporarily cast aside those sanitized robes, and instead critically examine what I believe will become the legacies of the maligned process.

 

Finally, I plan to take the conference agenda in hand, and tell you some dirt about some of the speakers here today. I want to let you know what to listen carefully for, which they will NOT say today. And I'll tell you why they won't say it. Perhaps this tenacity --if not rudeness -- will compel one or two of them to drop a word on the matters I raise.

 

In considering these three areas together, I pray that I do not end up falling on my sword. If I offend any one here, please understand that my only interest is to communicate something truthful and meaningful, which in other fora such as impersonal newspaper print, is occasionally appreciated. Ultimately, these are fugitive opinions, recklessly delivered, and surely soon forgotten.

 

I.

Internet Self-Governance and the Private Sector

 

Internet governance is a new term for many. For some it is a frightful one. Others would say it is impossible. A conference in 1996 at Harvard University was called "Coordinating the Internet" -- which pre-supposed that the Internet is something that requires order brought to it from outside of it. They didn't call it "Internet Coordination," for example, that avoids this presumption in a linguistic sense.

 

Whether we use the term coordination, management or governance -- what is it we're talking about? In short, the Internet is a distributed system, but at certain levels requires central authority or it doesn't work universally.

Three areas stand out:

* The domain name system data;

* Internet Protocol address number allocations;

* Special engineering parameters.

 

The Net functions more smoothly -- there's less a chance that something can go wrong; more predictability -- when these aspects are managed, or coordinated. There may be adjustments to this -- Is there a fourth role? Can one of these three functions be left to complete distributed management? These are relevant questions, but better considered at another time, by someone more competent.

 

The problem today, of course, is that the Internet institutions that oversee these functions need to adapt, or be created.

* They are still aligned with the academic community that developed the Net, but which has now been overtaken in importance by the private sector, of commercial backbone provision.

* The Net was developed in the US, while today the Internet is international.

* The institutions that "govern" it evolved organically, and have a very tenuous foundation in law -- and that doesn't scale very well.

* The original designers comprised a small, diverse, yet generally cohesive community, but today that community is enormous -- indeed, it no longer is considered to be the Net's architects, but its users (and in some cases their government representatives!).

* Finally, these institutions are still funded by the US government -- an anachronism from when data networking projects were civil and military projects.

 

That's the problem. The system has to change. And because there is a governance role, it becomes a question of power.

 

The Internet industry has a vital stake that the system works. The industry, as Jon Postel, the head of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA),  notes in the most recent issue of CWI, is no longer just the ISPs and router vendors --  it's the users. Users like Shell Oil or the government of France. It is the banks like Barclays. And as such, since our salaries somehow worm their way from payroll to our accounts over networks; and we're going to want to purchase something from a Web site with those euros, or simply check our balance while ballooning in Bogota; it's us too. Individuals have a stake in the Net's reliable functioning.

 

If that's the problem, and that's who it effects, then in what ways will the outcome of the governance model impact users, and where can users play a role?

 

Let's look at the three functions that require coordination separately, and note where each bisects the interests of business. The most obvious is domain names, and unsurprisingly, it is also where the most controversy has been.

 

Domain Names:

Business wants to protect their trademarks and brand identity. Most business people are unaware of the issues and its seriousness. But those that are aware of it, for example the director of electronic commerce at the US Council for International Business, are livid at the idea of many generic TLDs constantly being created. Every new name is a threat to the existing identity in other gTLDs. I'm suspecting that some large companies with "international brands" or public perception will seek moratoria on their names for any new gTLDs that are created that can lead to confusion in the market place.

 

How this will work internationally will be tough. Expect more dogfights and regional rivalries. Even expect a contingent to seek unicode gTLDs - so users of a Kanji-based browser can type in characters for top level domains. This would fracture the Net, for as Christian Huitema, a French engineer at Bellcore in the United States, notes, the DNS is based on the lowest common denominator: the 7-bit ASCII character set. Without it, users in Texas might not be able to connect to sites in Tangiers without special software that turns their Latin-alphabet keyboard into Arabic.

