When the Internet Nearly Fractured, and How It Could Happen Again

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When the entire country of Egypt was forced offline by its government last month, it served as a global wake-up call that the Internet is a more fragile medium than we imagine it to be. What happened in Egypt was particularly striking, but other, subtler tests of the Internet's resilience abound.

Turn your eye to the domain name system, for example. Commonly referred to as DNS, the domain name system is the obscure but almost unimaginably important process whereby memorable names like "TheAtlantic.com" get translated into the numbers that actually pinpoint The Atlantic's place on the Internet. There, in the innards of the Internet, there's controversy brewing. The Department of Homeland Security's Immigrations and Customs Enforcement division and the Department of Justice have been targeting domain names for takedowns, and the United States Senate is considering a bill that would empower the Attorney General to blacklist website names from the Internet's directories.

But this isn't the first time that DNS has been a contested space. In one particularly curious episode from the modern Internet's early days, a man named Eugene Kashpureff ignited a battle over the future of the global network that brought him face-to-face with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

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It was the mid-1990s. The Internet was transitioning from the province of a limited pool of academics, engineers, researchers and enthusiasts into something bigger and more important. The White House was first beginning to really consider cyberspace as a place where the boom economic years of the early Clinton administration could be amplified and extended. While political history best knows Ira Magaziner as the point person on the eventually disastrous Clinton push to overhaul American health care as we knew it, he was also a central figure in the federal government's attempt to bump the Internet into its next stage of growth. Magaziner was the Clinton White House's Internet policy guru. (Magaziner would look back on his effort to corral and negotiate the strong personalities and strong interests at play in the early Internet into some sort of consensus as "every bit as daunting as creating national socialized medicine.")

A point of concern for the Clinton administration was that, somewhat amazingly, the Internet had gotten to the middle part of the decade running on a fairly ad hoc system for keeping track of numbers and names. In Virginia, a company called Network Solutions was contracted by the National Science Foundation to handle the bulk of domain name registrations on major top-level domains (.com, .org, etc.), through an entity called InterNIC. At the University of Southern California, a computer scientist named Jon Postel kept track of which Internet protocol address was tied to which computer server, under a contract with the Defense Department's R&D shop, DARPA. "It was a system," said Magaziner, in a 2006 interview with Internet archivist Carl Malamud, "that had been set up when the Internet was much smaller."

"He was some yahoo," Kashpureff says of himself, "who had the keys to the Holy Grail."

Clintonites were worried that the Internet was weak at a physical level. Business interests complained that the Internet wasn't nearly as secure and robust as it needed to be. Magaziner says he conducted an informal experiment. He visited the university basements housing some of the network's root servers. "I could have disconnected them [or] blown them up," said Magaziner, "and nobody would have noticed. So they had a point."

But perhaps more daunting, from the federal perspective, was how fragile and sometimes contentious the Internet's governance was. Network Solutions charged far too much for domain names, some critics argued, and it was getting rich off of providing a public service. There were those in Congress who said that the U.S. had a to keep a firm grasp on the Internet for it to be secure and stable. Others argued that the Internet would only really benefit the economy if it became a truly global network. DOD's role at the center of Internet governance weirded some people out. Commercial interests fretted about whether their trademarks would carry any weight when it came time to register domain names.

At the heart of the controversy, says Magaziner, was a culture clash. On the one hand, business interests were wary of the "quote-unquote hippies," as he puts it. Channeling the former, Magaziner said in his Malamud interview, "we can't commit our money based on their sort of anarchistic view of the world." As for the Internet people, including those self-appointed wise minds at the Internet Society, they held the flip side of that view. "These business types," said Magaziner, reflecting his take on what the early Internet community was thinking, "don't get the Internet [and] they're going to kill what's important about it."

In those mid-'90s years, said Magaziner in 2006, it wasn't at all clear that the Internet would turn out to be the global network where nearly any bit of information can be accessed and nearly any commercial transaction processed that we've come to take for granted. And in his sit-down with Malamud, Magaziner pointed out one example of why that future was in doubt: a now-forgotten service called AlterNIC run by one of those Internet-lovers, Eugene Kashpureff.

At the time, Kashpureff was an early-30s high-school dropout "doing computers and tow trucks," he said in a recent phone interview from San Jose. Perhaps he cut an unlikely figure to challenge to the global Internet, but he had the chutzpah and technical know-how to cause trouble. Kashpureff came to see that the Internet was coming increasingly under the control of a tiny "cabal" of academics, industry figures and government entities. And he wasn't going to just stand by and watch while the establishment took over.

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Nancy Scola is a writer based in New York. She has written for New York, Salon, and Seed, and is a frequent contributor to The American Prospect.

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