ICANN takes control of Internet Time Keeping

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.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

"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.

Related Stories:

How to check on your Internet connection

Google and OpenDNS join forces to speed up DNS

Hurricane Electric takes its IPv6 expertise to the datacenter

20 years of the Web

Real Help for your Network's IPv6 Transition

Clock image by Martin Pettitt, CC 2.0.

Editorial standards