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Did The Internet Really Begin In Some Guy’s Garage? (A Brief History of ICANN)

October 6, 2016

No, but it’s not far off. The internet, as we know it today, had its beginnings in the US government’s Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA.) On April 7th, 1969 DARPA awarded the first contract to build their “outlandish proposal” called Advanced Research Project Agency Network, or ARPANET, to BBN Technologies. The system got turned on nine months later. The first computers on what would become the internet had just 24 kilobytes of memory. This entire blog entry, if put into a Microsoft Word document would take 20 kilobytes of memory. The new iPhone 7 with the least memory comes standard with 32 gigabytes of memory. That’s over a million times more memory than those early computers had 50 years ago.

But, if the Internet began as a government research project, (partly envisioned as a system to survive a nuclear war) how can I even suggest it was built by some guy in his garage? The problem is that those early computers of the internet were pretty limited in who they could talk to. We take it for granted that a computer in Utah can reach out and talk to a server in Japan, or Washington DC or anywhere, really. The early computers didn’t have names. They had addresses. Think of your neighborhood. Every house has an address. The Jones family might live at 123 Main Street and their friends the Smiths live at 456 Center Street. You can get to either house by finding it’s address. 

But, you probably don’t know your friends’ addresses. You obviously know their names. If you try to give someone directions, it doesn’t do any good to say, “Go to the Smith house.” But, if you tell someone to go to 456 Center street, they can easily find the house. 

The internet is the same way. The computers and websites have addresses, and we need a way to associate names with those addresses. You would never type to get to a Google Search screen, although you could. Instead, you’d type, or even to get to their site. Just as you may not know your friend Smith’s address, you most likely don’t know the physcial address of any website you go to. 

This is where the guy in his garage comes in. Although it wasn’t actually a garage. It was a guy named Jon Postel (yes, the guy who who figured out how to associate names with address on the internet was named “Postel.” Sometimes the universe shows us its sense of humor.) Postel’s regular job was as a computer science researcher who helped create ARPANET. As often happens, he had a side project. The side project was administering registries of name names and IP addresses. Eventually, it got too much for him. 

On January 30, 1998, the National Telecommunication and Information Administration (NTIA), which was part of the US Department of Commerce, issued a “green paper,” or request for comment on “A Proposal to Improve the Technical Management to Internet Names AND Addresses.” This proposal was to take over the work that Jon Postel had been doing in his spare time. ICANN was formed as a result of the recommendations from this request for comment. 

The new corporation, ICANN was tasked with managing the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA.) ICANN was incorporated as a not-for-profit corporation on September 30, 1998. Jon Postel became its first Chief Technology Officer. From a side project to CTO. Not exactly Steve Job’s garage, but also evidence of the sometimes organic nature of how the internet came about. It’s important to understand how ICANN got to the place it is in today in order to consider the risks of where it might go in the future. As you consider the history of ICANN below, here are a couple of vocabulary terms that will help make it a little more understandable.

Domain Name Service – This is the process of associating names and addresses on the internet. DNS has, at it’s heart the root zone file. This 1MB file is the ultimate arbiter of all address resolution.
Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers – This is the corporation that controls the distribution of names and addresses.
Internet Assigned Numbers Authority – this is the rules book for assigning names and address on the internet.
Companies that contract with ICANN to resell domain names and IP addresses.
Top Level Domains – these are the part of your domain name at the end. The most common are .com for businesses, .net for private groups, .org for non profits, .mil for military, .edu for educational institutions and .gov for government sites. There are also country specific TLDs like .uk for Great Britain, .us for the United States, etc. 

Here are some key dates in the history of ICANN and the IANA.

  • September 30, 1998: ICANN incorporated. 
  • October, 2003: VeriSign attempts to set up its own DNS service in competition with ICANN. VeriSign challenged the exclusive nature of ICANN’s role. 
  • February 27, 2004: VeriSign sues ICANN claiming antitrust violations. 
  • August, 2004: VeriSign’s antitrust claims are dismissed by the courts. Other aspects of their lawsuit continue. The courts declare that ICANN, like Major League Baseball, has a legally protected monopoly 
  • May 17, 2004: ICANN proposes increasing their budget from $8M to $16M. The new money will come from selling new top level domains and increasing the fees it charges for domain names..This is how ICANN makes its money. 
  • February 28, 2006: ICANN settles with VeriSign. In exchange for dropping their remaining charges, VeriSign is allowed to increase the fees they charge new domain owners by 7%. 
  • July 26, 2006: The US government renewed the contract for ICANN to manage the IANA under Department of Commerce oversight. 
  • May 23, 2008: ICANN legally goes after ten Accredited Registrars for not doing enough to crack down on spamming, and other illegal activities. This is how ICANN plays enforcer of the rules on the internet.
  • June 26, 2008: ICANN starts the process of allowing new top level domains.
  • July 2008: The Department of Commerce reiterates that it has no plans to transition the management of the authoritative root zone file to ICANN.  
  • September 30,2009: ICANN and the Department of Commerce sign an agreement to implement a multi-stakeholder model for governing ICANN. But the DOC still maintains oversight and control.
  • February 3, 2011: ICANNN distributes the last block of IPv4 addresses to the world’s five Region Internet Registrars. The registrars will hand them out until they are gone.
  • June 20, 2011: ICANN allows new top level domains. For $185,000 you can set up a new top level domain and it costs $25,000 per year to renew it. This is how ICANN makes money.
  • 2013: Edward Snowden, a former employee at the National Security Agency reveals that the US government has been spying on internet traffic. As a result, the Montevideo Statement is drafted and signed by major players in the internet space. It calls for the globalization of the governance of ICANN and the IANA functions.
  • March 10, 2016: ICANN and the DOC file divorce papers. They start the process of removing Department of Commerce oversight
  • October 1, 2016: The formal agreement between ICANN and the Department of Commerce ends. . .and the internet died

Some of these dates and events will become key discussion points as the world looks at an “independent” ICANN. Will the corporation be free to raise prices however it wants? Will it be free to enforce “rules” based on the input of it’s multi stakeholder governing board some of whom may be countries interested in censoring dissent? 

This is the third in a five part series on ICANN and the recent change to remove Department of Commerce oversight. 

  • Monday – The Day The Internet Died (Introduction to the issues of ICANN’s change)
  • Tuesday – Future So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades (ICANN’s View of the Future)
  • Wednesday – Did The Internet Really Start In Some Guys’s Garage? (A brief history of ICANN)
  • Thursday – Bad, bad, bad – A dystopian view of the future of the internet
  • Friday – How to fix it

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and grandchildren. 

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(c) 2016 Rodney M Bliss, all rights reserved 

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