Updated In what could mark the beginning of the end of the Internet's domain name system as used by world+dog today, some of the Internet's most important interests are actively mulling a move to alternative root servers.
At last week's ICANN meetings in California, the country code chiefs formed a working group to explore the option of taking the name business beyond its control.
The managers, who represent the .de, .uk etc domains, unanimously voted to look at three alternatives to ICANN's current proposals for managing country codes. And one of those options involves, as the Virgin Island's Peter de Blanc put it last week, "using the nuclear arsenal", and taking several million current, and several billion potential Internet users out of today's DNS system.
Remarkably, with the exception of TBTF reporters Keith Dawson and Ted Byfield, whose authoritative and exhaustive of coverage of ICANN politics commits the cardinal crime of being hugely entertaining too, this extraordinary move has gone unreported in the US tech media.
But the country code managers aren't alone. The Register has learned that a number of top level registrars are also examining such a move, registrars largely drawn as far as we gather, from the pool of rejected global top-level domains (gTLDs) applicants who found themselves out in the cold last week. We'll examine how and why all these folk are thinking the unthinkable, and what could happen if they breakaway.
A Tax Too Far
Fomenting the revolt is something resembling the ancient rebel cry - no taxation without representation. The country code chiefs, responsible for the ccTLDs, have largely been ignored in ICANN decision making, and have no representation at board level says New Zealand barrister Peter Dengate Thrush.
Thrush is senior vice president of the Asia Pacific ccTLDs, chairs New Zealand's ISOC, and co-chaired the Global Country Code meeting that passed the resolution to find alternatives.
He has been an increasingly exasperated voice, but his views can be considered representative of country code managers worldwide. ICANN effectively hiked the cost of participating earlier this year, and Europe and Asian are simply refusing to pay.
"The European managers have made it perfectly plain that they were not consulted, they don't recognise it, and ICANN no authority to issue an invoice," he told us yesterday.
"The country code managers represent 5.5bn people and are expected to contribute a third of [ICANN] revenue - and yet have no representation on the board and no likelihood of getting representation within that structure," he told The Register.
In New Zealand's case, the domain database consists of around 25,000 entries, the maintenance could be met by employing one person. And that hardly justifies a $1m tax.
"ICANN is almost driving them to this," North America's elected At Large rep Karl Auerbach told us Saturday.
Last week Thrush noted that ICANN's had already earmarked the $1.35 million invoiced from ccTLDs as income received - an accounting sleight of hand that's unlikely to bear much professional scrutiny. Assuming anyone's doing any scrutinizing - that's the US Department of Commerce's job.
What the ccTLDs have agreed to agree on is to examine three alternatives to their current patsy role, as defined by ICANN. One is to push for status as a formal supporting organisation (SO) within ICANN. The second is to regroup as a more autonomous organisation, but using by the current DNS system. But it's the third "nuclear" option which really sets the cat among the pigeons: to use an alternative DNS system that's beyond the reach of ICANN altogether.
I hear a new world, calling me
However it isn't just country code chiefs who are playing with the trigger. According to Electronic Frontier Foundation BOFH Robin Bandy, a runner-up in the recent At-Large elections and a maintainer one of several alternative roots systems, at least three major registrars are exploring going ultra.
ICANN was bombarded with applications for top-level domains, some of which could charitably be described as being forwarded by publicity seekers, scam artists or the hopelessly naive. But not all the applicants fall into this category, and of those that do, venture backing could take the applications an awful long way.
"They have venture funding, and they would seriously push the alternate routes, marketing to the mainstream user base", he says.
Largely because of ICANN's successful projection of its own omnipotence, Bandy says few registrars were even aware that they could simply pitch their tents on another lawn, and open for business.
"It's not really a breakway from ICANN - it's an expression of their autonomy," he reckons. Admittedly of the several alternative root servers, each has its own way of resolving name disputes. In OpenNIC's case, it's basically first come, first served, with disputes being resolved by a vote of all domain name holders.
And what could be simpler? But Bandy argues that the raison d'etre for an organisation with global authority for resolving these disputes is essentially bogus. OpenNIC, he says, merges name information with other liberated DNS servers. Where there's a conflict, the name is ignored.
What gives the liberated model such impetus though, is that these registrars would naturally look after their own TLDs, providing a natural demarcation between disputed names. Nike, for example, would need only apply to the most popular .biz, .store, .exploitation domains. And provided the registrars wouldn't embark on a land-grab, exercise, the system would fundamentally be a self-regulating market.
How the sky might fall
As we mentioned earlier, moving to "liberated" DNS servers wouldn't be the end of the world. It could happen, silently and overnight, without anyone noticing. And it could happen like this.
Suppose the .uk names were ultimately registered in a single text file - as they all are right now - not in Herndon Virginia, home of the NSI (actually, it's owned by NSI's parent company Verisign) but on a server in the Anyplace Islands. British users, or anyone else wanting to click to a .uk domain would need to access Anyplace or one of its downstream name servers. How would they do that? Through their ISP.
As Peter Dengate Thrush points out, it only takes a major country code administrator from say, the Germany, the UK or France to take its names to a liberated domain, and all the ISPs in that nation would be obliged to point to the new root server. There'd be no need to fiddle with your Network Control Panel - it would happen without you even noticing.
Elected ICANN board rep Auerbach personally uses an alternative DNS SuperRoot with almost no problems. "There is an initial start-up expense in terms of finding what are the servers," but thereafter, it's seamless.
And he's confident that TLD overlaps would be resolved without too much fuss:
"Root servers that used out of date or innaccurate information wouldn't find themselves in business for very long. It's like the Monty Python Hungarian-to-Englsh dictionary that was inaccurate. People didn't use it!"
He particularly sees it appealing to geographically isolated countries - most obviously China - with relatively few connections to the rest of the world.
A move by the ccTLDs to migrate their name databases onto liberated DNS servers, and out of the system administered by ICANN, would effectively mean the end of ICANN as we know it, if not the end of ICANN for good.
Add the rogue prospective business domains names into the picture, and you'd essentially have the scenario summarised by David Post of ICANNWatch. "ICANN could wake up one morning, and the Internet has just moved someplace else."
When de Blanc talks about the "nuclear" option, he's not exaggerating.
How the West was lost
But a quick reality check. Dengate Thrush tells us that going nuclear isn't the preferred goal. Far from it:-
"Option three [leaving the current DNS system] is clearly our least favoured at the moment. But the issue turns on outcome of option two," he told us.
"It may well be that we stay with option one [SO status within ICANN]. We stay a bunch of countries that can have own policies - with their own trademark policies and so on... but that's the status quo. What Option two promises is a council of country codes taking part in global decision making; and with policy ... binding on members"
And since his incendiary comments at last week's ICANN meetings, he has found the quango suddenly more receptive. He certainly sounded conciliatory on the phone to The Register.
"Dialog has increased since I started this discussion," he said.
"I think there will be things will that change, partly because ICANN has achieved most of what it regarded as primary problems. These were US-centric problems- breaking the .com monopoly or finding a UDRP [name resolution system] doesn't affect ccTLDs. It's taken that long to get new gTLDs there will be more attention to the country codes."
We're not exaggerating when we reckon that the next few years of Internet governance now rests with the country code reps, who'll decide whether they want to stay inside the tent, or decide that it's cheaper and less bothersome to have their own root system. Taking many of us with them. ®