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Launching the DNS War: Dot-Com Privatization and the Rise of Global Internet Governance

Launching the DNS War: Dot-Com Privatization and the Rise of Global Internet Governance


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Published by Craig Simon
This dissertation investigates the Internet governance debates of the mid 1990s, narrating events that led to the signing of the Generic Top Level Domains Memorandum of Understanding (gTLD-MoU) in May 1997. During that period, an unlikely alliance formed to create a new institutional structure that would administer the Internet’s Domain Name System (DNS). The collaborators included members of the Internet technical community’s “old guard,” leading officials of the International Telecommunications Union, representatives of organized trademark interests, and others. Their ambitious project aimed at constituting a formal procedural apparatus capable of operating at a world-wide level, independent of the sovereign state system. Institutional membership in the new structure was intended to confer participation rights and normative obligations, thereby establishing status relationships that resonated with the kinship, ingroup, and citizenship relationships of legacy social orders.
The example serves as a particularly valid and germane case study that can be used to model power relations among responsible agents in an expressly global system of rule. This postulated case allows for a more useful comparison of power relations within past, present, and future epochs.
This dissertation investigates the Internet governance debates of the mid 1990s, narrating events that led to the signing of the Generic Top Level Domains Memorandum of Understanding (gTLD-MoU) in May 1997. During that period, an unlikely alliance formed to create a new institutional structure that would administer the Internet’s Domain Name System (DNS). The collaborators included members of the Internet technical community’s “old guard,” leading officials of the International Telecommunications Union, representatives of organized trademark interests, and others. Their ambitious project aimed at constituting a formal procedural apparatus capable of operating at a world-wide level, independent of the sovereign state system. Institutional membership in the new structure was intended to confer participation rights and normative obligations, thereby establishing status relationships that resonated with the kinship, ingroup, and citizenship relationships of legacy social orders.
The example serves as a particularly valid and germane case study that can be used to model power relations among responsible agents in an expressly global system of rule. This postulated case allows for a more useful comparison of power relations within past, present, and future epochs.

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Published by: Craig Simon on Jun 27, 2011
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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In September 1994, twenty five years after installing the machine that spawned the

Internet, the veterans of the ARPANET project – the Internet’s precursor – regrouped for an

anniversary celebration in Boston. Using a huge mural of the world as a backdrop, a


photographer set up to take a shot of the most distinguished engineers present. There was

evidently some jostling for position among the nineteen who made it in, but no question

about who would sit front and center in this prestigious class of middle-aged white males.

That spot went to the ubiquitous Vint Cerf, one the Internet’s most inventive and

celebrated personalities. He had directed the ARPANET project from 1976 through 1982 and


was a truly seminal figure in the long series of technical and political developments that led

to the modern Internet. His productive career brought him countless honors plus the


benefits of financial success. He would becoming a recurring figure in the DNS War, and

even more prominent in its aftermath.

Cerf was flanked on his right in this picture by Bob Taylor, former director of the

Information Processing Techniques Offices at the Advanced Research Projects Agency

(ARPA), under the U.S. Department of Defense. It was Taylor who had first envisioned the

ARPANET as such, and put the project in motion in 1966. No slacker either, Taylor went on

to create Xerox Corporation’s Palo Alto Research Center (Xerox PARC), the laboratory

where computing innovations from Ethernet to the graphical user interface underlying the

Apple MacIntosh and Microsoft Windows were nurtured and inspired.

On Cerf’s left was Frank Heart, head of the team that submitted and won the bid for

the ARPANET proposal. Heart’s contribution was undeniably important, but his chances to get

a seat in the front row weren’t hurt by the fact that his employer – Bolt Beranek and Newman

(BBN) – was paying for the party and the photographer.


Steve Crocker, “Initiating the ARPANET,” Matrix News , 10.3, March 2000, http://www.mids.org/-



Figure 6 Depiction of early ARPA Network. Hosts are shown as rectangles,
Interface Message Processors (IMPs) are shown as circles. Graphic is taken
from a presentation by Bob Braden.

ARPA’s initial award to BBN in 1968 was just over one million dollars. It was

arguably one of the smartest and most effective investments ever made by the U.S.

