ICANN takes control of Internet Time Keeping

ICANN takes control of Internet Time Keeping

Summary: On networks, making sure that everyone is on the same millisecond is vital, so when the master time-zone database was shutdown due to a trivial lawsuit threat everyone on the Internet was facing a major problem. ICANN, though, is going to take care of the trouble.


"Does anyone really know what time it is? Does anyone really care?" Well, even if you don't remember this popular Chicago song, if you're on the Internet you do care. Many network services, such as authentication, depend on everyone agreeing on the exact time. So when a lawsuit threatened the Internet's authoritative source for time-zone data this had the potential to really foul up everyone's network time.

What happened was David Olson, the volunteer who had run the public domain Time Zone and Daylight Saving Time Database was sued by--I'm not making this up--an astrology software company called AstroLab for, they claimed, using data from their ACS Atlas program.

Olson, who didn't have the resources to fight a lawsuit, wrote on October 6th that "A civil suit was filed on September 30 in federal court in Boston; I'm a defendant; the case involves the time zone database." And, therefore, "the ftp server at elsie.nci.nih.gov has been shut down."

This ftp sever, better known in networking and Unix and Linux circles as the Olson database or the Time Zone (TZ) database, was the official reference that all Linux and Unix systems use to set clocks from Universal Time--the modern version of Greenwich Mean Time--to local time. As such, it's used by almost everyone who uses the Web to keep local time.

As Stephen Colebourne, a Java developer explained on his blog, "It is perhaps easy to read that line, think it doesn't affect you, and then move on. But that's just not the case."

Colebourne continued, "The time-zone database (sometimes referred to as the Olson database) is the computing world's principle source of time-zone data. It is embedded in every Unix and Java for starters, and will be used by many websites and probably by your iPhone. You may know it via the IDs, such as "Europe/London" or "America/New_York."

"But, perhaps you're thinking that time-zones don't change? Well that may be true for America and the EU right now, but certainly isn't for the rest of the world. Governments change their time-zones all the time, and the decisions are frequently very political. I'd estimate there are between 20 and 100 separate changes made around the globe each year. And these can be at very short notice, triggered by earthquakes for example."

While Windows users wouldn't need to worry about this, Microsoft maintains its own time data-although if I were working in Redmond, WA, I keep an eye out for a lawsuit from AstroLab-- for everyone else, "The impact of this is severe for anyone that uses it--whether via Java, Unix or some other means. This really is the key tool used by everyone to tell the right time globally," concluded Colebourne. That would include, I might add anyone using a non-Windows smartphone.

Fortunately for us all, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) has come to the rescue. At the request of the Internet Engineering Task (IETF), ICANN is taking over running the master (TZ) database (PDF Link) and its ftp site.

"The time zone database is used by a large number of commercial operating systems and the software applications," said Russ Housely, chairman of the IETF in a statement. "Incorrect time zone information will impact many everyday activities, including meeting and conference call coordination, airplane and train schedules, physical package delivery notices, and astronomical observatories."

While avoiding any mention of the lawsuit that prompted this, Akram Atallah, ICANN's Chief Operating Officer explained that ICANN was taking it over because, "The Time Zone Database provides an essential service on the Internet and keeping it operational falls within ICANN's mission of maintaining a stable and dependable Internet."

I presume ICANN will be doing this by removing whatever bits and pieces of historical data might still reside in the TZ database. This would render the lawsuit moot, and we can all get on with improving the Internet instead of worrying with, what appears to my non-expert eye, to be an especially bogus lawsuit.

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Clock image by Martin Pettitt, CC 2.0.

Topics: Storage, Browser, Hardware, Legal

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  • RE: ICANN takes control of Internet Time Keeping

    LOL i would to see them mess with Microsoft time server
    they are the giant and astrolab is a rat pretty sure if ms drags out the lawsuit then astrolab would be ruined.
    • Microsoft blocked from selling Word

      Do you remember when MS was blocked from selling one of it's core apps by some tiny patent troll?


      The danger from courts enforcing wrongly issued patents is a threat to even the biggest companies.
      • RE: ICANN takes control of Internet Time Keeping


        True but if they drag out the lawsuit they prolly wont have money to pay the lawyers
      • RE: ICANN takes control of Internet Time Keeping

        @guihombre This appears to be a copyright claim which has nothing to do with patents. Historically, copyright claims against databases composed entirely of facts have not fared well in court. That big yellow phone book discovered this decades ago. But it's not a fight most individuals can afford. Which is why this lawsuit is so bizarre. What did they expect to do here? Are these astrologers trying to take control of our tzdata and make us buy it? That would just be twisted.
    • I'm sure MS would be allowed to control their own time servers

      Looks like ICANN is only taking over maintenance of the time zone database.

      MS actually faces nuisance lawsuits on a regular basis (mostly patent infringement claims). One of the risks of having deep pockets.
      John L. Ries
    • RE: ICANN takes control of Internet Time Keeping

      @Knix96, don't bet on it. Astrolab is simply getting on the lawsuit bandwagon to drum up money. They don't want to go to court, they just want to get a few million dollars in settlement and they'll go away.

      They talk about changing the patent and copyright laws but all their talk doesn't address the real issue, that of all these foolish lawsuits that are killing enterprise.
  • Teh ICANN haz time!

    Yeh Baby.
    Dietrich T. Schmitz *Your
  • RE: ICANN takes control of Internet Time Keeping

    If ICANN can avoid the lawsuit by removing some data, why can't Olson do the same thing?
    • RE: ICANN takes control of Internet Time Keeping

      @Vesicant: Too much effort for a single individual who don't have a complete list of what data it is that's actually infringing (and have o be removed/replaced).
    • RE: ICANN takes control of Internet Time Keeping

      Arthur was already retiring from the US NIH and turning over control of the TZ Database anyway. This merely hastened the changeover.
    • RE: ICANN takes control of Internet Time Keeping

      @Vesicant Good point you've brought up. I wonder why this is the case...
  • RE: ICANN takes control of Internet Time Keeping

    Companies like this deserve retribution. (read: Anonymous where are you?)
    • RE: ICANN takes control of Internet Time Keeping

      @Queuecumber Olsen's credits list Astrolab as a source of his data, which he did not license from them. Before jumping on them, keep in mind that Olsen isn't being hit out of the blue here. He knew he was borrowing the data Astrolab had compiled.
  • RE: ICANN takes control of Internet Time Keeping

    To me, if AstroLab really had a case, they would have sent a "Cease and Desist" letter first. But that would have required them providing specifics on what data was being plagiarized. It would also have required them in court to prove that the data could only have come from their database and was not available through any other source available to Mr. Olson.

    (and of course, no sooner had I hit the "Send" key than I read jgm's reply...)
  • RE: ICANN takes control of Internet Time Keeping

    This would be a great time for the folks who do things like 'anonamous' to come out of hiding and mess with Astrolab for being such dill weeds.
  • RE: ICANN takes control of Internet Time Keeping

    Astrolab should be reported for running a racketeer scheme.

    They have absolutely no ownership over these data.
    They have not bought the exclusive right to these data from every nation in the world.

    To claim ownership here is criminal.
  • Really Good decition

    Thank you for above information.

    Really good for above decistion . but this is only for unix /Linux operating user's or also include windows users. How to configure this