 

No policy will resolve the trademark and brand issues of TLDs - that, I'm afraid, will be a concern that will exist forever. The best deal business can cut is to protect truly international names by means of a mechanism to prevent their registration before any new TLD databases go live. For what I'll call "rightful duplication" -- Cisco Systems, Cisco Iron Mining-founded 1888, and Cisco Medical Labs in Bombay, India (fictitious examples) -- perhaps a ".who" is in order. It would be a database-based TLD administered by linking up all other TLD databases (including country code TLDs), that would serve to list all shared second level names for any given entry. When the registration is made or renewed, users can provide a 50-word description of the site. In this way, cisco.com is a technology company and cisco.med is a health clinic -- and hopefully less confusion will result, good routing, and better health in Bombay.

 

The Domain Name System's Root, the Data:

So who manages the data? That's a techie question, and although I have some thoughts here -- for example, the system needs to become formalized, with more structure while maintaining the distributed model -- these issues can be better dealt with in other presentations.

 

Yet as the "DNS Blackout" showed last summer, when Network Solutions Inc. that manages the data, sent corrupted files to the root servers, its stability is of extraordinary importance.

 

Users should ensure that their direct ISPs have failure recovery plans in place and that backup files of DNS records -- at a minimum all the sites on the single operator's network -- are kept in case of problems similar to those of last July.

 

IP Number Allocation and Oversight:

This, being of much more importance than the names, has obviously been largely ignored. Large corporates and network providers want easy access to IP number space so they can have the utmost flexibility to modify and increase the size of their networks. But the numbers are finite -- and will still be, even with IPv6.

 

Additionally, the number allocation has to be well-managed. Don Mitchell of the U.S. National Science Foundation once described to me what happened many years ago when a number was duplicated. What engineers today call "router flap" -- two networks advertising the same route -- can become bigger trouble if it's not caught in time. Imagine a stream of packets originating from Europe are told by one router that the destination is in Asia, only to then be told later in the path the destination is in North America! Mitchell called it a meltdown -- the routers get overloaded and crash. Keep in mind that the Net is great at routing around single points of failure, so as one path gets hyper-congested, routers resend the packets by other routes! The problem spreads!

 

The point here is that there are two aspects to the IP number allocation process, and they must be handled with care. And industry can easily play a role. Join the European registry RIPE, or if you need address allocations, RIPE NCC (and they're having their trimestrial meeting later this week in Amsterdam, in case I've so frightened you that you want to join today!). There, you can play a part in the rule-making process regarding the requirements and fees to receive allocations, as well as ensure that the registry's number coordination function is sturdy, and in cooperation with other registries.

 

Network Parameters:

This is an engineering issue. If you're a high-tech firm, either you or companies you work with participate in the IETF as engineers. The mailing list is open and the meetings are three times a year. Your "entree" to the process is via the engineers who participate as engineers rather than individual companies, yet of course they have the interest of the Internet community -- and the bottom line of the companies that pay their salaries -- at heart. For the large cooperate users and residential users, your input on these matters (if you understand them!) is via these tech companies from which you buy products.

 

Beyond that, network parameters don't concern you, and the best thing you can do to assure the stability and longevity of the Internet is to leave the matter alone and let the engineers who presumably know what they're talking about do their work.

 

The Internet and the Government:

I'm told that the U.S. government intends to make policy recommendations that will give users a larger role to play -- perhaps even establish a formal role for them. That they deserve a voice, I don't think anyone disagrees with. So the real question is what sort of role or voice will they have.

 

The Internet has long suffered the gilded talk of being a distributed system that puts power at the edges and can't be controlled. And the Internet community has been held up at times as some magical democratic organization that empowers everyone; and merits not might rules the day. I'm not so naive as to sell that flavor of nostalgia. Part of it is true, but there's another part that makes a mockery of those perspectives.