Government. Taylor had conceived the ARPANET as a project that would enable a few large

computers at universities and research institutions to interoperate with each other. First


two, then four, then more. Data signals were converted into an analog format so that they

could be carried across the public telephone network. The ARPANET’s proof of viability was

an encouragement to the development of numerous public and private networks over the

following years.


Many other networks sprouted and flourished in the ensuing years, including

MILNET, CSNET, NSFNET, Bitnet, FIDONET, and eventually Compuserve, Prodigy, and

America Online. But the suite of protocols that emerged from the ARPANET community made

it possible to link those various networks together, joining thousands and eventually millions

of nodes into a network of interconnected networks – an internet. Older systems either

merged in, or expired from lack of use. Even the ARPANET was shut down in 1990. High

speed digital lines interconnected the various networks that survived and prospered. The

network of networks came to be treated as a distinct entity – The Internet.

Presently, most people are familiar with the fact that Internet traffic is carried by

private firms called Internet Service Providers – ISPs. When the ARPANET cornerstone was

put in place, no reference was ever made to anything like an ASP – an ARPANET Service

Provider. But for all practical purposes BBN filled that role. The equipment which

constituted the network’s first node had been delivered and installed at UCLA by a BBN

team in September 1969. The company grew as innovation after innovation fostered

explosive use of networking technology and spawned the global Internet.

BBN’s generosity as host for the anniversary party was not driven entirely by

sentiment for days gone by. By the early 1990s the commercial environment for service

providers had become extremely competitive. Facing pressure in the marketplace, the

company was looking for new ways to advertise itself. It was in the process of launching its

own commercial ISP, called BBN Planet. (That venture that was later absorbed by GTE,

which was, in turn, swallowed by Verizon.)

From an advertiser’s perspective, a celebration that brought together some of the most

famous names in modern computing under BBN’s roof looked like a good idea. Reporters

were invited, of course. The company had also commissioned Katie Hafner and Matthew

Lyon, a husband and wife team, to write a book about ARPANET history that would showcase

BBN’s important contributions. This became the critically-acclaimed best seller, Where

Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet (1996). One of its plates included the

group portrait of the ARPANET’s pioneers, featuring Cerf, Taylor, and Heart on the front line,

reproduced here on page 56.


See his July 1961 Ph.D thesis proposal, “Information Flow in Large Communication Nets” at


http://www.lk.cs.ucla.edu/LK/Bib/REPORT/PhD/proposal.html, and the 1964 book, Communication Nets;
Stochastic Message Flow and Delay

Email by David P. Reed, “The Internet and nuclear attack,” reprinted by Dave Farber, “IP: Must read


(especially the press) The Internet and nuclear attack,” IP December 28, 2001.

* * *

The second row of the group portrait included Larry Roberts, whom Taylor had hired

in late 1966 to execute the project on behalf of the Department of Defense. Roberts became

the government’s man in the trenches. Highly regarded for his prodigious talent and

discipline, Roberts was the true leader of the project. He had drawn up the ARPANET’s

specifications, supervising activity around the country as work came to fruition. Roberts left

government work in the mid 1970s, going on to create the first private data

telecommunications carrier, Telenet (also absorbed by GTE), and later serving as President

and CEO of DHL. In the picture, Roberts sat next to his longtime friend, Len Kleinrock. The

two had worked together in the early 1960s on advanced aerospace defense projects at MIT’s

Lincoln Laboratory. Kleinrock wrote a seminal paper on packet switching in 1961 and

published the first book on the subject in 1964. After completing his Ph.D. at MIT 1963,


he joined the faculty at UCLA, doing research in mathematical queuing theory; a subject of

great practical utility to anyone who wanted to measure the performance of a computer


Roberts awarded the contract that put Kleinrock and the students working under him

– including Cerf – in charge of configuring the ARPANET’s first Interface Message Processor

(IMP). Supplied by BBN, the refrigerator-sized machine was hooked up to a hulking Sigma

7 computer at UCLA. It was also connected, via a phone line leased by BBN, to another

IMP/computer combination at the Stanford Research Institute in Palo Alto. As these

IMP/computer pairings mushroomed to include dozens of nodes, the ARPANET became an

increasingly useful network. (The idea that the system was designed to survive a nuclear

attack is a persistent urban legend, but the IMPs were indeed built into “blast hardened”

cabinets to help demonstrate the concept of a “survivable network.”)



