In Threat to Internet’s Clout, Some Are Starting Alternatives
In Threat to Internet’s Clout, Some Are Starting Alternatives
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 effort.
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, Calif.
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 founded.
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 ORSN.
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 multilingual.
"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 citizens?"
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 names.
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 suffixes.
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?' "
Staff Reporter, Wall Street Journal