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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
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Mockapetris conducted the first successful test of the DNS at ISI on June 24, 1983.

By early November that same year Postel published RFC 881, announcing a preliminary

schedule for the transition to the new system. The suffix .arpa was announced as the first top

level domain. That domain was already being used by testers when the RFC was published,

but the aggressive schedule required that all existing hosts were to be placed under it in

December. This would serve as a temporary stop. Each network administrator would later

be required to re-register his or her machine using a name directly under another top level

domain, or perhaps as a subordinate to another second (or third) level administrator. But no

other top level domains were yet available.

“The original proposal,” Postel wrote later, “was to have TLDs like ARPA, NSF,

ARMY, and so on. Your computers would be named under the government agency that

‘sponsored’ your connection to the net. The idea of having the 26 single [alphabetic]

characters was discussed [also].” When Postel issued RFC 881, however, only one other

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top level domain was scheduled for introduction – .ddn, for military use.

Postel scheduled a key step for May 2, 1984 – “Establish a New Top Level Domains

Only Table.” This was to be the start date for the new domains.txt file, containing the two

TLDs mentioned in RFC 881 and any others that might be added.

Mockapetris simultaneously published two RFCs – 882 and 883 – that laid out the

technical outline for the Domain Name System. The first presented conceptual issues, and

the other went into lengthy detail about specifications and implementation. His first paper

151

The msggroup archive was once stored at http://www.tcm.org/msggroup/. Those archives can be

198

found at www.archive.org.

Jon Postel,“MSGGROUP#2193 RFCs 881, 882, and 883 Now Available,” Nov 4, 1983. See

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http://www.tcm.org/msggroup/msggroup.2101-2200. A partial namedroppers archive can be found at
http://www.cs.utexas.edu/users/chris/sigcomm/t1/partridge.namedroppers.material.txt.

presented three top level domains – .arpa, .ddn and .csnet, – but only, he wrote, for purposes

of “exposition.”

Postel announced those RFCs on November 4, 1983 via several electronic mail lists,

including – most importantly – the ISI-based Msggroup. It was the ARPANET’s first mailing

list, founded in 1975, and was still going strong as a focal point for the technical

community. He invited anyone interested in discussing the “day-to-day technical

198

development” of the planned system to join a relatively new list called Namedroppers, hosted

by the SRI-NIC.199

Though Namedroppers was created as an arena for technical discussion, policy

questions intruded frequently. There was no bright line to distinguish the place where the

rules for electrons would end and the rules for people would begin. A key problem involved

the rights and responsibilities of domain administrators.

By design, each administrator admitted into the DNS hierarchy would become a

gatekeeper for his or her subdomains. This prompted to seemingly endless rehashing about

what rules those gatekeepers should have to follow, especially at the top levels. And the rules

for admission into the hierarchy needed clarification. There was talk of not granting an entity

a listing as a second level name unless the aspiring registrant also brought in at least 50

subordinate hosts at the third level or lower. This did not become a requirement, but its

consideration reflects the extent to which the DNS architects wanted to shape the namespace

as a deep hierarchy rather than the shallow expanse it later became.

Semantics and nomenclature were even more confounding. Some of the people on

Namedroppers wanted top level domains to recapitulate the canonical structures of society.

At first glance, it may have seemed like a good idea, but nothing brings out the anal

retentiveness in humans like the chance to invent a naming scheme for the whole world. The

152

Jon Postel, “RFC 897: Domain Implementation Schedule,” February 1984.

200

list’s armchair megalomaniacs came to believe they would soon be designating the

authoritative base structures of human civilization, under the daring presumption such

structures could be known at all.

Postel was frustrated by that particular line of discussion, which he considered non-

productive. His vision of the DNS focused on the flexibility and ease of management that

would result from as structure in which registration authority was consistently delegated

down through the hierarchy. The whole point was to avoid the administrative overhead of

organizing and enforcing a universal classification scheme that would prescribe how each

host should be named. Instead, in his view, decisions about new host registrations should be

left up to administrators and sub-administrators across the Internet.