Also in the third row of the picture was Robert Kahn, who had been a key player at

BBN in the first years of the ARPANET contract. Kahn left the company to work for the US

Government in 1972, and set out to develop a way of connecting computers as peers, rather

than as components in a hierarchy. This was a formidable task, given the diversity of

machines and operating systems to be interconnected. Kahn knew he needed help solving the

peering problem. Cerf had finished his Ph.D. by then and was teaching at Stanford

University. Kahn picked him as his collaborator, and Cerf never returned to academia.

Over the course of 1973 and 1974, Cerf and Kahn devoted themselves to developing

a technology they called the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP). TCP was a huge leap

forward that vastly improved the ability to exchange messages between different types of

computer systems. The protocol afforded a software substrate upon which all the various nets

of the world could ultimately interconnect. The development of TCP made the Internet

possible, and thus raised up its developers as legends.

* * *

There were several more rows of ARPANET veterans in the photo. Smiling broadly,

way back in the next to the last row, were two engineers who might have won a ranking

closer to the front of if they had elbowed for it. But their temperaments were famously

unobtrusive. One, Steve Crocker, had been Cerf’s best friend at Van Nuys High School in

Los Angeles. Next to him was Jon Postel, who had graduated from the same school a few

years later. In addition to wearing a wide happy grin, Postel sported the longest beard of

anyone in the picture.

Cerf, Crocker, and Postel were literally present at the creation of internetworking.

When the first messages were sent between computers at the Stanford Research Institute and

UCLA, they were all working as graduate students under Kleinrock. The first host-to-host

message was sent by another student, Charley Kline, at 10:30 PM on October 29. 1969.

There was no profound message in the transmission. In fact, the initial attempt caused a


George Johnson, “From Two Small Nodes, a Mighty Web Has Grown,” New York Times, October


12, 1999, D1.

For a photo of the entry, see “The Day the Infant Internet Uttered its First Words,”



crash. Characteristically, it was Postel who had set up and maintained the IMP log book in


which that portentous first sign-on was recorded for history.55

Cerf, Crocker and Postel had been together in other commemorative pictures over the

years. One turned up in a special issue of Time Magazine, celebrating the legacies of the

1960s. They didn’t make the cover. That was a scene from the Woodstock music festival.

But inside, there they were, sitting around a table, mischievously talking into tin cans

connected by sausage links.

The actual topology of the ARPANET was considerably more sophisticated than a few

string and cup telephones. BBN made the connections possible, installing four IMP nodes

by December 1969 (the third and fourth were at UC Santa Barbara and the University of Utah

in Salt Lake City), and hooking them up via dedicated phone lines. In those early days Cerf,

Crocker, Postel, and many other graduate students around the country were working to make

those links practical by designing mechanisms that would allow the IMPs to communicate

with their local “host” computers.

With Kleinrock’s support, Crocker had taken the lead in coordinating this dispersed

group of students and volunteers. His goals were fairly simple... to articulate the basic

standards that would allow different kinds of computers to talk with the IMPs, and to

describe new features of the system as they emerged. Those meetings, which began in 1969,

were consecrated as the Network Working Group (NWG). Years later, in 1979, vestiges of

Crocker’s NWG were reunited as the Internetworking Conference Control Board (ICCB).

The ICCB was reconstituted in 1983 as the Internet Activities Board (IAB). The IAB, in turn,

spawned the venerable Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), which remains the primary

venue for development of the Internet protocol suite.

While still a graduate student, Crocker launched a documentation process for the

NWG that eventually became the formal basis for modern Internet standards. That process


Several different series of documents, including Internet Engineering Notes, were used by that same


community. “See Internet Archaeology: Documents from Early History,” http://www.rfc-editor.org/history.html.

endures to this day. He titled the series “Request For Comments,” a humble name that

understates its impact. Over 3500 RFCs have been published since Crocker put out the first

one in April 1969.


Postel, up until his death in 1998, authored (or co-authored) more RFCs than any

other individual. In 1978 he and Cerf (along with Danny Cohen) presented a major

improvement to the Transmission Control Protocol that Cerf and Kahn had introduced four

years earlier. The revision, known as the Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol

(TCP/IP) became the elegant platform from which the Internet blossomed beyond all

expectation. Postel helped manage the conversion of the ARPANET and other attached

networks from the predecessor Network Control Protocol (NCP) to TCP/IP between 1981

and 1983. He also authored the specifications for the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP)

in 1982. It is the basis for relaying email across the Internet’s diverse networks.

