Root servers: The real Net power

Forget complaints about U.S. dominance of the Internet. Axel Pawlik and his fellow root server operators are the real authorities.

TUNIS, Tunisia--Delegates from third-world nations spent much of last week at a United Nations summit here railing against the Bush administration's alleged control of the Internet. But in reality, the U.S. government has strictly limited influence on which top-level domains--such as .com, .org, and .uk--are actually seen by Internet users.

The real power behind the network lies with the group of 13 organizations which, through a mechanism little-known outside of technical circles, operate the root servers that guide traffic to each one of those top-level domains.

Some root servers, named A through M, are located inside the U.S. at organizations such as VeriSign, NASA Ames, and the U.S. Army Research Lab.

A new body that would govern the Internet from above would obviously be in conflict with the trusted, proven existing processes.

Not all. 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.

This process doesn't involve the United Nations or its agencies at all, which is just fine with the root server operators. The U.N.'s International Telecommunication Union, on the other hand, signaled earlier this year that it wouldn't mind taking over the oversight operations.

CNET spoke with RIPE Managing Director Axel Pawlik about the deal reached last week to create a U.N. Internet Governance Forum, and what the root server operators think of it. RIPE is also a regional address registry for Europe, the Middle East and Russia, which means it allocates IPv4 and IPv6 addresses to local businesses and Internet providers.

Q: Was a disaster averted with this deal?
Pawlik: You could put it that way. The potential disaster was that we would have a new government-led oversight body. That's one outlook we didn't cherish very much.

Why not?
Pawlik: We are fully convinced, speaking for the (regional address registries), that the policy development processes that we have are efficient, work well, and are beneficial for the Internet. And we also see participation by governments throughout the regions. A new body that would govern the Internet from above would obviously be in conflict with the trusted, proven existing processes.

What relationship do you currently have with ICANN?
Pawlik: It's an informal relationship in most cases. Speaking for ourselves, we speak with governments directly. Some of them come to our meetings and take part in our discussions. Some of them observe. We strive to keep them informed. We find that the European governments overall are relatively quiet.

Did you ever have a government official in Europe express worry about U.S. dominance of the Internet?
Pawlik: Well, we know the EU's statement. Overall, I feel that the governments in our service region know fairly well what our relationship is with ICANN and ICANN's relationship with the U.S. government. It's barely any operational involvement between them. (But the U.S. does have special influence) but they don't like that. And I understand that.

Which governments in your service region are most interested in this topic?
Pawlik: We've had close contacts with the U.K., with the Netherlands, because we're based there. We know that the Nordic countries are very well-informed. There is not much concern coming from those governments to our ears. Everybody seems to be fairly happy about the growth of the Internet. We look into the future and hope that this new forum will let us participate fully. If that is so it should be a success.

What would happen if the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) decided to approve a new top-level domain--say .xxx--and the Bush administration decided to veto it?
Pawlik: In that case, I don't know what the root server operators would do. Likely they would publish whatever is approved by ICANN. There is a difference between the content and the publication. We're only publishers of the root zone file. We take it from IANA (a function of ICANN) and we publish it.

Let's say the Bush administration accuses Syria of fostering terrorism and decides to invade. And it demands that ICANN remove Syria's .sy domain from the Internet. What would you do?
Pawlik: I don't believe that the U.S. government would be that stupid. Seriously, this has never come up. But I am quite certain that the Internet community at large would not like that decision and I'm not sure it would be carried through.

It seems that you don't have that much interaction with ICANN.
Pawlik: That's what we're saying all along. We interface with ICANN or IANA on a very small slice of the cake that ICANN represents. On our slice of the cake we're quite happy. It works, not always in the most efficient manner. But we only interface with them two, three, four times a year.

We had our operational problems with IANA in the past and we're looking forward to an even more efficient interface with them. We're saying we do support ICANN. We've been saying over the last few years that we critically support them. They can improve.

What do you think of U.N. and ITU oversight of the root servers?
Pawlik: How would they do that? I cannot see them doing that. I cannot see a likely practical way they would do that. If all the governments of the world would agree that the root servers should be operated by the ITU, that would be likely. I don't see that happening.

What's your budget?
Pawlik: The RIPE NCC budget is 11 million euros. That's covered by slightly more than 4,100 members in our service region. Our members are mostly ISPs and businesses. We're a membership organization and we charge membership fees (based in part on the amount of address space that you've been allocated over time).

How much IPv4 address space is left?
Pawlik: We're seeing that we have about 25 percent of the IPv4 address space left globally. If you look at the statistics, (you'll see) that address space was given out very freely during the early years. We are allocating very efficiently nowadays.

How long will it last?
Pawlik: I'm not making any predictions. That would be wrong. But numbers obtained from various sources say 2008, 2012.

We do see an increase in IPv6 address space requests. The ISPs see that it's less expensive to change now than it will be in 10 years.

What percentage of root server connections come from IPv6 computers?
Pawlik: I don't know the number off the top of my head; it's still miniscule.

Are there political implications of having early Internet adopters like Stanford and MIT awarded huge chunks of scarce IPv4 address space?
Pawlik: v6 will solve the problem. But I don't think there are any such problems. China now gets loads of address space based on the policies of today.

It always comes up and it's just not an issue. Of course if you look at it from another point of view, saying that I want to have every person on the earth have a mobile or a $100 laptop on the Internet, then clearly there are not enough IPv4 addresses in the world. That is the reason that many Asian countries are pushing very strongly for the change to IPv6.

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