FRANCE: Louis Pouzin invented a precursor to the Internet’s TCP/IP’s protoool, and now he wants to break ICANN’s monopoly on top level domains
Little known to the general public, Louis Pouzin is a real IT legend. Back in 1971, the French government tasked him with designing Cyclade, the French answer to the American ArpaNet.
Later, Pouzin and his team created the datagram protocol which Vinton Cerf and Robert Kahn used as the basis for the Internet’s TCP/IP protocol, in 1974. In just a few years, the new communication standard would be adapted by the majority of computer networks in the world.
The grandfather of the Internet
The 81 year old engineer, who is a longtime member of Internet Society (ISOC), is officially retired, but he still wants to influence the future of the Internet – and in particular wants to see it freed from domination by US organisations. To this end, he has been involved in the movement for Alternative DNS roots, which offer an alternative to the Domain Name System (DNS) roots provided under the control of ICANN, the Internet’s ruling body.
Although the Internet is public, decentralised and independent of any state in its day-to-day operations, the network remains under the control of ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), an American organisation that has been responsible for linking domains (assigned names) and IP addresses (numbers) since 1996.
Specifically, it is ICANN and its many affiliates (AFNIC in France, Nominet in the UK) that control the root servers of the Internet and allow over two billion Internet users to find their way among millions of servers hosting data.
Although this year it has somewhat softened its grip, ICANN has long imposed a US character set (ASCII) on billions of people natively using other alphabets (Russian, Chinese, Arabic, Indian). In addition, it operates a business model which some find questionable: rental of domain names.
“ICANN, with its self-proclaimed monopoly, says that there is only one root – Verisign – which operates under contract with the US Department of Commerce (DOC). Changing this root must be approved, first by ICANN, and then DOC. While in actuality, there are many roots created by other organisations, to allow access to sites which, for various reasons, have TLD (Top Level Domains) that do not exist in the ICANN root servers,” Pouzin told Silicon.fr.
The octogenarian doesn’t want to simply denounce the monopoly and Americano-centric vision of ICANN, but offer an alternative design. alongside other Aldternative DNS activists, he set up a French site, called Open Root, to provide an alternative to ICANN’s root servers.
Open the Root
While ICANN is a monopoly controlled by the US government, Pouzin wants Open Root aims to be an association (EUROLINC) under the control of users. While ICANN requires the use of the Americanised Latin alphabet, Open Root provides support for all alphabets and ideograms currently existing on the planet. While ICANN proposes leasing domain names, Open Root offers the outright sale of a domain name at a minimal price.
“Open Root should be independent of the ICANN root, a sanctuary for users rejected by ICANN, or refusing the conditions imposed by the organisation. (…) Another group of interest is the citizens of countries whose languages are not supported by ICANN,” said Pouzin.
However, the initiative is not to the liking of AFNIC, the organisation responsible for domain names in France. “We welcome any initiative to promote innovation and competition. Nevertheless, it seems essential to guarantee the uniqueness of the domain names already in use. Multiplication roots, although they may offer new features in each case, are a path that we do not want to take,” said Julien Naillet, a spokeswoman for AFNIC.
The Internet Architecture Board (IAB) has issued a stern warning against alternative roots in an Internet standard document, called RFC 2826 (the Internet standards are laid down by “Request for Comment” or RFC documents).
The objection boils down to ambiguity: because extensions like .com or .biz might be duplicated in different roots, users would have to know which rout server to use to look for a given site, or else they could go to the wrong place. “Deploying multiple public DNS roots would raise a very strong possibility that users of different ISPs who click on the same link on a web page could end up at different destinations, against the will of the web page designers,” says the informational RFC.
The monopoly of the ICANN root servers effectively guarantees the uniqueness of domain names. After all, there is only one database associating a domain name (like TechWeekEurope.co.uk) to the IP address of the server hosting the website. But is this unity an illusion, and is it really a benefit?
Proponents of Alternative DNS systems think ICANN’s resistance to the multiplication of extensions might have something to do with the amount of money it charges for creating new domain names for big brands.
In what Pouzin sees as rampant commercialism, ICANN has finally allowed new “generic” top level domains (gTLDs) outside the normal list of country names and extensions such as .com – and is charging heavily for them. When the $185,000 cost of applying is added to the annual cost of $25,000 and the back-end registry and consulting, ICANN believes the total cost to someone renting a new domain could be over $500,000
Even if Open Root doesn’t attract more than a handful of users, Pouzin thinks it will be invaluable in starting a debate about Internet governance. After all, this network now connects billions of human beings, and soon will do the same for tens of billions of objects.
Pouzin acknowledges the difficulty that Alternative DNS roots would allow multiple sites with the same address (URL). He points out that already there are multiple sites for a word like “tube”, although in practice tube.com, tube.net and tube.org may all be rented by the same organisation, as a defensive measure.
Far from placating Pouzin, the arrival of gTLDs, which allow more domains on the net, only increases the need for Alernative DNS roots, in his view, and may push the owners of brands to move to the open roots, perhaps even abandoning ICANN’s: “This new policy is far from being welcome by brand owners, who are concerned with a predictable explosion of conflictual cases and malicious practices,” says the Open Root site. 2Nonetheless ICANN did disregard their warnings. Due to steep TLD rental fees and registering delays reaching several years, it is predictable that open roots will become attractive for commercial organizations, as a complement of, or a substitute to, the ICANN root.”
How likely [is this to happen? Pouzin is optimisitic, but the various Alternative DNS projects seem to have few actual users – and Pouzin admits that they have no backing from commercial organisations. A German project, also calling itself Open Root, closed five years ago.
The most well known Alternative DNS root, AlterNIC operated int he late 1990s, and gave a serious challenge to the then somewhat ad hoc structure for managing top level domains – using a body called InterNIC. AlterNIC set itself up as a lower-cost alternative to InterNIC, selling domains within its own set of TLDs, which included .biz and .usa.
AlterNIC founder Eugene Kashpureff somewhat overstepped the mark, when in 1997, he hijacked the InterNIC servers and directed their traffic to AlterNIC. His rival closed in 1998, and its existence was one of the main reasons for the foundation of ICANN, which put the Internet’s governance on the current stable footing.
Despite all this, the Alternative DNS movement persists. One Alt DNS, Cesidian, claims international links and 84 top level domains, and also resolves other Alt DNS roots.
Whether or not ICANN likes the idea, it seems the movement criticising its monopoly on top level domains is still around – and can count a genuine Internet pioneer among its supporters.
Our interview with M Pouzin – in French – is below:
Euro Story: each week, we publish a selected story from across NetMediaEurope’s network of European sites. This week’s story by Jérôme Bouteiller isfrom Silicon France. It was translated and localised by Max Smolaks with additional reporting by Peter Judge.