These are all huge achievements, but Postel is most famous for something else. When

he was a student at UCLA, one of his dissertation advisors, Dave Farber, volunteered him

to begin recording the various numbers, addresses, and technical parameters that were being

assigned and reserved as the ARAPANET phenomenon grew. Alex McKenzie at BBN had

been updating host table numbers and noting the changes via the RFC series, but there were

many other types of assignments that needed to be tracked. Until then, the records were

dispersed, and were at risk of becoming haphazard. One repository was a set of index cards

that Bob Kahn carried in his shirt pocket. Postel took on the task of consolidating the

information and ensuring it was kept in order, up to date, and publicly available. It turned out

that he was very good at it.

Postel became the reference point for people who needed information on how those

parameters were being used, or who wanted new parameters allocated for specific uses they

had in mind. He made sure that numbers which needed to be well-known were indeed well-

known. His real passion all along, he told me, was high speed, high performance computing.

For most of his career, the tedious but important drudge work of recording and publishing


Diane Krieger, "Heavenly Father of the Net: An Interview with Jon Postel," The Networker, 7.5,


Summer 1997, http:/www.usc.edu/isd/publications/networker/96-97/Summer_97/innerview-postel.html.

data assignments initially occupied only a moderate portion of his responsibilities.

Nevertheless, those responsibilities kept accumulating. He had helped Crocker edit RFCs

since the beginning, and took charge in late 1971 when Crocker left UCLA and went to work

at ARPA. Postel ended up publishing not only technical standards in the RFC series, but

records of best current practices, informational statements, and even some April Fool’s Day

pranks. He became an institution.

When the Hafner and Lyon book, Where the Wizards Stay Up Late, was published

in 1996, they described Postel as an “unsung hero.” By remaining in a government-funded

think-tank environment rather than moving to the private sector, he had passed up the chance

to become as wealthy as his colleagues. Many had done quite well, making their fortunes at

the leading edge of the Internet boom. Some had gone off to create their own companies,

while others climbed high on the corporate ladder. The young wolves of the IMP era were

now, for the most part, passing through a prosperous middle age together. They were also

becoming celebrities. Cerf and Kahn were receiving numerous public awards, including

perhaps more honorary Ph.D.s between them than any other two humans. They awkwardly

shared the informal but respectful title, “Co-fathers of the Internet.” When Roberts also

claimed to be the Internet’s father (perhaps rightfully), Cerf gracefully declared himself

“midwife.” Kleinrock finessed the paternity question by touting himself as “Inventor.”

Postel, however, was the subject of honorifics that were meant for him alone. He was

best known as the Name and Numbers Czar. He was frequently called the God of the

Internet, and sometimes even Supreme Being. As the Internet became an operational


system, Postel became the eminence grise among the community’s greybeards. He was no

unsung hero to people in the know. And that was about to become a much larger group.

* * *

In mid 1997 Postel sat alone for a full page picture that ran inside the October issue

of Internet World. Looking aged beyond his years, posing dourly behind a desk piled over

by paperwork, his beard had grown long enough to be worthy of an unrepentant 60s radical.


But now the beard was very very gray. The magazine’s cover was all about him. It showed

a picture of a gold bar, stamped www.$$$$.com. The headline trumpeted “...GOLD RUSH....

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW With the Man in the Center of the Domain-Name Battle, Jon

Postel.” (Shown on page 56.)

The wizard behind the curtain of the Internet ultimately become the most famous

wizard of them all – not just a star, but the man of the hour. Postel was finally in the spotlight

at center stage, fully eclipsing the old hands of the ARPANET, even Cerf. Now the world had

found out who he was, raining down attention and demands ever more relentlessly with each

turn of the Domain Name crisis. The smile was gone.



To understand how Postel earned his stature in the Internet community it helps to

understand his diverse contributions to the creation of “internetting.” Most significantly was

that, as things first got underway, it was Postel who meticulously tracked and published the

assignment of the ARPANET’s socket numbers. These numbers were loosely analogous to the

local extensions that might be served by a single phone number. But sockets were ordered

the same way on each host computer. It was as if every company with an internal phone

system always used the same distinct set of extensions for every office, from the CEO to the

mail-room. Everyone relied on Postel for the up-to-date directory.