In February 1984 Postel provided a progress report with an updated schedule. He

reaffirmed the plans to launch in May, “[at which] point a few new domains may be

established, in particular the DDN domain.” When the time came, however, the deadline

200

was pushed back. There were still many technical issues to resolve, and the question of what

names to add was starting to bog down the discussion. The last day of April Postel sent the

Namedroppers list a draft of an RFC titled “Domain Requirements.” It focused on examples

of domain structures as administrative entities, laying out “Prototype Questions” that a

“responsible person” applying for a domain might need to answer. These included contact

information, hardware and software in use. Postel also wanted to know how many hosts the

administrator expected to include in the domain the during its first, second, third, and fifth

years of operation.

Postel’s draft also presented three TLDs as examples – he insisted they were only

examples – of how to organize domains. There was .uc (for University of California), .mit

(for Massachuset Institute of Technology), and .csnet. The first exemplified entities that

might organize their hosts at the fourth level, under regional campuses and then under local

departments, as in locus.cs.la.uc. The second and third examples were intended to portray

circumstances in which administrators might not want to make such a distinction, and would

153

Jon Postel,“Draft RFC on Requirements to be a Domain,” namedroppers April 4, 1984.

201

Mueller (2002: 79).

202

Personal email from Jake Feinler, November 7, 2006.

203

An embellished history once posted by SRI (now removed) described a meeting with Postel and

204

Reynolds where Feinler had shouted “Enough is enough!” insisting she would resolve the dilemma and make
the choices herself.“The SRI Alumni Association Hall of Fame,” http://www.sri.com/alumassoc/hoflist.html.

simply register all their hosts at the second level. His point in making an example of CSNET

was to stress that although the consortium was not a true, unified network like MIT, sharing

a single IP block allocation, “it does in fact, have the key property needed to form a domain;

it has a responsible administration.”201

Postel put out another draft on May 11, proposing six top level domains, .arpa, .ddn,

.gov, .edu, .cor, and .pub. The issue of which names to select continued to be, in Postel’s

202

words, “much discussed” on the Namedroppers list, but little was settled. At Postel’s request,

Feinler submitted a draft RFC to nail down the naming scheme, but he didn’t like it. Postel

wanted network names; she preferred generic types of organizations, such as .mil, .edu, and

.gov, plus .bus for businesses. Ken Harrenstein, a software architect at SRI, thought that

203

.com would be a better choice for commercial enterprises, and implemented his adaptation

of Feinler’s scheme on SRI’s servers. Since the work was approved by the DCA,

Harrenstein’s move was effectively a fait accomplis. When Postel traveled to SRI discuss

Feinler’s draft, he learned what had been done.204

Domain Requirements was ultimately released in October 1984 as RFC 920.

Presented as “an official policy statement of the IAB and DARPA,” Though it drew liberally

from Feinler’s draft, Postel and Reynolds were the only authors listed. “The purpose,” they

wrote, “is to divide the name management required of a central administration and assign it

to sub-administrations [without] geographical, topological, or technological constraints.”

There were only five top level domains named beyond .arpa, and they were not to be

put into use until the following year, 1985. These were .gov, .mil, .edu, .com, and .org. The

DDN Project Management Office was listed as the administrator of .mil. DARPA was listed

as being in charge of the others. There was no description within the RFC of why those

154

Robert Hobbes Zakon, “Hobbes’ Internet Timeline,” http://www.zakon.org/robert/internet/timeline/.

205

Phone interview with Mary Stahl, April 24, 2003.

206

Sean Donelan, “Timeline of events with the Domain Name System,”

207

http://www.donelan.com/dnstimeline.html.

particular DARPA domains were chosen or how they were to be used. Perhaps Postel

thought their purposes were self-evident. It was more likely that he didn’t want to do

anything more to fuel a new round of quibbling about semantics.

The requirements document also allowed for the inclusion of two letter codes for

country domains and codes “multiorganizations” – entities that “can not be easily classified

into one of the existing categories and [are] international in scope.” Postel insisted on one

correction to Feinler’s scheme. A seventh TLD – .net (network) for the use of ISPs and other

infrastructural facilities – was added within the year. Throughout the development period

there was little expectation that individuals would want – or would be able to afford – hosts

of their own.

