Partisanship is finally starting to eat at one of our most cherished technologies, in fact the technology that supports a lot of others: The internet.
The 22-nation Arab League has begun a
system using Arabic suffixes.
“The Internet is no longer the kind of thing where only six guys in
world can build it,” says Paul Vixie, 42 years old, a key architect of
U.S.-supported Internet. “Now, you can write a couple of checks and
of your own.” To bring attention to the deepening fault lines, Mr.
recently joined the German group’s effort.
Alternatives to the Internet have been around since its beginning but
gained much traction. Developing nations such as China didn’t have the
infrastructure or know-how to build their own networks and users
didn’t see any benefit from leaving the network that everyone else was
Now that is changing. As people come online in developing nations that
don’t use Roman letters — especially China with its 1.3 billion
alternatives can build critical mass. Unease with the U.S.
influence over a global resource, and in some cases antipathy toward
Bush administration, also lie behind the trend.
“You’ve had some breakaway factions over the years, but they’ve had no
relevance,” says Rodney Joffe, the chairman of UltraDNS, a Brisbane,
Calif., company that provides Internet equipment and services for
companies. “But what’s happened over the past year or so is the
of the balkanization of the Internet.”
The Internet, developed by U.S. government agencies beginning in the
uses a so-called domain-name system, also called the “root,” that
of 264 suffixes. These include .com, .net, .org and country codes such
.jp for Japan. The root is coordinated by a private, nonprofit group
Marina del Rey, Calif., called the Internet Corporation for Assigned
and Numbers or Icann. This body works under the auspices of the U.S.
Department of Commerce, which set up the organization in 1998.
Having a single root is central to the universality of the Internet
critical to its power and appeal. Key servers that are part of the
system determine whether the suffix of an Internet domain name is on
official list. If so, the message is directed within milliseconds to
administrator of each suffix for further routing. In the case of .com,
administrator is Verisign Inc.
A single root helps ensure that when people type in a Web address such
www.amazon.com, they all end up at the site of the Internet retailer
matter where in the world they are or which Internet service provider
use. All addresses must use one of the 264 domain names. Any changes
be approved by Icann and ultimately by the Commerce Department.
roots form the basis for rivals to the Internet.
As the Internet’s role grows around the world, some are uneasy with
notion that a U.S.-based body overseen by the U.S. government has sole
power over what domain names are used and who controls each name.
countries such as China also say Icann is too slow in forming domain
in non-Roman languages, hindering the development of an Internet
Concern about U.S. oversight increased last summer when the Commerce
Department persuaded Icann to postpone the approval of a new
suffix to be used for pornographic Web sites, .xxx. The department
had received letters of complaint from Christian groups. While other
countries also opposed the name, critics cited the incident as
The matter of control came to a head last November at a United Nations
summit in Tunis, where the U.S. delegation fought off demands from
than 170 countries to give up unilateral oversight of Icann.
More than half of the Internet’s users today are outside the U.S.
Governments increasingly are interested in how the Internet works.
for instance, collects much of its tax revenue online. “The Internet
become a critical part of our lives,” says Abdullah Al-Darrab, Saudi
Arabia’s deputy governor for technical affairs. “These policies should
be left to a single country or entity.”
U.S. officials counter that the Internet is too valuable to tinker
place under an international body like the U.N. “What’s at risk is the
bureaucratization of the Internet and innovation,” says Michael
the Department of Commerce official who administers the government’s
Icann. Mr. Gallagher and other backers of Icann also say that the
loudest in demanding more international input — China, Libya, Syria,
– have nondemocratic governments. Allowing these nations to have
over how the Internet works could hinder freedom of speech, they say.
Others argue that a fragmented Internet is a natural result of its
growth and shouldn’t be terribly harmful. Governments already control
their citizens see on the Internet by blocking some sites, making
less-than-universal experience, notes Paul Mockapetris, who invented
Internet’s domain-name system in the early 1980s.
Icann’s master database of domain names is preserved in 13
servers that automatically copy any changes made to the original
The duplication makes the system robust in cases of attack or failure.
of the 13 mirrors are in the U.S.; the others are in Amsterdam,
Operating the ‘F Root’
A nonprofit organization headed by Mr. Vixie operates one mirror
“F root.” Working without pay or contract from Icann, he runs his
from the basement of an old telegraph office in a brown stucco
with a red, Spanish-tiled roof in Palo Alto, Calif.
Located between a Walgreen’s drugstore and an art gallery, the F root
building looks unimpressive, but it plays a critical role in the flow
Internet traffic. Powerful servers inside a locked, metal cage
Internet domain names into a series of numbers, called Internet
addresses, helping users find Web sites and send and receive email.
