[A-List] In Threat to Internet's Clout, Some Are Starting Alternatives

James Daly james.irldaly at ntlworld.com
Fri Jan 20 03:27:13 MST 2006

----- Original Message ----- From: "Louis R Godena" 
<louisgodena at ids.net> To: <louis.godena at gmail.com> Sent: Thursday, 
January 19, 2006 5:30 PM Subject: [Marxism] Fwd: In Threat to 
Internet's Clout, In Threat to Internet's Clout,Some Are Starting 
Alternatives Some Are Starting Alternatives


Rise of Developing Nations, Anti-U.S. Views Play Role; Pioneer Sounds 
the Alarm
A 'Root' Grows in Germany
January 19, 2006; Page A1

More than a decade after the Internet became available for commercial 
use, other countries and organizations are erecting rivals to it --  
raising fears that global interconnectivity will be diminished.

German computer engineers are building an alternative to the Internet 
to make a political statement. A Dutch company has built one to make 
money. China has created three suffixes in Chinese characters 
substituting for .com and the like, resulting in Web sites and email 
addresses inaccessible to users outside of China. The 22-nation Arab 
League has begun a similar system using Arabic suffixes.

"The Internet is no longer the kind of thing where only six guys in 
the world can build it," says Paul Vixie, 42 years old, a key 
architect of the U.S.-supported Internet. "Now, you can write a couple 
of checks and get one of your own." To bring attention to the 
deepening fault lines, Mr. Vixie recently joined the German group's 

Alternatives to the Internet have been around since its beginning but 
none gained much traction. Developing nations such as China didn't 
have the infrastructure or know-how to build their own networks and 
users generally didn't see any benefit from leaving the network that 
everyone else was on.

Now that is changing. As people come online in developing nations that 
don't use Roman letters -- especially China with its 1.3 billion 
people -- alternatives can build critical mass. Unease with the U.S. 
government's influence over a global resource, and in some cases 
antipathy toward the Bush administration, also lie behind the trend.

"You've had some breakaway factions over the years, but they've had no 
relevance," says Rodney Joffe, the chairman of UltraDNS, a Brisbane, 
Calif., company that provides Internet equipment and services for 
companies. "But what's happened over the past year or so is the 
beginning of the balkanization of the Internet."

The Internet, developed by U.S. government agencies beginning in the 
1960s, uses a so-called domain-name system, also called the "root," 
that consists of 264 suffixes. These include .com, .net, .org and 
country codes such as .jp for Japan. The root is coordinated by a 
private, nonprofit group in Marina del Rey, Calif., called the 
Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers or Icann. This 
body works under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Commerce, 
which set up the organization in 1998.

Having a single root is central to the universality of the Internet 
and critical to its power and appeal. Key servers that are part of the 
root system determine whether the suffix of an Internet domain name is 
on the official list. If so, the message is directed within 
milliseconds to the administrator of each suffix for further routing. 
In the case of .com, that administrator is Verisign Inc.

A single root helps ensure that when people type in a Web address such 
as www.amazon.com, they all end up at the site of the Internet 
retailer no matter where in the world they are or which Internet 
service provider they use. All addresses must use one of the 264 
domain names. Any changes must be approved by Icann and ultimately by 
the Commerce Department. Alternative roots form the basis for rivals 
to the Internet.

As the Internet's role grows around the world, some are uneasy with 
the notion that a U.S.-based body overseen by the U.S. government has 
sole power over what domain names are used and who controls each name. 
Other countries such as China also say Icann is too slow in forming 
domain names in non-Roman languages, hindering the development of an 
Internet culture in those countries.

Concern about U.S. oversight increased last summer when the Commerce 
Department persuaded Icann to postpone the approval of a new 
domain-name suffix to be used for pornographic Web sites, .xxx. The 
department said it had received letters of complaint from Christian 
groups. While other countries also opposed the name, critics cited the 
incident as evidence of Washington's influence.

The matter of control came to a head last November at a United Nations 
summit in Tunis, where the U.S. delegation fought off demands from 
more than 170 countries to give up unilateral oversight of Icann.

More than half of the Internet's users today are outside the U.S. 
Governments increasingly are interested in how the Internet works. 
Brazil, for instance, collects much of its tax revenue online. "The 
Internet has become a critical part of our lives," says Abdullah 
Al-Darrab, Saudi Arabia's deputy governor for technical affairs. 
"These policies should not be left to a single country or entity."

U.S. officials counter that the Internet is too valuable to tinker 
with or place under an international body like the U.N. "What's at 
risk is the bureaucratization of the Internet and innovation," says 
Michael Gallagher, the Department of Commerce official who administers 
the government's tie to Icann. Mr. Gallagher and other backers of 
Icann also say that the countries loudest in demanding more 
international input -- China, Libya, Syria, Cuba -- have nondemocratic 
governments. Allowing these nations to have influence over how the 
Internet works could hinder freedom of speech, they say.

Others argue that a fragmented Internet is a natural result of its 
global growth and shouldn't be terribly harmful. Governments already 
control what their citizens see on the Internet by blocking some 
sites, making surfing a less-than-universal experience, notes Paul 
Mockapetris, who invented the Internet's domain-name system in the 
early 1980s.

Icann's master database of domain names is preserved in 13 
"mirrors" -- servers that automatically copy any changes made to the 
original database. The duplication makes the system robust in cases of 
attack or failure. Ten of the 13 mirrors are in the U.S.; the others 
are in Amsterdam, Stockholm and Tokyo.