Constructed out of memory segments, sockets were virtual openings into a

computer’s processes. Since they were only simplex (one-way) connections, they often had

to be used in pairs. Odd numbers were typically used on the server side, and even numbers

were used by the caller. Different socket numbers had to be reserved for specific server-side

conversations, applications such as TELNET, FTP, FINGER, Date and Time, Short Text

Messages, and so on.

To play out the analogy, it was as if someone were obliged to dial out from a specific

extension on his or her own computer to ask the time, and the computer that was called

would send the answer from another specifically designated extension. Later on, the


Jon Postel, “RFC 349: Proposed Standard Socket Numbers,” May 30, 1972 http://ftp.isi.edu/in-



invention of TCP opened the way for full duplex, two way connections across a single

channel, called a port.

In RFC 349, published in May 1972, Postel moved to formalize his role as both guide

and gatekeeper for numeric assignments on the ARPANET:

I propose that there be a czar (me ?) who hands out official socket numbers
for use by standard protocols. This czar should also keep track of and publish
a list of those socket numbers where host specific services can be obtained.58

Postel was acknowledged, ultimately, as the system’s “numbers czar,” a moniker

which was, in those days at least, a term of endearment. As time passed and the Internet

evolved out of the ARPANET, he remained in charge of the allocation of all “unique parameter

values” used by the Internet engineering community, including IP numbers, port addresses,

and the top of the domain name hierarchy. His control of that last resource made him the

power behind the root. His knowledge of how the all the different protocols and assignments

were interwoven and interdependent made him one of the few people on earth who could

simultaneously envision both the big picture and the critical minutiae of how the Internet’s

protocols worked. Cerf, Kahn, and others set the course, but Postel’s hand, perhaps more

than any other, steadied the Internet’s symbolic rudder as it evolved from the ARPANET in the

1960s to an engine of global commerce at the turn of the millennium.

Years later, he told a Congressional committee how his role in the early ARPANET

experiments evolved into a job of such pivotal significance.

Communication of data between computers required the creation of
certain rules ("protocols") to interpret and to format the data. These protocols
had multiple fields. Certain conventions were developed which would define
the meaning of a particular symbol used in a particular field within a

Collectively the set of conventions are the "protocol parameters." In
a project like the ARPANET with the developers spread across the country, it
was necessary to have coordination in assigning meaning to these protocol


See the prepared statement of Jon Postel Before the U.S. House of Representative, Committee on


Science, Subcommittee on Basic Research, “Internet Domain Names , Part 1,” September 25, 1997. For hearing
transcripts, see http://commdocs.house.gov/committees/science/hsy268140.000/hsy268140_0f.htm.

parameters and keeping track of what they meant. I took on the task of doing

In other words, Postel’s job was to keep people from stepping on each others’ toes.

Internet growth depended upon technical interoperability across potentially enormous arrays

of hardware and software. The rapidly expanding community required an explicit system for

setting and referencing new codes and protocols. Fortunately, most of the numbers and

symbolic values the engineers needed could be denoted in series, and allocated one after the

other. To avoid chaos and conflict, the programming community needed a reliable point of

contact where such numbers could be distributed and immediately recorded as taken. To

sustain such a high pace of invention, that contact had to be responsive and accessible.

Semantics had to be nailed down and published. The Internet needed a memory of what had

already been said and a system for describing what had been meant by it. Only with such

discipline could the curse of Babel be avoided.

To simply assign a meaning makes one a guide, but as the designated enforcer of that

discipline on behalf of a community – whether he was said to be coordinating, regulating or

controlling the assignments – Postel held an office equivalent to lord high gatekeeper.

Anyone intending to identify a new value knew that its official realization depended on

Postel making the proper pronouncements.

The only penalty for refusing to play the game with the czar’s numbers was the

inability to play with the people already using the czar’s numbers. This was the paradoxical

ambiguity of Postel’s power. Rules constrain, and rules enable. “Coordination in assigning

meaning” was necessary if people intended to play nicely together. Within the game, the

practical day to day act of coordinating meaning was essentially equivalent to regulation;

Postel generally exercised the final word. But playing the game at all was considered a

voluntary act. Outside of the game there was no formal effort by the players to compel

compliance. They counted on markets to do that for them. “The phrase ‘let the market


Dave Crocker, “Re: Stopping independent publications (Re: Comments on IESG charter and


guidelines drafts),” POISED March 4, 2003.

