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

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This is a reversal for a country that did so much in the modern Internet's early days to unite constituencies around the importance of integrity when it comes to the Internet's domain name layer.

During and after Kashpureff's protest, slowly, and perhaps improbably, a U.S.-led working consensus about the management structure of the domain name system emerged. Eventually, the Clinton administration's Commerce Department would lay out what became known as the Green Paper, which, with feedback from a wide range of people and bodies in the U.S. and abroad, set out a plan for how the modern Internet would function. Central to the plan was the creation of something that came to be known as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN. A California-based non-profit officially established in 1998, ICANN still today governs the Internet's technical operations, under an agreement with the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Closer to home, various parts of the United States government have, in recent days, shown an increased eagerness to enlist DNS in their political and legal battles. The Department of Homeland Security's ICE division and the Justice Department have been teaming up on DNS targeting initiatives called things like "Operation In Our Sites" and "Operation Protect Our Children." Sites thought to engage in offensive behaviors, from distributing child pornography to connecting people to downloads of music and movie files protected by copyright, have been shutdown at the domain name level, their normal contents replaced by a banner reading "This domain has been seized." Cyber Monday after this most recent Thanksgiving saw more than 80 domains thus disappeared. Last week, DHS and DOJ had to admit that they had inadvertently caused the pulling down of more than 80,000 "innocent" websites that had be co-located with sub-domains that were targeted in their operations. "A higher level domain name and linked sites were inadvertently seized for a period of time," read the joint release, though the feds assured that they quickly allowed the sites back up.

And then there's COICA, the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act introduced by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) at the behest of the music and movie industries. At least in its initial draft, the bill would empower the U.S. Attorney General to blacklist domains found to be offensive for "infringing activities." The Washington-based Center for Democracy and Technology argues that in its bid by the Senate to ensure that the Internet is safe for commerce, Washington threatens to signal to the world a reversal of years of American policy, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, that has worked to "reassure the global community that the United States would not abuse its position of oversight over the DNS."

If COICA is enacted, writes CDT in its analysis, the bill would mark "a significant step towards the balkanization of the Internet." What happens, suggests Vixie, when Bollywood decides that it wants the same power to demand domain takedowns as Hollywood seems to have?

With the U.S. government's recent domain name power grabs, ICANN's continued position at the heart of the Internet has become part of an ongoing global debate over whether the U.S. has far too much power over how the Internet works. There's been a considerable push to transfer power away from ICANN and towards an internationally accountable organization, like the International Telecommunications Union. At the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunisia in 2005, a last-minute agreement emerged that affirmed ICANN's central role, but it was and remains a shaky consensus.

The next year after the Tunis agreement, China, for example, began to make noises about setting up its own DNS registries for the .com domain, so that "Internet users don't have to surf the Web via the servers under the management of the ICANN of the United States," as the Communist Party's People's Daily put it. In March of last year, ISPs around the world reportedly began inadvertently using Chinese DNS servers that had been configured to enforce the so-call Great Firewall. Internet users in the United States and Chile suddenly found themselves unable to get to sites like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook.

The question for the short term is whether the federal government of the United States, so long the cultivator and protector of the Internet's domain name system, might turn out to be a greater threat to it than Eugene Kashpureff ever was. For his part, Paul Vixie is taking the long view. All we have to manage to do, writes Vixie, is to not completely screw up the Internet's domain name system for another fifty years or so. By that time, we'll likely have moved to the next world-changing way of doing things.

Kashpureff is less sanguine, casting his old work as a battle against precisely the kind of intrusions that we're seeing today.

"[AlterNIC] was about literal United States government control of the Internet, and that still exists today," he said. "It ain't never gonna change."

Images: Eugene Kashpureff.

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Nancy Scola is an Atlantic correspondent based in New York City, whose work focuses on the intersections of politics and technology. She has written for Capital New York, Columbia Journalism Review, GOOD, New York, Reuters, Salon, and Seed, and is a frequent contributor to The American Prospect. More

Previously, Scola was an aide on the U.S. House of Representative's Oversight and Government Reform Committee, a tech-policy staffer for a short-lived presidential campaign, and a nonprofit research designer in Washington, D.C.

For three years, she wrote and edited techPresident, a popular daily blog and email newsletter produced by the Personal Democracy Forum. While at techPresident, she co-created and helped to lead Vote Report '08, an early use of mobile technologies to conduct election monitoring.

Her passions include women's soccer, New York City history, cheese, copyright law, the genius of Lauryn Hill, New York State politics, long-form non-fiction, amateur radio, sharks and bears, political boundaries, magazines, maritime culture and waterfronts, how institutions work, typography, the African continent, and public parks.

Scola has two degrees in anthropology, was born in northern New Jersey, and, after about a decade in the nation's capital, now lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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