America invented the Internet.
The first iteration of what became “the Internet” that you use everyday, was built in the 1960s. It was called ARPANET and was one the first packet-switching networks that transmitted data using TCP/IP. Packet-switching is a method by which data is transmitted in chunks or “packets” that can be retransmitted if there is a disruption. TCP/IP are the protocols that manage and control the communications process.
Development of ARPANET was funded by the U.S. Department of Defense. If you were paying taxes in the 1960s, the development of today’s Internet was funded, in part, by you. If you are one of these Americans, I just want to take this opportunity to personally thank you for having paid your taxes. You literally helped change the world.
America invented the Internet but it does not own the Internet. The global infrastructure that makes up the Internet is owned and operated by numerous private companies, non-profit organizations and, of course, government entities, some of which have a bad habit of trying to infiltrate parts of the Internet that don’t belong to them (more on that later).
Up until last month, however, there was one key part of the Internet that was controlled by the U.S. government: the Domain Name System (or DNS). To understand why this is important, you must first understand the importance of DNS to the functioning of the Internet.
DNS is the “telephone directory” of the Internet. It matches up the web address you enter in your web browser, such as www.ijpr.org, to the IP address of the web server that a website is hosted on (in the case of ijpr.org, that’s 188.8.131.52). Every device connected to the Internet must have an IP address to communicate with other devices just as every telephone must have a number associated with it to send and receive calls.
DNS is a distributed system. At its core are some very important servers called “root” servers. These DNS servers manage Top Level Domains (TLDs) such as .com, .org, .net, and hundreds of others TLDs, including country-specific one’s like .us, .ru, and .cn (those are for the U.S., Russia, and China).
On a technical level, DNS is much more complicated and boring than that, so let’s just skip all those details and go right to the heart of the matter: without DNS, there is no Internet. Everything stops.
Knowing the critical role DNS played in the ongoing functionality of the Internet, the U.S. government (specifically the Department of Commerce) has controlled those TLDs and root servers through a partnership with a non-profit organization, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (or ICANN), since 1998.
Basically, the U.S. government has had ultimate say and control of root DNS and ICANN was contracted to handle day-to-day operations.
As the prominence and importance of the Internet has grown to the point where the global economy is intrinsically tied to it, foreign governments (namely China and Russia, but other countries as well) did not like this arrangement, arguing that control of root DNS should be handed over to the U.N.
A treaty to do just that was put forward by China and Russia in 2012, but the U.S., Canada, U.K., and Australia refused to sign the treaty, citing concerns over human rights abuses that may arise if other countries had greater say and control over the Internet.
These same concerns were recently raised by Republican senators when the Obama administration moved forward with a 2014 proposal to cede control of root DNS completely to ICANN at midnight on September 30, 2016.
“The proposal will significantly increase the power of foreign governments over the Internet,” warned a letter signed by Republican senators, including former Presidential candidate, Ted Cruz.
As the September deadline approached and it looked as though the hand-over to ICANN was imminent, four states’ attorney generals filed a lawsuit seeking a temporary restraining order against the Department of Commerce (DoC). Among other things, the lawsuit claimed that giving full control to ICANN would put First Amendment rights online at risk.
Prominent Internet organizations such as the Internet Association, whose members include Amazon, Facebook, and Google, joined the government’s side, arguing that the claims in the lawsuit contained “fundamental inaccuracies regarding how the relevant Internet technologies work”.
The motion for a restraining order against the DoC was denied by a U.S. District Court judge just hours before the midnight deadline, and the U.S. government handed full control of root DNS to ICANN as planned.
Yes, America invented the Internet, but it’s not “giving it away” any more than the ancient Greeks gave away democracy. The Internet needs governance, but that governance should be democratic and global.
ICANN, which is located in Los Angeles, may not be the best long-term solution for the ongoing technical operation of the root DNS servers and the creation and assignment of TLDs. Neither may the U.N.
But if we’ve learned anything from the Snowden leaks that revealed the extent to which U.S. intelligence agencies (namely, the NSA) conducted Internet surveillance on citizens, it’s that we should strive for less government involvement in the Internet—not more.
Scott Dewing is a technologist, teacher, and writer. He lives with his family on a low-tech farm in the State of Jefferson.