Scott Bradner, “RFC 2119: Key words for use in RFCs to Indicate Requirement Levels,” March



Harald Alvestrand, “RE: Impending publication: draft-iab-considerations-02.txt” IETF September


8, 2002.

Joe Touch prepared a Curriculum Vitae shortly after Postel’s death. See



decide’ used to be the watchword in the IETF,” wrote one well–known insider. “Our job is

to do engineering, not make market decisions.”60

One’s relationship with the engineering community depended on proof of fealty. In

later years, RFC authors started using words like “MUST” and “SHOULD” to express what

it took to conform with an IETF standard. MUST indicated an “absolute requirement.” It


was to be obeyed instantly and without question, not unlike a soldier hearing an order from

a superior officer. The approach took firm hold within the IETF culture, though such

directives had far lower standing beyond it. According to Harald Alvestrand, IETF chair in

the early 2000s, “a MUST in an RFC has no enforcement mechanism whatsoever.”

The most that can be said is something akin to “if you do the opposite of what
these words say, and claim to be conformant to this RFC, we will laugh at

Within the parameters of the Internet standards game, there was no effective

difference between the meaning of coordination and regulation. For people who loved the

game of using and inventing Internet standards, there was no need to worry about the

distinction. The players at the table needed a dealer, an enabler who would guarantee a fair

turn. Postel made a career of performing that function. His standing was bound to increase

as the Internet became the most important game in town.



Postel moved around a bit after completing his Ph.D. at UCLA in 1974, working for

various defense contractors on ARPANET-related projects. The longest stint was at SRI,



Hafner and Lyon (1996: 232-3).


Postel’s Curriculum Vitae, http://www.postel.org/postel-cv-1997.txt.


where he worked with Doug Engelbart (standing in the third row of BBN’s commemorative

picture) at the Augmentation Research Center (ARC). If the Internet had a spiritual

birthplace, it was there. The ARC had been founded by another ARPA scientist and BBN

engineer, the late J.C.R. Licklider. “Lick,” as he was known, was perhaps the most far

thinking of them all, writing about intergalactic networks and human computer symbiosis

when transistors were barely out of the laboratory. Licklider and Engelbart shared a vision

of the computer as a device that would extend human communication and augment the

human intellect. ARC is where the mouse and the concept of windows were invented. It was

also the place where numerous researchers, Postel included, learned to think aggressively

about how the use of computers could revolutionize human civilization.

Since ARPA’s mission was to focus on leading-edge experimental projects, the

ARPANET had to be turned over to a new home once it was up and running. Taylor tried to

convince AT&T that taking it would be a worthwhile commercial investment, but he was

unsuccessful. Instead, responsibility was transferred to the Defense Communications Agency

(DCA), a military operations group which was developing its own IMP network with BBN’s

help. Postel was still working at SRI at that time. With the shift, work on the ARPANET


system took on the sensibilities of a routine mission. The new, more practical orientation

undercut the earlier trail-blazing feel.

By this time ARPA had been renamed as the Defense Advanced Research Projects

Agency (DARPA). The addition of the word “defense” didn’t undermine the agency’s

commitment to cutting-edge, avant-garde research, nor its ability to tolerate an intellectually

open environment that had room for relatively nontraditional and nonconformist

personalities. In 1977 Postel began working at a DARPA-funded “think-tank” – the

University of Southern California’s Information Sciences Institute (ISI). He eventually

become ISI’s Associate Director for Networking. ISI was far removed from USC’s campus


and academic life, leaving Postel largely free of the teaching requirements that can preoccupy


Personal interview with Vint Cerf, November 15, 2001.


Rony and Rony. (1998: 122-3.)


Cerf interview, November 15, 2001.


“Contract Between ICANN and the United States Government for Performance of the IANA


Function, US Dept. of Commerce Order Number 40SBNT067020,” http://www.icann.org/general/iana-
contract-09feb00.htm. See also Brian Carpenter, Fred Baker, Mike Roberts, “RFC 2860: Memorandum of
Understanding Concerning the Technical Work of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority,” June 2000.

faculty members. People who needed number or parameter assignments knew to contact him

there. Over time the contact point for those resources came to be known as the IANA – the

Internet Assigned Numbers Authority.