Operating the 'F Root'

A nonprofit organization headed by Mr. Vixie operates one mirror 
called the "F root." Working without pay or contract from Icann, he 
runs his mirror from the basement of an old telegraph office in a 
brown stucco building with a red, Spanish-tiled roof in Palo Alto, 

Located between a Walgreen's drugstore and an art gallery, the F root 
building looks unimpressive, but it plays a critical role in the flow 
of Internet traffic. Powerful servers inside a locked, metal cage 
translate Internet domain names into a series of numbers, called 
Internet protocol addresses, helping users find Web sites and send and 
receive email. Mr. Vixie's center handles about
4,000 queries a second from several continents.

Mr. Vixie, a high-school dropout, was a precocious programmer, helping 
while still in his mid-20s write the domain-name software now used on 
most servers. He now runs a company that services the software. He 
helped build the F root in 1994 when he was 30 and helped foil an 
attack by hackers in
2002 that hampered all the mirrors except his and one other. Later he 
came up with a way to bolster the system by replicating the function 
of the 13 mirrors at other servers.

Now Mr. Vixie is turning his attention to what he feels is an even 
greater threat to how the Internet works: fragmentation.

Last June, Mr. Vixie emailed Markus Grundmann, a 35-year-old security 
technician in Hannover, Germany. Mr. Vixie was seeking information 
about the Open Root Server Network, or ORSN, which Mr. Grundmann 

Mr. Grundmann at first thought the email was fake. He was surprised 
that a pillar of the U.S.-led system would want anything to do with 
him. He explained to Mr. Vixie that he set up ORSN in February
2002 because of his distrust of the Bush administration and its 
foreign policy. Mr. Grundmann fears that Washington could easily "turn 
off" the domain name of a country it wanted to attack, crippling the 
Internet communications of that country's military and government.

Mr. Vixie says he has no interest in making political statements but 
he agreed last September to work with Mr. Grundmann by operating one 
of ORSN's 13 mirrors. Mr. Vixie has also placed a link to the 
once-obscure German group on his personal Web site.

The moves roiled the Internet community of programmers and techies of 
which he is a prominent member. Vinton Cerf, one of the founders of 
the Internet, says he asked Mr. Vixie on the phone, "What were you 
thinking?" Says Mr. Cerf: "I don't think it's helpful to give 
visibility to a group that is fragmenting the Internet."

Mr. Vixie says he sees the European effort as a check of sorts on the 
Icann system. The U.S.-backed group will be more likely to act in the 
global interest if it knows that users have an alternative, he says.

Twelve other computer scientists -- mostly in Germany, Austria and 
Switzerland -- have agreed to help run the new root. Close to 50 
Internet service providers in a half-dozen European countries now use 

For the moment, that is merely a symbolic step. The domain names in 
ORSN's directory are identical to those in Icann's. Users of ORSN get 
routed in the same direction as they would have if they were in the 
Icann system and can communicate with the same Web sites. ORSN doesn't 
create or sell its own domain names. If it did, Mr. Vixie says he 
would quit immediately. But if ORSN disagrees with a move taken by 
Icann, it could refuse to follow suit.

"The Internet is a child of the U.S. government," says Mr. Grundmann. 
"But now the child has grown up and can't stay at home forever."

Choosing a Suffix

A company called UnifiedRoot, based in Amsterdam, has taken things a 
step further than ORSN. In late November, the company began offering 
customers the right to register any suffix of their choosing, such as 
replacing .com with the name of their company. The price is $1,000 to 
register and an additional $250 each year thereafter.

The company has established its own root and signed up Amsterdam's 
Schiphol Airport, among other companies, according to Erik Seeboldt, 
UnifiedRoot's managing director. These companies can use their own 
brand name as a domain name to create addresses such as 
arrivals.schiphol, he says. Users of UnifiedRoot can also access all 
sites using Icann-approved domain names such as .com, but Icann users 
couldn't go to a .schiphol address, he says.

"We want to bring freedom and innovation back to the Internet," says 
Mr. Seeboldt. The Internet service provider Tiscali SpA, which has 
five million subscribers in Europe, and some of Turkey's largest 
service providers use UnifiedRoot's naming system.

Some countries with non-Roman alphabets are also taking matters into 
their own hands. China has created three domain names in Chinese 
characters -- .zhongguo, .gongsi and .wangluo -- and made them 
available for public and commercial use inside China only.

Similarly, Arab countries have in the past 18 months experimented with 
country code domain names in Arabic, distinct from the Icann system, 
says Khaled Fattal of Surrey, England. Mr. Fattal is head of Minc.org, 
a nonprofit organization dedicated to making the Internet 

"There is no such thing as a global Internet today," says Mr. Fattal. 
"You have only an English-language Internet that is deployed 
internationally. How is that empowering millions of Chinese or Arab 

Icann is responding to the criticism. At its last meeting in December 
it took steps to enhance the role of foreign governments in its 
decision making and accelerated the development of non-English domain 

Paul Twomey, the chief executive officer of Icann, says the divisions 
reflect cultural differences between nations that operate under a 
strong government hand and those, including the U.S., that put more 
trust in the private sector. "We are more comfortable with messy 
outcomes that work," says Mr. Twomey, who is Australian. "But we need 
to integrate other values and languages into the Internet and make 
sure that it still works as one Internet."

That's not enough for some. "We would like the process to speed up," 
says Li Guanghao, the head of international affairs for the China 
Internet Network Information Center, in an email interview. The center 
allocates Internet-protocol addresses in China in conjunction with the 
Icann system but is also developing the non-Icann Chinese character 

Mr. Vixie says he joined ORSN to make clear his view that such efforts 
will continue unless Icann becomes more inclusive. "I realize that 
this could help unleash the hordes of hell," he says. "But I hope it 
will make people wonder: 'What if there are more of these?' "

Write to Christopher Rhoads at christopher.rhoads at wsj.com3

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