 

Indeed, my own analysis brings me to conclude that the Internet has long been ruled by benevolent dictators. And that the hour is at hand when the larger raft of people want a say in the way it all works. Their values may be crass commercialism rather than elegant engineering. But that may simply be the reality of representative democracy.

 

Either way, it is to this upheaval in the existing order of Internet institutions and self-governance that I want to now turn. That this conference is held in Europe is symbolic, since as Europeans, we've been down this road before, of fracture and rebirth. We built our nations upon ideals. And we had the floor ripped from under us as well. May those lessons not betray us today.

 

II.

Brigadoon, Athens, Gettysburg, Paris:

Myth, Democracy, Civil War and Revolution

 

"The IAHC is a farce, the committee should have stuck with the spirit of the Postel draft, which we all did have input into....

At your name service, Eugene Kashpureff, ALTERNIC.NET"

 

As far as a cyber-shot heard 'round the world goes, or gaining the world upon giving up chains, it ain't historic. But it does belong to history.

 

It was written by the so-called "DNS Terrorist" -- exactly one year ago today, the 26th of January 1997, on the IAHC mailing list.

 

What have we learned, one year later? And what are the legacies that we inherit, after such divisive, painful and unnecessary conflicts; the IAHC process being noteworthy for the reaction it provoked rather than what it accomplished.

 

I confess a certain fatalism. I admire Arnold Toynbee, the Oxford historian who never tired of pointing out that civilizations fall, and that to save the tumbling edifices before they crumble, society must respond to challenges -- if it indeed is to be saved at all....

 

I believe that 1997 has been the year of such a historic challenge, for that ephemeral concept called "Internet self-governance" -- when the institutions that organically emerged to coordinate the Net were forced to molt, shed a skin, to face new circumstances. They were unable to do it on their own -- perhaps the Net community leaders lacked legitimacy, perhaps the Net just lacked people with sound political sense....

 

Today we are on the cusp of a new era for the Internet, and we await the U.S. government's plan to manage a stable transition for these institutions. We do not know the outcome yet of the challenge we faced, but we know we are in the endgame.

 

I suspect we'll fail.

 

I see Internet self-governance in a historical sense. The early days of the Net was a splinter of time when dreamers applied engineering to enhance communications. As such, they organized themselves on selfless, rational principles. Many, like Dr. Postel, were volunteers in this community. They had the best interest of the medium at heart.

 

Such self-governance might be like Brigadoon, the mythic Scottish village. It only appears once every thousand years. Like democratic Athens compared to Washington DC, the first incarnation was the finest. The second time is farce.

 

I see the past year as the Internet's first civil war. Guess what: Gettysburg. Both sides lost.

 

The Internet needed to rely on meatspace -- the offline world of politicians practiced in the art of process and procedure to instill authority, legitimacy, to the Internet's institutions. That is the mark of a failure. It might be salvaged somewhat -- the European Commission and the White House want the Net to run itself -- but the initial damage has been done. Public policy has plunged its flagpole deep into the soul of cyberspace. It will never leave.

 

Indeed, the civil war's factions are still upon the ramparts -- this will never go away either. But that makes the Internet, and Internet governance, resemble everything else: Politics have political parties. Nations go to war. What we're seeing is the Internet beginning to look like everything we've ever seen before. What's new with the Net: Nothing! It's finally becoming banal -- now we know the halcyon days are past.

 

In civil war, there comes a moment, after neighbor has turned upon neighbor, that they stop. Someone picks up a deserted inner-tube, patches it, fills it with air. Re-builds a house. Carves a violin. Walks upright after the hurt and uncertainty of a crooked spine.

 

The Internet has little patience for such reflections.  Chris Ambler, who went so far as to sue Jon Postel and others over his claim to own ".web" -- since he said he owned it first -- now works for Microsoft Corp. Has the civil war ended? Who was even there to have seen it? A small handful of tired policy makers, geeks and reporters.