DARPA contracts tended to be rather generalized, conglomerating the work that

ultimately constituted the RFC Editor, IANA and other tasks. That precedent was set by Cerf

during the years he was in charge at DARPA.“In all the time that I was writing and managing

the ISI R&D activity,” Cerf recalled, “I don’t believe we ever used the term IANA. But what

we did was to write very broad language about the areas in which we expected research to

be done.”


The convention was followed by Cerf’s successors. The term IANA did not even

appear in DARPA budget documentation until 1993, and then only buried within the contract

for the Teranode High Performance Computing Project.

IANA’s emergence as a named institution occurred gradually. Because of this, and

because of its close identification with Postel as an individual, its rise has been the subject

of extended controversy. For insiders IANA was Jon. For outsiders it was an official agency


with real standing. Even if the confusion wasn’t intentional, little was done to correct it.

“Jon’s position as IANA was always a little ambiguous,” Cerf admitted, “and we always kind

of left that way.” IANA was finally made the subject of a contract between the Department


of Commerce and ICANN in February 2000.69

IANA’s enduring authority stemmed from a web of self-referential, and similarly

quasi-official relationships that had operated within the Internet engineering community

since the earliest ARPANET days. Even though US Government funding sustained Postel’s


activities at ISI for many years, his long-run potency as a community leader attested to a

broader social foundation.

Members of the Internet engineering community established standards of merit by

conferring recognizable distinctions on each other. Any anthropologist or sociologist would

recognize the process. In this case, the engineers were building up multifaceted stocks of

culture – a legacy of titles, stories of achievement, citations in RFCs, the binding ties that

result from participation in contracts and agreements, and so on. There was even a self-

referential style of etiquette called “netiquette.” These social inventories served to bootstrap

status relations as the community expanded. Over time, certain patterns of respect took hold

and deepened. Knowledge of those patterns, such as who had the highest status, was essential

for anyone seeking membership in the community. The ability to identify high status insiders

– and, even better, get close to them – was especially useful for those who desired to climb

the ranks.

There is an expression, “Let’s run it up the flagpole and see who salutes.” That was

how authority worked on the Internet. People had, with good reason, gotten into the habit of

saluting flags raised by Cerf, Postel and any others who could regularly demonstrate

expertise in specific domains and convey that expertise with strong communication skills.

That was a pragmatic basis for getting real work done. Newcomers were generally quite

willing to adopt those deferential habits and even promote them. Anyone who made a valid

goal-oriented demonstration of expertise and competency could be elevated by grants of

doctrinal respect. Those displays took on a life of their own. To get along, one had to adopt

the prevailing manner. There was little patience for puffery and lack of acuity. The heralded

openness of the Internet Engineering community implicitly contained an invitation to


Bob Braden, a long-time colleague of Postel’s at ISI, fondly recounted an incident

that makes the case. Braden had challenged the style of endnote references that RFC authors

were required to follow. Postel’s response, recalled Braden, “was equivalent to ‘Get used to


Bob Braden, “Re: rfc-ed reference style,” IETF March 21, 2003.


Jon Postel, “RFC 204: Sockets in use,” August, 1971.


it!’” Braden did, and for years thereafter, urged others to do the same. He had decided that


habits that worked well enough over a long time deserved a standing beyond a fashion of

manners – they were imbued with legitimacy.

This entrenchment of particular styles, manners, and habits of obedience is a

mechanism by which particular societies come to recognize themselves as such. Not all

people are fully aware of how their own individual deeds underlie and reproduce social

conceptions of legitimacy. Background conceptions, after all, are often mistakenly taken as

pre-existing and historically absolute. Nevertheless, Braden’s recollection reflects the way

in which many people do acquire some hazy self-consciousness of their social agency. They

are enlightened enough to affirm their actions as constitutive, insisting that certain behaviors

be upheld as virtuous by their very constitutiveness.

As in any society, the dogma of reputation took on a life of its own. The IANA was

as much a cultural phenomenon as it was a formalistic vestige of the Internet’s routinization.

