November 1, 2006 4:25 PM PST
U.N. debate swirls around domain name power
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In theory, the Bush administration could order that the domain names of allegedly hostile or terrorist-friendly nations be deleted from the Internet--a unique authority that troubles many developing nations and became a source of contention at a United Nations summit here on Wednesday.
In reality, though, the federal government has never exercised its authority to yank a national government's country codes, not even in its long-standing trade embargo against Cuba or during the invasion of Afghanistan five years ago.
That didn't stop participants in a workshop at the Internet Governance Forum from wondering how the U.S. government's unusual influence, born of how the Internet was created decades ago, could be lessened.
One audience member questioned whether the U.S. government should enjoy "the sole right to decide which and when new top-level domains should be introduced."
Marilyn Cade, a Washington lobbyist who has worked for AT&T, circulated a proposal to create a kind of security council to oversee top-level domains. It suggests Australia, Canada, the European Commission, Japan, New Zealand and the U.K. as founding members, with additional representatives from less developed nations, and the U.S. with final veto authority.
The council could "work together to consider serious threats and to use this mechanism to advise if a serious threat comes up," said Cade, who wrote the proposal with Becky Burr, a Washington lawyer and former Clinton administration official. (The current version--an earlier one was cited favorably by the Canadian government--is here.)
It's not clear how more conservative factions in the White House and the U.S. Congress would view the prospect of ceding America's unique authority, even to a security council that it largely controls. Last year, the Bush administration published a set of principles acknowledging that national governments have legitimate sovereignty concerns, but adding that the U.S. will "maintain its historic role in authorizing changes or modifications to the authoritative root zone file."
Latvia: To delete or not to delete?
The key to the U.S. government's influence is a master list of top-level domains that the California-based Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers distributes to root servers, which guide traffic to each one of those top-level domains. The U.S. Commerce Department has final approval of the list.
A minority of root servers, named A through M, are located inside the U.S. at organizations such as VeriSign, NASA Ames and the U.S. Army Research Lab.
Not all are. The M server is operated by the WIDE Project in Tokyo, and the K server is managed by Amsterdam-based RIPE. The F, I and J servers point to many addresses around the world through the anycast protocol, yielding a total of at least 80 locations in 34 countries.
Lars-Johan Liman, who is responsible for Autonomica's I root server in Stockholm, Sweden, said if the Bush administration ordered that an ostensible enemy nation's country code domain be deleted (Latvia was the example used), he would reluctantly go along with it.
"This question is not new," Liman said during Wednesday's discussion. "I know the answer is different for different root server operators. I know what Autonomica would do, which is to go with the bad decisions and then raise hell through other means (saying as loudly as we can that) something is wrong here, we need to fix that urgently."
In a subsequent conversation with CNET News.com, Liman added that Autonomica would first consult with the other root server operators and try to find a consensus.
RIPE Managing Director Axel Pawlik, whose organization manages the K root server, said in an interview last year that if the U.S. yanked Syria's country code, "I am quite certain that the Internet community at large would not like that decision and I'm not sure it would be carried through."
Brian Cute, vice president for government relations at VeriSign, stressed repeatedly that his employer's primary concern was the stability of the Internet. Any changes must "assure that the primary root zone file is always accurate and always available," Cute said. VeriSign maintains the A root server.
The real worry is what might happen if the root server operators fragment into multiple coalitions--with different views on the owner of a top-level domain--meaning the same Internet address would point to two different locations in two different areas of the world. (A less radical alternative, alternate but coordinated roots, is technically feasible and has been done on a limited basis.)
"Anything that from a political standpoint inflames or concerns governments to the extent that they'd (fragment the root) would be politically destabilizing," Cute said.
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