 

Nevertheless, we're living in times of a veritable "Constitutional Convention" -- the matters we will debate today are similar to the issues others groped to solve at other times. It is institution building, it is social organization. What we decide -- or gets decided for us -- will have lasting significance for users and for the technological underpinnings of the medium itself.

 

It's for that reason my own newspaper has shed so much ink this past year, covering the topic. And I believe these facets of the problem, though heavy on abstractions and short of depth, are of profound importance to telcos, ISPs, vendors and users.

 

As a French-American, I share two heritages that help me understand some of the intricacies of the challenges the Internet community faces, as a sort of "perpetual revolution" plays itself out.

 

In the American tradition, the "great experiment" was democracy, and soon the young republic was faced with the issue of centralized versus decentralized control. It wasn't called that specifically, but Hamilton's drive for a central, federal, national bank, and Jefferson's plea that the states remain more powerful and that the nation retain its agrarian roots, was essentially one of power, authority and freedom. Everybody loved Jefferson. But Hamilton won.

 

In Paris, they didn't fare much better: The revolution that gave birth to the universal rights of man was succeeded by The Terror.

 

My continual references to the political -- the last networking layer -- may be appropriate if I'm right that the key challenges are now more political than technical. IP can't route around human nature. As Magaziner readies his report, I sense that the Internet is set to move into a new phase -- the geopolitical. Nations and regional blocks will eye up networking technologies, topologies, and resources under the rubric of strategic interests. The warm water port will be replaced by the root nameserver.

 

Already, as a precursor to this, note that Australia's incumbent carrier Telstra has sued the FCC over the accounting rate regime. Aussi Web surfers, they contend, effectively subsidize U.S. users, since those down-under bear the full cost of circuits across the Pacific. David Conrad of APNIC, the Asian IP number registry, this month indicated he would resign, citing the political and advocacy role the organization now is likely required to play.

 

Of course meatspace for the moment matters more. A few days after President Clinton boldly announced his administration's electronic commerce initiative last July, both he and the policy's architect, Ira Magaziner, flew to Europe. Magaziner went to an EC conference in Bonn to sell the plan to the first world, ostensibly America's allies. Clinton was in Lisbon. The word "Internet" never fell from his lips -- he came to enlarge NATO.

 

In the conference documentation I provided an article from WorldLink magazine this autumn, where I call Magaziner "the best hope in the Internet community that the Internet can be free of off-line bureaucracy." The magazine is published by the World Economic Forum -- the people who host the yearly Davos conference, which starts at the end of this week, and which I assume Magaziner is flying off to. I guess he'll talk in generalities, spoon-feed the issue to the business leaders and politicians there. He knows any Internet transition policy he cooks up needs buy-in from the rest of the world.

 

It was inevitable that the Internet would become enmeshed in politics. It was always there, since the government, the U.S., gave rise to it. But the transition has so far been botched. Some would say the transition plan of Internet institutions hasn't yet begun. I take the view it started a long time ago. Nobody noticed. We mostly debated distractions.

 

Look at the Internet governance participants: They're the walking-wounded. The factions still exist. As do the tender untruths that seem so innocuous because the lie is in what is left out rather than what is spoken.

 

But before us today is the establishment. Let's not forget that: You are all the winners, in a way. You have influence, are a part of the "The Process." You're quoted as experts in the press. The prediction I'll make is that your comfort isn't going to last long. I see plenty of more Amblers and Kashpureffs on the horizon.

 

III.

Listen Closely to What They Don't Say!

 

Vaccination theory says that a small dose of disease allows a body to build up its natural defenses. And if I may play the role of a virus -- which is very easy for a member of the fourth estate -- I now wish to tell you about what you WON'T hear the other speakers say.... Ultimately, this may serve as a polite preperation for the firestorms to come, in other venues.

 

(Delivered extemporaneously)

 

 

 

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