Vixie’s center handles about 4,000 queries a second from several
Mr. Vixie, a high-school dropout, was a precocious programmer, helping
while still in his mid-20s write the domain-name software now used on
servers. He now runs a company that services the software. He helped
the F root in 1994 when he was 30 and helped foil an attack by hackers
2002 that hampered all the mirrors except his and one other. Later he
up with a way to bolster the system by replicating the function of the
mirrors at other servers.
Now Mr. Vixie is turning his attention to what he feels is an even
threat to how the Internet works: fragmentation.
Last June, Mr. Vixie emailed Markus Grundmann, a 35-year-old security
technician in Hannover, Germany. Mr. Vixie was seeking information
the Open Root Server Network, or ORSN, which Mr. Grundmann founded.
Mr. Grundmann at first thought the email was fake. He was surprised
pillar of the U.S.-led system would want anything to do with him. He
explained to Mr. Vixie that he set up ORSN in February 2002 because of
distrust of the Bush administration and its foreign policy. Mr.
fears that Washington could easily “turn off” the domain name of a
it wanted to attack, crippling the Internet communications of that
country’s military and government.
Mr. Vixie says he has no interest in making political statements but
agreed last September to work with Mr. Grundmann by operating one of
13 mirrors. Mr. Vixie has also placed a link to the once-obscure
group on his personal Web site.
The moves roiled the Internet community of programmers and techies of
he is a prominent member. Vinton Cerf, one of the founders of the
says he asked Mr. Vixie on the phone, “What were you thinking?” Says
Cerf: “I don’t think it’s helpful to give visibility to a group that
fragmenting the Internet.”
Mr. Vixie says he sees the European effort as a check of sorts on the
system. The U.S.-backed group will be more likely to act in the global
interest if it knows that users have an alternative, he says.
Twelve other computer scientists — mostly in Germany, Austria and
Switzerland — have agreed to help run the new root. Close to 50
service providers in a half-dozen European countries now use ORSN.
For the moment, that is merely a symbolic step. The domain names in
directory are identical to those in Icann’s. Users of ORSN get routed
the same direction as they would have if they were in the Icann system
can communicate with the same Web sites. ORSN doesn’t create or sell
own domain names. If it did, Mr. Vixie says he would quit immediately.
if ORSN disagrees with a move taken by Icann, it could refuse to
“The Internet is a child of the U.S. government,” says Mr. Grundmann.
now the child has grown up and can’t stay at home forever.”
Choosing a Suffix
A company called UnifiedRoot, based in Amsterdam, has taken things a
further than ORSN. In late November, the company began offering
the right to register any suffix of their choosing, such as replacing
with the name of their company. The price is $1,000 to register and an
additional $250 each year thereafter.
The company has established its own root and signed up Amsterdam’s
Airport, among other companies, according to Erik Seeboldt,
managing director. These companies can use their own brand name as a
name to create addresses such as arrivals.schiphol, he says. Users of
UnifiedRoot can also access all sites using Icann-approved domain
such as .com, but Icann users couldn’t go to a .schiphol address, he
“We want to bring freedom and innovation back to the Internet,” says
Seeboldt. The Internet service provider Tiscali SpA, which has five
subscribers in Europe, and some of Turkey’s largest service providers
UnifiedRoot’s naming system.
Some countries with non-Roman alphabets are also taking matters into
own hands. China has created three domain names in Chinese
.zhongguo, .gongsi and .wangluo — and made them available for public
commercial use inside China only.
Similarly, Arab countries have in the past 18 months experimented with
country code domain names in Arabic, distinct from the Icann system,
Khaled Fattal of Surrey, England. Mr. Fattal is head of Minc.org, a
nonprofit organization dedicated to making the Internet multilingual.
“There is no such thing as a global Internet today,” says Mr. Fattal.
have only an English-language Internet that is deployed
How is that empowering millions of Chinese or Arab citizens?”
Icann is responding to the criticism. At its last meeting in December
took steps to enhance the role of foreign governments in its decision
making and accelerated the development of non-English domain names.
Paul Twomey, the chief executive officer of Icann, says the divisions
reflect cultural differences between nations that operate under a
government hand and those, including the U.S., that put more trust in
private sector. “We are more comfortable with messy outcomes that
says Mr. Twomey, who is Australian. “But we need to integrate other
and languages into the Internet and make sure that it still works as
That’s not enough for some. “We would like the process to speed up,”
Li Guanghao, the head of international affairs for the China Internet
Network Information Center, in an email interview. The center
Internet-protocol addresses in China in conjunction with the Icann
but is also developing the non-Icann Chinese character suffixes.
Mr. Vixie says he joined ORSN to make clear his view that such efforts
continue unless Icann becomes more inclusive. “I realize that this
help unleash the hordes of hell,” he says. “But I hope it will make
wonder: ‘What if there are more of these?’ “