Analysis: What exact control over the Internet is the US giving up and is it bad or not?

Analysis: What exact control over the Internet is the US giving up and is it bad or not?

Summary: The single most important question is this: what does America currently control and therefore, what would we actually be giving up?

SHARE:

One of the problems of being non-partisan, patriotic (but not jingoistic), and strategic is that knee-jerk reactions can't necessarily become talking points. Gut feelings can't become strategy statements. Uninformed personal preferences can't be presented to all of you as if they were considered recommendations.

In other words, smart recommendations need to be backed by doing one's homework.

This, of course, brings us to Friday's announcement that, to quote Vladimir Putin's personal propaganda organ, RT.com (Russia Today), "Amid NSA fallout, US to relinquish top internet oversight role."

My first thought, my knee-jerk reaction was a simple W-T-F. Is the US government out of its mind? How could America possibly give up a strategic resource this important? Is this another case of our weak-willed politicians jumping at every imagined shadow and trying to curry favor with everyone on the planet?

Can we keep it safe and can we keep the schmucks out?

I wanted to stand on my oh-so-beloved leather couch and shout, "What the hell is wrong with you people?" Except, well, my wife doesn't let me stand on my couch (I broke one, once), and no one really listens when I shout back at the TV (which is, fundamentally, why I became a blogger and wound up writing this column). By writing rather than shouting, I don't break furniture, I don't scare my family members, and I protect my oh-so-luxuriously smooth vocal chords.

Where's the homework in all this? As it turns out, there are a few questions. The single most important question is this: what does America currently control and therefore, what would we actually be giving up?

That's what the rest of this article is about.

It's all about our roots

Although this seems like a political discussion, at the root the entire issue of Internet control are the DNS root files. Let's do a 30-second, overly general recap of DNS.

The domain name system is the component of the Internet that helps connect domain names to the actual IP addresses of the server or servers operating the domain. It's how, when you type ZDNet.com into your browser, your browser is actually able to ask a specific machine to deliver the contents of our home page to you.

I sometimes tell people to think of the DNS as a phone book. When you look up someone's name in the phone book (back when we did such things), you'd see a phone number next to the name. So if you wanted to call Bob Smith, you'd look up his name, get a number, and dial the digits.

There are, of course, differences between the Internet and a phone book. First, of course, who uses phone books anymore? I can't recall the last time I actually saw a printed phone book (and I certainly don't miss them). Second, all the looking up goes on electronically in the "cloud" rather than thumbing through pages of paper.

But there are some things that make it a decent analogy. For example, we all know about area codes here in the US. Washington, DC is in the 202 area code and New York City is 212. If you prefix 555-5555 with 202, you ring a phone in DC. If you prefix it with 212, you're dialin' the Big Apple.

Likewise, we have the top-level domains like .com, .net, and so forth. If you go to domain.com, you might be directed to an entirely different site than domain.net. The .com, .net, .uk, and so forth are what are known as top-level domains, or TLDs.

So let's say you want to go to ZDNet.com. The first thing that happens behind the scenes is your computer needs to know who owns and operates the .com TLD. In practice, this is usually one of many mirrored servers because having every single Internet user pounding on one resolver for .com would cause a meltdown.

In any case, your behind-the-scenes browser request finds out from the very tippy-top of the domain tree who "owns" .com, and then asks that server who manages the ZDNet domain. That server (usually operated by a domain registrar) then points your behind-the-scenes browser agent to a variable number of hops that will eventually result in an authoritative address for the server.

If you think about it, then, the folks who "own" .com have a heck of a lot of power, because if they happened to want to, they could -- theoretically -- route all the requests to microsoft.com, apple.com, google.com, facebook.com and zdnet.com to someplace they control. This, in fact, is how hackers sometimes hijack Web sites or generate denial of service attacks. They redirect domain traffic from its actual server cluster to someplace else.

So if .com is queried to point to all the domain name servers that resolve .com domains, you might imagine that there's some Mount Olympus-style resolver in the very upper stratosphere of the domain name system that tells the machines all over the world who operates .com (and many of the other TLDs).

Who runs this thing?

This Mount Olympus root domain resolver has been indirectly operated by the US government since the beginning of the Internet. In effect, the U.S. government has had some say in who tells the world where the .com and the other TLDs live.

This uber-top domain resolver is called the "authoritive root zone file" and is operated by an entity known as the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA). IANA is really a set of Internet management functions overseen by the NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration), which, itself, is part of the US Commerce Department.

There's more. Keep reading... 

By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz.

Topics: Government US, Government

About

David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Talkback

45 comments
Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Keep the UN out of it

    No censorship.
    No taxes or fees imposed on western countries , companies, entities, or individuals to be redistributed elsewhere.
    SunFire23
    • Is there a proposal for any of that?

      Last I checked the UN was supported solely by dues paid by member governments.
      John L. Ries
      • Also read Violet Blue's series from last year on ZDNet

        http://news.cnet.com/8301-1009_3-57449375-83/u.n-could-tax-u.s.-based-web-sites-leaked-docs-show/

        They also have proposed financial transaction taxes to be levied. So you'll be paying with your retirement investments for pots of money to be distributed to the 'needy'.

        Wake up Johnny.
        SunFire23
        • I would be opposed

          Taxes should be levied only by elected assemblies on their own constituents. And no, I don't think Congress should tax the District of Columbia or other territories that don't have voting representation (fair is fair).
          John L. Ries
          • Clarification

            I have no objection to taxes levied on businesses operating within the given jurisdiction, to include import taxes. Nor do I object to foreigners being required to pay the same taxes as citizens (they don't have to live here).
            John L. Ries
        • Why do people put money destined for retirement into

          a gamble, where they lose out big time when the stocks they put real money into are given false value, with others selling out their shares, which devalues the remaining stock in the process?

