A continuation of my series on The Internet. Here is Part One.
An alien lands on Earth, and in an attempt to assimilate to our culture because he’s more like Timelord-type alien rather than an Independence Day-type alien, he approaches me with a couple big questions. “So, who runs this Internet thing?” he says, “and why are there so many people living in Manhattan?” I don’t really have a good answer to the latter, but I do my best with the first question by answering, “no one. The Internet is a globally distributed network made up of voluntarily interconnected, independent networks that operates without a central governing body.” And I smile broadly as the alien, who hopefully looks a lot like David Tennant, tries to process this before inevitably calling me out as a liar.
“There’s no way. There is no way that, as a species, humanity has managed to unanimously agree on the Internet, while fighting international wars about pretty much everything else.”
And you know what, Alien David Tennant is sort of right. Because by “no governing body,” what I really mean to say is that while technically no one owns and runs the Internet, there are a whole lot of organizations, both non-profit and for-profit, attempting to do just that on a day-to-day basis.
Our Volunteer, Unofficial Management Team: the Anons
Let’s start with the IETF. The Internet Engineering Task Force is an organization of loosely affiliated, international members who attempt to standardize and regulate the technical under-workings and core protocols of the Internet. Though they were originally commissioned and supported by our frienemies, the US Government, in 1986, they have operated under the Internet Society – an international, membership-based non-profit organization – since 1993. Remember last month, when we talked about TCP/IP? Well, the IETF are the lucky devils that volunteered to make sure that we continue to speak the same language, and use the same unified protocols across the global infrastructure.
But that’s not where the hierarchy begins or ends. The Internet Architecture Board (IAB) oversees the activities of the IETF, and several other task forces like it. The IAB, originally created by, you guessed it, the US Department of Defense in 1979, has gone by several different acronyms in its lifetime, but finally landed on its current name in 1992, when it joined the Internet Society ranks as part of the Internet’s transition from a US government entity to a public, international one.
So the volunteer members of the IETF make sure that, pun intended, everyone on the Internet is on the same page, protocol wise. And the IAB oversees their work, as well as the work of the Internet Research Task Force (IRTF), which is a group that attempts to plan for long-term or future issues of the Internet. It makes sense that a network of networks as expansive as the Internet would need a group of people to perform, at minimum, routine maintenance and expansive improvements as its global community continues to grow, but telling you about IETF and IAB just dances around the actual question that Alien David Tennant was asking, which was: who controls it?
And to that, I say:
Please Ignore The Man Behind The Curtain
There are two sides to this story, and right smack dab in the middle of both of them is that maybe-not-so-Wonderful Wizard. On one hand, we’ve got Dorothy and the gang being played by the generally well-meaning non-profit organization Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), based out of a headquarters in Southern California, USA. This company is responsible for coordinating the assignment of “unique identifiers” for use on the Internet. (Unique Identifiers, meaning things like domain names, IP addresses, application port numbers, etc.) ICANN, governed by a Board of Directors pulled from across Internet technical, business, academic, and non-commercial communities, is tasked with the sole responsibility of ensuring the stability and security of the Internet’s functionality. Basically, without globally unified name spaces, the Internet would be like the inside of a TJ Maxx*. The only thing you’d maybe be able to find is a 4ft tall decorative spoon** that you definitely do not have a place for in your home, but you still, for some reason, kind of want it.
On the other side of our story, the for-profit companies like Verisign and the Public Interest Registry play the Capitalistic Munchkins. These two companies own all of the .com, .net, and .org domain names. Now, that’s really not so bad – somebody has to. It just so happened that Verisign, formerly Network Solutions, lucked into a lucrative contract with the US Department of Commerce back in 1999, and obtained ownership of all the .com and .net domain names. (Public Interest Registry has control over every .org domain.) On their own, Verisign and PIR are just unfathomably wealthy corporations. But when the Wizard gets involved, well, things get kind of messy.
When it comes to the Wizard, lots of things seem just a bit too convenient to be coincidence. That’s right, I’ve now started referring to the United States Federal Government as “the Wizard.” Conveniences like how the Wizard relinquished control over the Internet in 1995, but somehow still legally maintained final approval over any changes made to the Domain Names System root zone, which is the highest level in the Domain Names System hierarchy. Now, ICANN manages the DNS for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, an agency of the US Department of Commerce, but who owns and maintains the domains for ICANN? Why, hello there Verisign. Fancy meeting you here.
Now, it’s about the time that you’ve started to wonder why I keep side-eyeing Verisign, right? Here’s something relevant to know about Verisign: they’re a company based in Virginia, USA. That means that a United States-based company owns every .com and .net domain name in existence on the Internet. And just down the street from Verisign is the headquarters for Public Interest Registry, the owners of every .org domain.
If the US Federal Government has the final say over any and all DNS root zone changes, and all of the .com, .net, and .org domains are owned by US-based companies – well, if you’re doing something on your site that the US Government doesn’t like – don’t expect to be doing it for very long.
