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Playing the Internet Name Game: Who Rules the Root

Books: A Syracuse professor describes how the domain system works, why it is important and how it has evolved.


First, a warning: "Ruling the Root" isn't what you'd normally describe as beach reading. The book is dense, packed with acronyms and technical jargon.

Its author, Syracuse University professor Milton Mueller, admits as much in this study of how the Internet's domain name system became an institution--and hence the object of intense lobbying and maneuvering by corporations and other powerful interests.

"Admittedly, institutionalization is an ugly and seemingly unexciting word," Mueller writes. "How much more interesting to talk about the vast amounts of money that can be made from e-commerce or the exciting new capabilities of information technology."

But as Mueller points out, the domain name system is the root of the Internet. Without it, there would be no e-commerce or Web sites.

So although intimate knowledge of the root won't make you a hit at a cocktail party, its importance cannot be overstated. And that is what makes "Ruling the Root" (MIT Press; $32.95) a worthwhile read.

The domain name system is a set of computers that translates an Internet address such as "" into a series of numbers that identify a specific machine. That translation is key for finding Web sites and sending e-mail.

Thousands of domain-name computers exist, but the most important are the 13 "root" servers that list the Net's 258 domain suffixes, such as ".com."

Of those 13, one is the master of the masters, the "A" root. The other 12 make copies from it. So whoever controls the "A" root essentially controls the Internet.

I initially thought the book was going to be about the Internet Corp. for Assigned Names and Numbers, the group selected by the Commerce Department in 1998 to assume oversight of the domain name system, including what goes into the "A" root.

Since its formation, ICANN has been dogged by questions of authority and legitimacy. Critics complain that it is too secretive and favors businesses over individuals.

Much already has been written about this, so I wondered: What more could be said?

The book surprised me. Not so much for its insights on ICANN but for its discussions of the Internet's history.

ICANN takes up less than half the book. Mueller, who directs Syracuse's Graduate Program in Telecommunications and Network Management, spends the rest of the book tracing the ad-hoc decisions and informal arrangements that led to today's controversies.

For example, it wasn't ICANN that first decided to bypass existing government structures in setting up procedures for resolving domain name disputes. The precursor came from Network Solutions Inc., the company that keeps track of ".com" names.

And that early policy, Mueller says, "routinely produced blatant injustices."

Even ICANN's predecessors--the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority and the late Jon Postel, who created the domain name system and informally ran it in the beginning--faced questions of authority and legitimacy as the Net grew in importance and usage.

They were able to defer some of the tensions but did not eliminate them.

Mueller also spends a lot of time explaining how the domain name system works and its importance. It's a good primer for people curious about Internet mechanics, although the acronyms and jargon may be too much for beginners.

On ICANN, Mueller doesn't offer that much new. There's not much that hasn't been said before on trademark rights, accountability, international representation and other controversies facing the organization.

Part of the problem stems from the nature of publishing. Mueller had to submit his final draft a year ago, so he couldn't discuss the recent debates and ICANN's decision in June to reorganize.

He was afraid to offer remedies that could have been irrelevant by the time the book came out.

Still, Mueller does draw a few conclusions:

* ICANN's basic functions are similar to those that government regulators perform for broadcast--although it keeps denying that, Mueller says.

* As the domain name system becomes more of an institution, vested interests are succeeding in blocking business and technical innovation, the author believes. So much for the Internet as a revolutionary force.

If you care about the prospect of losing your rights to a specific domain name to a trademark holder, this book's for you--perhaps even on a beach.

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