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Proposed New IETF Standard Would Create a Nationally Partitioned "Internet"

Milton Mueller

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).

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.

By Milton Mueller, Professor, Syracuse University School of Information Studies. More blog posts from Milton Mueller can also be read here.

Related topics: Censorship, DNS, ICANN, Internet Governance, Top-Level Domains

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Comments

Unnecessarily complicated Karl Auerbach  –  Jun 19, 2012 1:52 PM PDT

The proposal is overly complicated and, as you indicated, because it does not use already deployed protocols it's future is dim.

However, it is quite feasible to do what is being proposed without any change in existing deployed code in user or infrastructure devices.  Nor would there be any need for IANA involvement.

Every country, or any church or any ISP or any person, could set up his/her/its own DNS root, populate it with TLDs that it likes, and arrange so that any "foreign" name (even if within those TLDs) resolves to a set of address records that point to an application level gateway (ALG).

This is content-level routing of a sorts.

And, of course, because nothing tells DNS about the type of application that is asking for name resolution services, the application level gateway would not know the particular protocol/application that it needs to proxy until a connection is actually attempted.  But that's a plus in the eyes of many who like restrictions - only "approved" protocols would be proxied.

See: http://www.cavebear.com/cbblog-archives/000331.html beginning with "The Alternative History".

http://www.circleid.com/posts/20100728_taking_back_the_dnsTime index 09:07 http://www.youtube.com/wa Charles Christopher  –  Jun 23, 2012 9:20 PM PDT

http://www.circleid.com/posts/20100728_taking_back_the_dns

Time index 09:07 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ioxGlpm7h8

Bogus headline Paul Hoffman  –  Jun 19, 2012 3:14 PM PDT

The headline and intro paragraph are FUD. Anyone can submit any stupid idea to the IETF and ask that it become a standard. Making that act sound important is disingenuous at best.

The discussion of the draft has already shown that it will go nowhere. Why even mention that some clueless academics made a poorly-executed proposal?

Sorry you were misled (and don't call me "Milt") Milton Mueller  –  Jun 20, 2012 10:02 AM PDT

The last paragraph makes it clear that this proposal has no chance to succeed. Why write about it, then? Two reasons.

First, in some ways this article is a play on all the panic surrounding the proposed revisions of the ITU's International Telecom Regulations (ITRs). Crazy bad things that get proposed at the ITU spark congressional hearings and are presented as huge threats to the future of the Internet. I am simply pointing out that crazy, dangerous ideas get proposed in the IETF as well. And in fact, as Karl Auerbach astutely points out, nation-states don't even need to get this through the IETF to create separate name spaces. They can do it on their own.

Second, this proposal is interesting because it comes from China, and thus reveals some of the thinking that goes on there. It is not an official "Chinese delegation" contribution but, true to IETF style, comes from three specific individuals in companies there. It is interesting to see an attempt to formalize a nation-centered DNS name space, one that makes so explicit its implications for Internet control and regulation, and especially for limiting the expansion and use of the name space. 

A final point. The last person who called me "Milt" in public is missing a finger and two teeth. Well, this incident occurred during a poker game in a remote Nevada town of dubious repute, but still…

Agreed Paul Hoffman  –  Jun 20, 2012 10:23 AM PDT

...that the last paragraph is clear. My issue is with the title and the first paragraph.

...and that I won't call you that name again, nor will I play poker with you in any jurisdiction.

We disagree that the proposal is interesting because it comes from China. It is the same as we have seen from others in the past few decades. The Chinese angle would be interesting only if one of the authors was associated with CNNIC.

May be bogus but... Karl Auerbach  –  Jun 19, 2012 3:35 PM PDT

@Paul H. - The message is not technology, it is political.

The argument that has been projected for so many years and which forms the foundation of ICANN-like bodies is that there must be a "global uniform name space" else the seas will boil and the the skies will fall.

The interesting aspect of the proposal is not the technical part but the fact that it suggests that the premise of the necessity of global and uniform name spaces is now open for question.  And that, in turn, opens the door to questions about the possible absence of a foundation under bodies such as ICANN.

Wrong politics Paul Hoffman  –  Jun 19, 2012 3:51 PM PDT

We agree that "The message is not technology, it is political". However, Milt's political message is "this proposal to the IETF is important so you should be afraid", and he knows that to be false. Anyone can propose any bad idea to the the IETF: both you and I have done so in the past (in addition to some of our good ideas).

We disagree that anything in this proposal is interesting. It's nothing new, and has been soundly rejected numerous times in the past 20 years.

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303822204577470532859210296.htmlThe broadest proposal Charles Christopher  –  Jun 26, 2012 11:02 AM PDT

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303822204577470532859210296.html

The broadest proposal in the draft materials is an initiative by China to give countries authority over "the information and communication infrastructure within their state" and require that online companies "operating in their territory" use the Internet "in a rational way"—in short, to legitimize full government control. The Internet Society, which represents the engineers around the world who keep the Internet functioning, says this proposal "would require member states to take on a very active and inappropriate role in patrolling" the Internet.

Q.E.D.

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