For those worried about the threat of a state-based takeover of the Internet, there is no need to obsess over the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs) exclusively. Three Chinese engineers are proposing a way to alter Internet standards to partition the Internet into autonomously administered national networks, using the domain name system (DNS). The idea was not proposed in the ITU; no, it was sent to a multi-stakeholder institution, the granddaddy of the Internet itself, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). I almost titled this post “Threat Analysis of the IETF,” but my sense of irony has irritated enough people already this week.
The proposal, entitled, “DNS Extension for Autonomous Internet (AIP),” describes a way to give each nation, which the proposal cleverly calls an AIP, “its own independent domain name hierarchy and root DNS servers.” That would allow them to create their own top level domains without any need to coordinate them with ICANN or any other global entity. In other words, each country runs its own domain name space and decides for itself what TLDs exist and which domain names from outside will resolve in that space. But there would still be a role for ICANN. The IANA, which is a subsidiary of ICANN, would have to assign a unique identifier to each AIP gateway to facilitate international resolution of domain names. Say China was assigned B and the U.S. was assigned A. China could create its own google.com to catch any Chinese-domestic traffic to that site. If people outside the Chinese network wanted to access the Chinese version of google.com, and if China wanted to let them, its gateway would attach its AIP identifier to the end of the domain name. So the Chinese google site would be google.com.b and the other google, which is run by, um, foreign devils, would be google.com.a. Voila! Global compatibility! But it would also be possible for China to configure its gateway to tell people inside its network that the “other google.com” didn’t exist. As the proposal puts it, “In order to realize the transition from Internet to Autonomous Internet, each partition of current Internet should first realize possible self-government and gradually reduce its dependence on the foreign domain names, such as COM, NET et al.”
This proposed standard actually describes what China already did when it created new top-level domains that were Chinese-character versions of .COM and .NET. It created the new domains unilaterally, and when those domains were accessed by users outside China it appended its ASCII country code to the end of the names of any web sites under them to make them compatible with the global Internet. What China is proposing here is to universalize the practice, so that every country can ‘enjoy’ the same autonomy.
It would make the DNS a bit like the pre-liberalization telephone numbering system. Speaking of telephones, Kevin Murphy’s Domain Incite blog wrote that “the ITU’s World Conference on International Telecommunications [is] expected to propose a greater degree of government control over the internet.” Actually, he’s got it backwards. No modification of the ITRs could give national governments more control over the Internet than this IETF standards proposal would, if it were adopted universally by Internet operators. What’s next, House Committee hearings on the dangers of the IETF process?
Fortunately this proposal, involving as it does a new DNS, the complete breakup of the global internet into a series of national intranets and a complete transformation of the role of ICANN and its IANA, is unlikely to make it through the IETF (just as most of the really bad proposals for the ITRs won’t make it through, either). The only good thing about this proposal is that it might finally be enough to get the US and other relatively liberal states to start taking more seriously the idea that DNS blocking can be a trade restriction as well as a human rights restriction.