In 1985, authority for central administration of the root became yet another of

Postel’s DARPA-funded duties at ISI. This put him directly in charge of screening top

205

level domain applicants. The considerably more cumbersome task of providing registration

and support services under the top level domains was added to Mary Stahl’s job at the DDN-

NIC, which was still funded by the Defense Communications Agency. From her perspective,

there was no specific moment when a big switch was flicked and the new system was turned

on. If anything stood out, it was the jump in registration activity that began after the TCP/IP

cutover. Things at SRI were often in flux. Like many other projects, the DNS was phased

206

in over a period of time, with lots of tests and experiments being performed long before it

was officially in place. The first registration in .comsymbolics.com – came on March 15,

1985. An even more important milestone – incrementation of NIC zone serial numbers to

publicly flag the availability of authoritative updates – didn’t begin until almost a year later,

February 26, 1986.207

155

Stephen C. Dennett, Elizabeth J. Feinler, Francine Perillo, eds. “ARPANET Information Brochure,”

208

December 1985, http://www.hackcanada.com/blackcrawl/telecom/arpa.txt.

Jon Postel, “politics of names - not on this list -- please !” namedroppers, November 4, 1985.

209

Jon Postel, “tcp-ip@sri-nic.ARPA, Naming the NIC,” August 3, 1987

210

http://www-mice.cs.ucl.ac.uk/multimedia/misc/tcp_ip/8705.mm.www/0222.html.

The DDN-NIC now served as hostmaster for both the DDN (.mil) and DARPA TLDs

(all the others). Federal policy required that any addition or modification be certified by a

Network Change Directive. It was easy to accept the idea that parties applying for second

208

level names would be screened to ensure that the host machine was qualified to appear within

the requested TLD. Only colleges and universities would be allowed under .edu, for example.

Stahl occasionally worked with her liaisons over the phone to help them pick their names.

Arguments about semantics continued to take place long after the initial TLD suffixes

were selected, both on and off the Namedroppers list. The DNS naming hierarchy was in

some ways the victim of its own success. People had begun using it to guess the location of

resources. It made sense to assume the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was mit.edu.

That guess happened to work. If a resource turned out to have the “wrong” name, however,

complaints might arise, perhaps supplemented with suggestions about how to fix the

structure. For example, in mid 1987 someone looking for the Network Information Center

guessed it would be found at nic.sri.com. It was actually at sri-nic.arpa. This led to questions

regarding what might happen if ARPA removed its support of the Internet. Or what might

happen if SRI changed its corporate name or even went out of business? Why not create .nic

as a top level resource?

Postel had to intervene more than once to keep Namedroppers focused on technical

issues. On November 4, 1985, two years to the day after issuing the first official public

invitation to join Namedroppers, he put his foot down, proclaiming a new policy that sought

to ban any discussion of semantics. Thereafter, he had to patrol against any hint of a

209

violation, and would issue an interdiction when needed:

The namedroppers list is for discussion of the design and operation of the
domain name system, not for the discussion of what the names are or what
names would be nice.210

156

Jon Postel, “re: countries only at the top,” msggroup Nov. 10, 1985.

211

Though Postel recommended alternative locations for such discussions, the thrust of

his interventions was to interrupt them and shunt them away from the main stage of

discussion. Nevertheless, he did make at least made one major concession to popular

demand, in particular, the demands of certain users outside the United States.

By design, there was no inherent need for the DNS replicate the physical divisions

of networks in the form of IP blocks, and there was no reason to replicate geographical or

geopolitical subdivisions either. Many Americans were already beginning to hope that the

rise of the Internet presented an opportunity to surmount such constraints. But European

participants were wary of being subsumed within US-dominated categories. There even a

were a few who thought that no other TLDs should be created beside country codes. Postel

rejected that idea:

I think that there are many cases of organizations that operate
in multiple countries where attaching them to one country or
another would cause (political and emotional) problems.211

If country names were to be added at all, it had to be determined what counted as a

country, how should it be listed, and who should administer its registry. There was an easy

enough answer for that. A guide to the names of recognized nation-states and their legal

denotations was available in the form of a United Nations Bulletin called “Country Names.”

It paired the countries of the world with a corresponding “Alpha 2" code. France was

matched with FR, Mexico with MX, and so on. A Berlin-based group known as the ISO 3166

Maintenance Agency (part of the UN’s International Organization for Standardization) used

the “Country Names” Bulletin along with another UN-based list of unique statistical

designations to generate a table known as ISO 3166-1. It maps country names with a column

of two letter codes and another column of three letter codes. In RFC 920 Postel designated

the ISO 3166-1 table as the validating authority for any future country code designations that

might be added to the root.