It doesn’t matter where you live – if you own and operate a .com, .net, or .org site and the US Federal Government suspects you of illegal activity, regardless of the laws of your own country, under the “Operation of Our Sites” program launched in 2010 by the Obama Administration, they’ll issue a warrant for the immediate seizure of the domain directly to Verisign. And Verisign, being the law-abiding citizens that they are, won’t put up a fight, or at least they haven’t the last 350 times they’ve been served. I’m not trying to be a skeptic here, but those aren’t good odds for your bit torrent site. Just ask The Pirate Bay.
ICANN has done its best to remain in the neutral zone, and as far away from the Wizard as possible. In 2009, ICANN ruled that domain names could be created in a range of written, global languages – no longer holding to the exclusivity of the Latin alphabet for its top-level domains. But even still, many foreign countries would like to see the Internet’s naming system management forfeited to an organization like the International Telecommunications Union, an affiliate of the United Nations, rather than a United States-based company. In the name of global fairness, a working group was quoted in 2005, saying, “No single government should have a pre-eminent role in relation to International Internet governance.” No matter how Wonderful they may be.
And while we’re talking about fairness, let’s discuss Net Neutrality.
Alien David Tennant has been rolling his eyes at my answer for the last half-hour. “So what you’re saying is,” he starts in, adjusting his 3D glasses for effect, “you’ve got 5 organizations regulating the thing, and you’ve got 3 companies who own most of the thing, and you’ve got one government who just can’t let go of the thing. And to you, that’s open-source freedom?”
“…Yes?” I hesitate. I know that’s not the right answer, but I’m from the States and I don’t know what freedom really is anymore. “But no one is controlling the content. So I mean, once you get on the Internet, as long as you’re not doing anything wrong, you’re good to go.” There, that feels better.
Alien David Tennant is skeptical.
“And what about Net Neutrality? What’s that about?”
“It’s…it’s a principle,” I tell him, deflated. Net Neutrality is the idea that Internet Service providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application type of attached equipment, or mode of communication. It’s the basis of the theory of an “open Internet.” And lately it’s got a whole lot of people up in a tizzy.
So here’s the breakdown. People in favor of Net Neutrality are upset at the recent proposed changes, claiming that telecommunication companies want to impose a tiered service model in order to control the pipeline, and remove competition by creating an artificial scarcity that would force users into subscribing to the otherwise uncompetitive services. Advocates of Net Neutrality believe that Internet Service Providers should be designated as Common Carriers – a legal classification for a person or company who transports goods, and is prohibited from discriminating or refusing service based on the customer or the goods in question.
Alien David Tennant, unfamiliar with any previously existing Earthly laws is confused. So I break it down further. “The idea is this: Facebook has a lot of money, and pays Internet providers a premium to dedicate more of the pipeline to them. Tumblr doesn’t have as much money, and therefore gets less of the pipeline, and their pages take longer to load. Internet traffic, discouraged by slower speeds, leaves Tumblr in favor of another, faster-loading site. Tumblr falls victim to the tiered service model, and millions of photos of Benedict Cumberbatch are lost forever.”
“Ah,” he says. “Got it.” Everyone understands the Internet as long as Benedict is involved.
Opponents of Net Neutrality, on the other hand, claim that they have no intention of blocking content or degrading network performance. They say that data discrimination of some kinds, in order to guarantee quality of service, would actually be highly desirable. The only bad news is that they’ve already proved their claims to be false here in the States. Comcast, a widely used American Internet Service Provider, had been caught intentionally slowing down the network connection speeds of those customers who were using peer-to-peer communications. And as far as the Common Carrier title? Well, Internet Service Providers are less than thrilled at that notion. They believe such a legal designation would be a highly regulatory burden, and have petitioned adamantly against it.
Unfortunately, the idea of total Net Neutrality – where nothing is filtered, prioritized, or censored – is a bit of a pipe dream for extremists, and often answered by Internet Society organizations and Internet Service Providers with the “this is why we can’t have nice things” speech. When you have freedom, a total openness of the Internet, you get the small armies of people just waiting to exploit an unfiltered, unregulated regime. With cyber attacks on the rise, not a single government, or a single person, would be safe with total net neutrality.
Bram Cohen, the creator of BitTorrent.com, said on the issue, “I most definitely do not want the internet to become like television where there’s actual censorship… however it is very difficult to actually create network neutrality laws which don’t result in an absurdity like making it so that ISPs can’t drop spam or stop… (hacker) attacks.”
So here we sit in the middle of this rock and that hard place, paralyzed and pretty ticked off. We vote a resounding NO on any law that may lead to a closed Internet, but we also don’t want people to steal our online banking information. We like that websites like the BBC load quickly, but we also don’t want to see a dramatic difference in loading speeds of our own personal pages. And for the love of all that is good in this world, we’d like the Wizard to stop getting up in everyone else’s business. It’s creepy.
“So that’s who controls the Internet,” I tell Alien David Tennant, who has all but fallen asleep at this point and has repeatedly vowed never to purchase a smartphone. “Pretty much no one, and also, basically everyone.”
Join me next month for Part Three: The Business of the Internet.