          Or do people not remember the likes of Enron, amongst other issues?
          HypnoToad72
      • Hmm....

        So, I guess you fell of the truck last night?
        WhataBunchOfShi
  • The big question should be "Why?"

    I think the real question should be just why are we considering doing this? There doesn't seem to be an up-side to doing so, other than perhaps a deep seeded desire by some for having the "international community" love us a little bit more.

    Well, guess what? Ultimately they aren't going to love us anymore than they do now, so that reason doesn't stand up.

    So again I ask "Why?"
    JohnMcGrew@...
    • Really?

      I promise to like you a bit more.
      (wouldn't go as far as love though.............)
      Boothy_p
  • Anything the UN touches....

    turns to crap.
    Test Subject
    • @Test Subject

      Eradication of smallpox?
      Near eradication of polio?
      Universal Postal Union?
      International Telecommunication Union?
      All UN projects/agencies.

      Perhaps the issue is less binary.

      What would appear to matter is whether the control of the internet is unduly subject to political control/vulnerable to undue influence by any particular state/group of states/commercial interests.

      Personally, I look forward to the emergence of a completely de-centralised implementation internet protocols that would rely on digital signatures and trust-based metrics provided by an open-market of providers, rather than centrally-managed DNS lookups. This would enable the web to become a completely neutral platform. The equivalents of DNS providers would compete on the basis of trust and reliability.
      There would be significant (but manageable) security issues for individual users, but a corresponding reduction in the ability of state/corporate actors to impose constraints on the use of the web.
      dilgreen
      • Blockchain

        The virtual currency infrastructure is actually a lot of the things you list. Bitcoin and other currencies ride on top of it, but it is capable of so much more. In fact, recent articles in ZDnet & other publications have suggested that self-financing, self-directing bots "living" on the blockchain could soon start taking action in the real world in the same way that biological viruses do-- distributed, autonomous and extremely hard to stop. Some speculate that they will not only be beyond govt. control, they will also be beyond human control. Stuxnet unbound, if you will...

        Pandora-- there's a reason we remember her name.
        ClearCreek
  • When the hurlyburly's done, when the battle's lost and won.

    Remember the International Telecommunications Union? The Radio Treaty? No? Maybe we should. We can license whomever we want in the various radio service, but not without limits these commit us to.

    WRT "... America has some very sweet bombers and some really big bombs. I'm not advocating. I'm just sayin'...": Remember "The Sun never sets on the British Empire?"
    "Rule Britannia, Britannia rules the waves?" The sun most certainly did set on that empire -- and EU member Britain is having problems ruling itself.

    FWIW: Really big bombs don't build a *thing*; I was in the Army 21 years but it didn't take long to get THAT straight. Smithereens, anyone?

    http://www.itu.int/en/about/Pages/default.aspx
    http://www.ihs.com/news/uit-en-radio-regulations-11-07.htm
    ka5s@...
    • Maybe the fat jew boy should stand on a block of concrete.

      "There are two gotchas. The first is that countries like China and Russia may try to have a disproportionate influence in the operation of the Internet that would have otherwise been kept at bay by US government watchdogs. The second is that some of these governments are considered rogue nations and operate their own Internet-based criminal, terrorist, and hacking activities. They might gain an entirely unwanted foothold in Internet governance."

      Yeah and like what?

      Corporation USA isn't stomping all over people, all around the world, killing them and robbing them and serving up it's cultural clap trap - with it's evil tenticles reaching into everyones lives, through every means possible, like a child molester at a sumer camp?

      Personally speaking, I trust Putin far more than I trust you lard arse.
      Jahm Mittt
  • Consequences...

    Sorry, but you are quite straightforwardly looking at the consequences of Governmental cable-tapping, eavesdropping, massive data rawling, determined attempts to weaken personal encryption.

    Your government, and that of the UK, has betrayed the trust of every internet user. Not just the citizens of your own countries.

    These are the consequences.

    Something has to change.
    amclpreston
  • Taxed within 5 years, grossly abused within 15!

    Really? How naïve do you have to be to believe that this "as-yet-to-be-agreed-upon non-governmental organization that oversees all of the root zone authority" can resist exercising their newfound power? Expect that within 5 years they will leverage their oversight into a redistributable role to support access to undeserved communities through a nominal taxation of DNS servers. 10 years later they'll grow into a massive, unauditable collective of like minded associates receiving kickbacks for grants they dowel out for "social justice" from the confiscatory fees and stranglehold on world communications. Worst decision for mankind in living history!
    billkeylargo
    • And why couldn't the US Commerce Department do exactly the same thing?

      Any time authority is granted, there is a risk that it will be abused, so the question that we face is exactly the same one that faced the framers of the U.S. Constitution: how to minimize the potential for abuse while still allowing the effective exercise of authority. It's never an easy question to answer.
      John L. Ries
      • It could, less likely b/c of cultural and Constitutional liberty protection

        No other great power places greater emphasis on separation of powers, republicanism and allegiance to the fundamental liberties guaranteed in our constitution. We could both go on about their erosion, but they're still light years more secure than under the authority of fellow travelers staffing international NGOs.
        billkeylargo
    • "Worst decision for mankind in living history?"

      There's a lot of competition for that title. There were quite a few made in the years before, during, and after WWII that seem to be a lot worse than this one.
      John L. Ries
      • Maybe, nuclear war in Israel vs. a tool of world governance ???

        We could speculate for hours.
        billkeylargo