* * *

In fact, the IANA function performed at ISI was a steady reification of the work

Postel had been doing since he started organizing the entries in IMP logbook. Postel was

always around, policing records and keeping things tidy. An early sign of what was to come

institutionally, even before he volunteered to be Czar, is found in RFC 204, “Sockets in use”

which he published in August 1971.

I would like to collect information on the use of socket numbers for
"standard" service programs. For example Loggers (telnet servers) Listen on
socket 1. What sockets at your host are Listened to by what programs?
Recently Dick Watson suggested assigning socket 5 for use by a
mail-box protocol (RFC196). Does any one object ? Are there any
suggestions for a method of assigning sockets to standard programs? Should
a subset of the socket numbers be reserved for use by future standard


She described their 15 ½ year long working relationship this way:


My fondest "story" about how the world looked at Postel & Reynolds as IANA and RFC Editor came from one
of our Internet friends/colleagues. This person sent an email message to Jon and I one day stating, "Please don't
take this as an insult, but you two work so seamlessly together I can't tell who is the IANA and who is the RFC
Editor? So, who does what? Which one of you administers IANA? Who works on the RFCs?" Jon and I were
sitting side by side as usual, reading this email together. Jon turned and looked at me with a big grin on his face,
turned back to the keyboard and started typing a reply. It was one word, "Yes." To this day, I took his response
as a wonderful compliment of how he felt about our work together.
See http://www.isoc.org/postel/condolences.shtml.

Internet Architecture Board, “RFC 1083, IAB Official Protocol Standards 1, Internet Engineering


Task Force,” December 1, 1988.

Postel asked that comments be sent to him via “The SPADE Group” at UCLA’s

Boelter Hall. The name hinted at the groundbreaking work the engineering students there

believed they had undertaken.

The socket table was updated periodically through the seventies. Other lists such as

“Link Numbers” were added in along the way. The title changed over time, but stabilized as

“Assigned Numbers” in RFC 739, which Postel published in November 1977.

Each RFC in the Assigned Numbers series included a politely phrased directive, “If

you are developing a protocol or application that will require the use of a link, socket, etc.

please contact Jon to receive a number assignment.” That state of affairs persisted until RFC

870 was published in October 1983, the same year TCP/IP became the official protocol of

the ARPANET. The RFC Editor and parameter assignment tasks had grown demanding

enough to justify assistance from another ISI staff member, Joyce Reynolds, who had been

working there since 1979. Starting with RFC 870, Reynolds was named as the primary

author and contact. Postel remained on as coauthor and continued to drive the task of

organizing parameter lists and making assignments. Though Postel was the better known

personality in the assigned numbers business, the importance of Reynolds’ contribution and

the depth of their collaboration was not well understood outside the immediate community.72

Five years later, with the publication of RFC 1083 in December 1988, the “Internet

Assigned Numbers Authority” was finally referenced in print. The term also appears in a


lower numbered RFC, 1060, but that RFC shows a publication date out of sequence, in

March 1990. In any case, by the end of the decade the use of the term IANA was coming in


Phone interview with Joyce Reynolds.


Mueller( 2002: 93). A slide from Rutkowski, “History of Supporting Names and Numbers,” includes


the text “ISI denominates Postel DARPA role as IANA (1988).
http://wia.org/pub/identifiers/identifier_management.gif. See also Rutkowski’s “US DOD [Internet] Assigned
Numbers [Authority]*, Network Information Centers (NICs), Contractors, and Activities: known detailed
history,” http://www.wia.org/pub/iana.html.

to vogue at ISI and across the Internet. The “assignment of meaning” had acquired an

organizational home.

Reynolds couldn’t recall precisely when she first heard the term IANA used as an

acronym. “One day Jon just said, ‘Instead of telling people, ‘Call Jon, or call Joyce for a

number,’ they’ll be told to call the IANA.’” Perhaps the renegotiation of the DARPA


contract in 1988 prompted a decision to adopt a more distinctly institutional look for this

aspect of their work at ISI. In any case, the acronym turned out to be an apt if inadvertent


play on the suffix which means “little bits of things,” as in Floridiana, or Americana. If there

is no pivotal moment of IANA’s inception to point out, it is because the long running

continuity of the assignment activity was so much more important to the members of the

burgeoning engineering community than commemorating a date of denomination.

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