157

See his brief online memoir, Peter T. Kirstein, “Early Experiences with the ARPANET and

212

INTERNET in the UK,” http://www.cs.ucl.ac.uk/staff/jon/arpa/internet-history.html.

Paré (2003: 70-1).

213

Once it was decided to add country codes, the next step was to determine who should

administer the zone. Postel decided that a country code registration, like any domain name

registration, required that an application be made by a “responsible party” who could receive

the delegation. The Internet was still small enough in the mid and late 1980s that an applicant

for a country code might be a familiar colleague within the TCP/IP development community

– most likely an academic, perhaps even an old friend from grad school.

Though the process began slowly, with the addition of .us in February 1985. Two

more – .gb and .uk – were added in July. The assignment of two codes for one country turns

out to be a story in itself.

British computer scientists had been participating in the ARPANET project since 1973

under a Governing Committee chaired by Peter Kirstein, a key figure in the creation of the

Internet. A long time faculty member at University College London (UCL), Kirstein

212

pioneered the first TCP test network with Cerf. He also founded the International Academic

Network Workshop meetings... the annual gatherings that were later transformed into INET

by Larry Landweber, providing a platform from which to launch ISOC. Kirsten went on to

participate in CCIRN, overseeing the growth of Internet connectivity worldwide.

In 1985, Kirsten needed a favor. Despite the fact that the ISO 3166-1 table used Great

Britain as a country name, Kirstein wanted Postel to accept .uk as the entry for his country’s

networking community. UCL’s network had been using .uk as an ARPANET identifier long

before any country codes were added to the domain name system. Switching over would be

inconvenient. Postel accepted Kirsten’s request to add .uk to the root, but just as a temporary

solution. A record for .gb was added as well, with the expectation that it would soon come

into widespread use. It didn’t work out that way. The change was continually put off,

making its possible execution look ever more painful and disruptive. Postel made several

attempts over the next few years to get the British networking community to convert, but

gave up in 1988. In the end, the use of the .uk suffix in the DNS was allowed to stand.

213

158

Postel may have been famous as a stickler for technical consistency, but the incident showed

that he could also bend on administrative questions.

* * *

An important design feature of the DNS was its capacity for redundancy. Its zone

files could carry more than one IP address for each name referenced in the system. If the first

listed site failed to respond for some reason, perhaps because of network congestion or a

temporary outage, this feature helped ensure that an alternate site publishing the same

resources could be found. The hierarchy was maintained by allowing only one of those

addresses to be flagged as the “Start of Authority” for subordinate data.

A distinctive feature of the DNS was that it did not rely on TCP to transmit

information across the network. The Uniform Data Protocol (UDP) was used instead. TCP

runs by instantiating “windows” or “frames” that behave as virtual circuits between hosts.

Keeping those windows open requires some extra processing and transmission overhead, but

this overhead is a reasonable penalty for the ability to maintain interactive sessions, transmit

potentially long messages, and support various other services. Since DNS queries are rather

short, it is not necessary to call on TCP just to find out what IP number matches up with a

particular domain name. UDP is fine for this, but imposes certain limits. Since the maximum

length of a UDP packet is 512 bytes, there is a fixed ceiling on the number of hosts addresses

that can be included in a discrete UDP message, and therefore referenced under the same

domain name. That constraint had direct implications for the maximum size of the root zone.

The DNS was initially configured to allow up to eight distributed nameservers at the

root level. Only three were implemented at the time of launch. The primary DNS host was

at SRI and two secondaries were running at ISI. Two more secondaries were eventually

added at military facilities on the east coast. The machines in these arrays were alternatively

known as masters and slaves. After some clever finagling in the 1990s, engineered under the

direction of Bill Manning, the maximum size of the root was extended to thirteen servers.

159

Privatization of the New Communication Channel, http://www.sit.wisc.edu/%7Ejcthomsonjr/-

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j561/netstand-3.html.

Phone interview with Mary Stahl, April 24, 2003.

215

The first generation of Cisco routers were introduced to the market in 1985,

furnishing a compliant platform particularly suitable for DNS traffic. The DNS grew

214

steadily more popular, particularly among users of the UNIX operating system, though both

the original host table system and DNS were in simultaneous use for the rest of the 1980s and

into the early 1990s.

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