Power grab could split the Net

CNET News.com's Declan McCullagh says a spat over who rules the domains could lead to a Balkanized Internet.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
3 min read
For the first time in its history, the Internet is running a real risk of fracturing into multiple and perhaps even incompatible networks.

At a meeting in Geneva last week, the Bush administration objected to the idea of the United Nations running the top-level servers that direct traffic to the master databases of all domain names.

That's not new, of course--the administration has been humming this tune since June. What's changed in the last few months is the response from the rest of the world.

Instead of acquiescing to the Bush administration's position, the European Union cried foul last week and embraced greater U.N. control. A spokesman said that the EU is "very firm on this position."

Other nations were equally irked. Russia, Brazil and Iran each chimed in with statements saying that no "single government" should have a "pre-eminent role" in terms of Internet governance.

Meanwhile, the International Telecommunication Union, a U.N. body, offered to take over from the United States.

Crucial root servers
This may seem like a complicated political muddle that only Talleyrand could love, but this process is important. If it spirals out of control, we could end up with a Balkanized Internet in which the U.S. attempts to retain control of its root servers and a large portion of the world veers in an incompatible direction.

This would amount to a nuclear option in which a new top-level domain would not be visible in the U.S. and its client states--but would be used in many other nations. The downside, of course, comes when two computers find different Web sites at the same address.

We could end up with a Balkanized Internet in which the U.S. attempts to retain control of its root servers and a large portion of the world veers in an incompatible direction.

Some background: The Internet's 13 root servers guide traffic to the massive databases that contain addresses for all the individual top-level domains, such as .com, .net, .edu, and the country code domains like .uk and .jp.

Whoever controls what goes into the root servers has the final authority about what new top-level domains are added or deleted. The Bush administration doesn't particularly care for .xxx, for instance, and could conceivably move to block its addition even if the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers approves it.

Other governments lack that power, and don't exactly like George W. Bush and his administration enjoying a monopoly over it.

Not all the root servers, named A through M, are in the United States. The M server is operated by the WIDE Project in Tokyo, and the K server is managed by Amsterdam-based RIPE. The F, I and J servers point to many addresses around the world through the anycast protocol, yielding a total of 80 locations in 34 countries.

In the nuclear option, some national governments would continue to follow the U.S. lead while others would switch their root servers to point to the U.N. list of top-level domains. Eventually, different top-level domains would be added, and the Internet would bifurcate.

Next steps
While this possibility remains remote, what's worrisome is that neither side seems willing to budge.

A working group report prepared before last week's meeting called root server reform an issue of the "highest priority." That report also proposed a Global Internet Council that would be "anchored in the United Nations."

Turning over control of key Internet functions to the U.N. would invite a debacle. This is the bureaucracy that gave rise to the Oil for Food scandal and counts as its major accomplishment in the last decade a failed attempt at nation-building in Somalia. U.N. control would usher in higher fees for domain names--to pay for development aid to third-world nations with dysfunctional governments.

The autocratic, bellicose Bush administration is no paragon of civil liberties virtue, but letting delegates from Cuba, Iran and Tunisia decide on the principles for an open and democratic Internet would be an even worse alternative.

That's why the next few weeks before the final meeting in Tunisia will be crucial.

The Bush administration's negotiating skills will be severely tested. State Department officials will have to find a way to allay fears of a U.S.-dominated Internet while avoiding any path leading to a bifurcated root. It won't be a trivial task, but the alternatives are even less savory.