The internet has contributed enormously to freedom of expression and global communications. Technical measures like encrypted VPNs have enabled people in restrictive, repressive societies to be heard by the rest of the world and access information otherwise prohibited to them.
This is fantastic, but there is one major drawback: the internet relies upon physical infrastructure. While there’s no getting around the necessity to lay cables or have wireless communications that terminate at various physical points (be they cable landing points, satellites and their ground stations, microwave towers, etc.), the issue of physical presence and legal jurisdiction for key internet infrastructure has been a concern of mine for a while.
Take, for example, the DNS root zone: due to the heirarchical structure of the Domain Name System (DNS), there needs to be a “root” from which all names are delegated. As an example consider the name of this website, www.arizonarifleman.com, this server is named “www” and is a subdomain of “arizonarifleman” which is in turn a subdomain of “com” which is in turn a subdomain of the root.
All top-level domains like “com”, “net”, “org”, “uk”, “au”, and so on are subsets of the root. While alternative roots have come and gone over the years, the official root is the de-facto standard. To put it bluntly, the root zone is critical to the operations of the entire global internet.
Due to the US’s role in creating the modern internet, the DNS root zone is under the authority of the US Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) who has delegated technical operations (but not ownership) of the root to IANA, operated by ICANN (a California non-profit company that evolved out of early technical management of the DNS root). The root zone is distributed by hundreds of redundant, load-balanced physical servers representing 13 logical DNS root servers (the 13 logical servers limitation is a technical limitation). These servers are located all around the world.
The DoC and NTIA have been remarkably hands-off when it comes to the actual management of the root zone and have worked to build a “firewall” between the administrative/political and technical sides of managing the DNS root.
Even so, many people (including myself) have concerns about a single country having administrative authority over such a key part of global infrastructure. The US government has recently been seizing domain names of sites accused of copyright infringement, as they claim jurisdiction over generic top-level domains like “com”, “net”, and “org” regardless of where the domains are registered or where the registrant is physically located. What would prevent the US government from turning off country-level domains like “uk”, “fr”, or “se” in the root? What about “ir” (Iran) or other countries that the US has various issues with?
Obviously if this happened there would be massive international outcry and a fracturing of the unified DNS system currently in place — this would likely be catastrophic to the internet.
What, then, could be done? Perhaps the authority for the root could be moved to another country? Sweden and Switzerland are both well-known for their political neutrality and freedoms, but again one runs into the problem of the authority being subject to the laws of a single nation.
Perhaps the UN? That’s been proposed as well, but there’s definitely some drawbacks: many UN members are not exactly well-known for their support of free speech and would be more likely to manipulate the DNS for their own purposes. The US, even with its myriad legal issues as of late, has some of the strongest free speech protections in the world and a history of non-interference with the root zone.
Personally, I wonder if it’d be possible to raise the technical management and authority of the root zone above that of any particular country — a technical “declaration of independence”, if you will. If the root zone could be abstracted from any particular physical or political jurisdiction, I think that be a great benefit to the world.
Of course, that would involve a change in the status quo and is unlikely to succeed. The US government has made it quite clear that they have no intention of relinquishing authority of the root zone and any organization (such as ICANN) who intends to operate the root must be physically located somewhere and thus fall under the jurisdiction of some government.
Nevertheless, it’s interesting to consider.
Update (about an hour later): The US government just seized a .com domain name registered through a Canadian registrar, owned by a Canadian, operating a legal-in-Canada online gambling site because it violated US and Maryland state laws. (They seized it by issuing a court order to Verisign, the operator of the “com” registry.) This serves to highly my concerns above.