Dot What?

The surprisingly interesting history of the Internet domain system.

The South Pacific pounds the serpentine coastline of Tuvalu’s Funafuti Atoll in February 2004. The island nation of Tuvalu can use the millions of dollars it’s gotten for its .tv domain, as Tuvaluans fear global warming threatens their way of life.

Photo by Torsten Blackwood/AFP/Getty Images

On a daily basis, you probably type dozens of URLs into your browser to get the websites where you read the news, check your email, access your bank records, and shop online. But chances are you don’t know much about the complex, decentralized naming and numbering system that makes it all work behind the scenes—or the worldwide discussion about who should be responsible for overseeing this system when the U.S. government gives up that role at the end of 2015.

Did you know, for example, that the increasingly popular .tv domain for television and video-related websites is actually the country code top-level domain, or TLD, for Tuvalu, a tiny island nation in the Pacific Ocean? Or that the sale of those rights for $50 million in 1998 helped fund a variety of key infrastructure projects and scholarships for Tuvalu’s citizens? Or that .fm, an increasingly popular choice for streaming radio sites, similarly belongs to the Federated States of Micronesia? Or that up until 1998 most of the authority over these types of decisions rested in the hands of a single computer scientist at the University of Southern California?

The answer to these questions is probably no. Few people know much, if anything, about the Internet’s Domain Name System, or DNS, which helps keep the Internet working on a technical level. Yet it’s a critically important piece of the network’s underlying infrastructure—it’s how you can be confident that when you type a URL like into your Web browser, you’ll get to the website you intend to visit. And pretty soon it could be under new oversight as the U.S. government gives up its formal role in the DNS.   

It all started because the researchers who used the early Internet needed a way to send messages without having to know or remember the numeric Internet Protocol, or IP, addresses assigned to every computer on the network. In the beginning, the whole thing was based on a list maintained by a single individual who worked at the Information Sciences Institute at the University of Southern California. Jon Postel—known to many as the “god of the Internet” for his contribution to the early technical development of the network—used a simple, phone book-style directory to manually keep track of the name of every computer on the network and its corresponding IP address. Eventually, Postel and his colleagues at USC realized that they needed something that would work more efficiently at scale, so they created the DNS, which organizes the names into hierarchically nested domains (like .com and .edu) and stores the information needed to resolve names into their corresponding numeric IP addresses on a decentralized group of servers located around the world.

Although the system grew larger and more complex throughout the 1980s and 1990s as the Internet grew, Postel was still largely responsible for coordinating most of the world’s Internet addresses—everything that ended in .com, .net, .org, or .edu—with the help of a variety of technical organizations and the blessing of the U.S. government. It was Postel, for example, who assigned two-letter country codes to every nation of the world, which is how Tuvalu and Micronesia fortuitously ended up in control of such profitable TLDs. To make it sound more official, Postel was referred to as the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, or IANA, because, as Harvard Law professor Jonathan Zittrain put it, “As the Internet’s protocols were written up it seemed a little informal to say with a technical document, ‘Well, a guy named Jon performs this function.’ ”

By the late 1990s, this somewhat ad hoc coordination of DNS-related tasks had become increasingly untenable, especially as the dotcom boom increased financial interest in the Internet. So in 1998, at the behest of the U.S. government, which had previously contracted with Postel and USC to perform the IANA functions, the whole system was formalized. A nonprofit organization called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, was created to “administer policy for the Internet name and address system.” Most day-to-day DNS operations were immediately handed over to ICANN, which would have multi-stakeholder representation and responsibility for coordinating the names, numbers, and protocols that make the Internet work. Hardly anyone noticed when the transition took place on Dec. 1, 1999, and the DNS continued to function as seamlessly as it had the day before.

To ensure that things continued to go smoothly, however, the U.S. government decided to temporarily hold on to a small piece of oversight through a contractual relationship between the Commerce Department and ICANN. The arrangement has typically been described as “clerical” or “technical,” because the Commerce Department remains mostly hands off, simply making sure that ICANN is following policies.

But in March 2014, recognizing that it no longer makes sense for one government to oversee a system that’s used by billions worldwide, the Commerce Department announced that it intends to relinquish the last vestige of its control over the DNS. The plan is to let its current contract with ICANN expire—as long as a new, nongovernmental oversight structure can be put in place to make sure the system keeps running smoothly. The process of figuring out what that replacement will look like could be completed as early as Sept. 30.

The transfer of DNS oversight from the U.S. government to the global multi-stakeholder community is an important moment in the evolution of the global Internet, and if successful will prove that critical Internet resources can be managed by the global Internet community. That’s why the private sectorcivil society, foreign governments, and the technical community have enthusiastically supported the move. But because of the technical and legal complexity of the process, it’s difficult to have an informed public discussion about what’s needed to make the IANA transition work. (In a new paper I co-authored for New America’s Open Technology Institute, we attempt to fill that gap, describing the IANA transition in much greater detail and explaining why it matters to the future of the Internet. New America is a partner with Slate and Arizona State University in Future Tense.)

A successful transition will be invisible to the vast majority of Internet users, and that’s a good thing. But in order to get there, we need to make sure that key accountability questions are resolved, because if the IANA transition is unsuccessful—if the system fragments, or is mismanaged—the consequences for the global network could be severe. For example, if you ended up with multiple, competing organizations claiming to be the “authoritative” source for naming information on the Internet, it could destroy the single, Internet-wide DNS that has kept everything working seamlessly up until this point. Control over the DNS could also be used as leverage to broaden the scope of ICANN’s powers beyond its technical mandate, and there is already evidence of pressure to address broader Internet policy issues like copyright through ICANN. Freed from U.S. government oversight, what will prevent ICANN from becoming a global law enforcement or Internet governance body, a role for which the organization is not structured and that is far removed from its goal of keeping the DNS running smoothly?

The key to all of this is making sure that ICANN remains accountable after U.S. government oversight ends, which is being discussed as part of the broader transition effort. If we’re lucky, when the whole process is over, most people won’t even know that it happened.  

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.