The interesting history of the Internet domain name system.

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Every day, you probably type dozens of URLs into your browser to get to the websites where you read the news, check your emails, access your bank statements, and shop online. But chances are you don’t know much about the complex, decentralized naming and numbering system that keeps everything running behind the scenes – or the global discussion of who should be responsible for overseeing that system. when the US government abandoned this role at the end of 2015.

Did you know, for example, that the increasingly popular .tv domain for TV and video related websites is actually the national top level domain, or TLD, for Tuvalu, a small island nation of the Pacific Ocean ? Or that the sale of these rights for $ 50 million in 1998 helped finance a variety of key infrastructure projects and scholarships for the citizens of Tuvalu? Or that .fm, an increasingly popular choice for streaming radio sites, also belongs to the Federated States of Micronesia? Or that until 1998 most of the authority over these types of decisions was 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 Domain name system, or DNS, which allows the Internet to function on a technical level. Yet it is an extremely important part of the underlying network infrastructure. This is how you can be sure that when you type a URL like http://www.slate.com into your web browser, you will be taken to the website you intend to visit. . And very soon, it could be under new watch as the U.S. government relinquishes its formal role in the DNS.

It all started because researchers who used the early internet needed a way to send messages without having to know or remember the number. internet protocol, or IP, addresses assigned to each computer on the network. Initially, everything was based on a list kept by a single person who worked at the Institute of Information Sciences at the University of Southern California. Jon postel– known by many as the “god of the internet”For his contribution to the early technical developments of the network – used a simple phone book type directory to manually track the name of each computer on the network and its corresponding IP address. Eventually, Postel and his colleagues at USC realized they needed something that would work more effectively on a large scale. created the DNS, which organizes names into hierarchically nested domains (like .com and .edu) and stores the information needed to resolve names to their corresponding numeric IP addresses on a decentralized group of servers located around the world.

Although the system grew larger and more complex during the 1980s and 1990s as the internet developed, Postel was still largely responsible for coordinating most internet addresses around the world – anything that ended in .com, .net, .org or .edu – with the help of various technical organizations and the blessing of the US government. It was Postel, for example, who assigned two-letter country codes to every nation in the world, so Tuvalu and Micronesia ended up controlling such profitable TLDs. To make it sound more official, Postel has been called the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, or IANA, because like Harvard law professor Jonathan Zittrain Put theAs the internet protocols were being drafted it seemed a bit informal to say with a tech paper, ‘Well, a guy named Jon is doing this job. “”

By the end of the 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, on demand from the US government, which had previously contracted with Postel and USC to perform IANA functions, the entire system was formalized. A non-profit organization called the Internet Corporation for assigned names and numbers, or ICANN, was created to “administer the policy of the Internet Name and Address System.” Most of the day-to-day DNS operations were immediately transferred to ICANN, which would have multi-stakeholder representation and responsibility to coordinate the names, numbers and protocols that make the Internet work. Hardly anyone noticed when the transition took place on December 1, 1999, and the DNS continued to function as smoothly as it did the day before.

To make sure things continued to go smoothly, however, the U.S. government decided to temporarily hang on to a small piece of surveillance through a contractual relationship between Commerce and ICANN. The arrangement was generally describe as “office” or “technical”, because the commerce department remains primarily passive, just ensuring that ICANN follows the policies.

But in March 2014, recognizing that it no longer made sense for a single government to oversee a system used by billions of people around the world, the Commerce Department announcement that he intends to give up the last vestige of his control over the DNS. The plan is to let his current contract with ICANN expire, as long as a new non-governmental control structure can be set up to ensure proper operation of the system. The process to determine what this replacement will look like could be completed as early as September 30.

The transfer of DNS oversight from the US government to the global multi-stakeholder community is a 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. This is why the private sector, civil society, foreign governments and technical community enthusiastically supported the movement. But due to the technical and legal complexity of the process, it is difficult to have an informed public debate on what is needed for the IANA transition to work. (In a new paper I co-wrote for the Open Technology Institute of New America, We are trying to fill this gap, describing the IANA transition in much more detail and explaining why it is important to the future of the Internet. . New America is a partner of Slate and Arizona State University in the future.)

A successful transition will be invisible to the vast majority of internet users, and that’s a good thing. But to get there, we need to make sure that the key accountability issues are resolved, because if the IANA transition fails, if the system becomes fragmented or poorly managed, the consequences for the global network could be severe. For example, if you end up with several competing organizations claiming to be the “authoritative” source for naming information on the Internet, this could destroy the Single Internet-wide DNS which has allowed everything to work seamlessly up to this point. DNS control could also be used as leverage to expand the scope of ICANN’s powers beyond its technical mandate, and it already exists pressure proof to address broader internet policy issues like copyright via ICANN. Released from the tutelage of the U.S. government, what will prevent ICANN from becoming a global law enforcement or Internet governance body, a role for which the organization is unstructured and which is far from its goal of keeping the DNS in good working order?

The key to all of this is to make sure that ICANN remains responsible after the end of US government surveillance, which is being discussed as part of the larger transition effort. If we’re lucky, when the whole process is complete, most people won’t even know it happened.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration between Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways in which emerging technologies affect society, politics and culture. To learn more, visit Blog of the future and the Home page of the future. You can also Follow us on twitter.

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