by Dana Blankenhorn
  Volume VII, No. XLIII

This Week's Clue: The Internet Is Governed At The Edge

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This Week's Clue: The Internet Is Governed At The Edge
SSP (Shameless Self Promotion)
SP (Shameless Promotion)
Hardware Is Faster Than Software
The Secret of iTunes
Vietnam Syndrome (A Political Rant)
Clued-in, Clueless

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For the Week of October 27, 2003

The relationship between public and private is always a touchy one. Especially on the Internet.

I "own" my Web site. But I rent the name from a registrar. If a copyright holder (say, Hasbro) decides my name violates their rights, they can appeal to ICANN, ostensibly a non-profit company charged by the U.S. government with handling Domain Name Services (DNS). If their process rules against me their contractor Verisign, which runs the DNS, may wipe this site (and everything in it) from the view of the world, forever. The only true "government" in sight is that of the U.S.A., which contracted with ICANN, which in turn contracted with Verisign. Most "government" control of my "property" is in private hands.

But beyond that the Internet is governed from the edge. It's client software that determines how Web pages and e-mail will look. The companies that make this software, most notably Microsoft, often allow users to change defaults. Some re-sellers, major ISPs, will lock-in defaults, but most risk the wrath of users when doing so.

ISPs can operate in the core or at the edge, or in both. AT&T mainly operates in the core, Earthlink mainly at the edge, but the former has consumer customers and the latter trunk lines. The edge ISPs can take power based on how they implement things like DNS. If they choose to recognize another name space, or take another view of the DNS, they can redirect a request away from A-Clue.Com, or any other site. Maybe they can switch it to another site. Maybe they won't find it at all.

Now all this is subject to government review and control. In the three-digit name space (like .com) that's the U.S. government. If your site name ends in .cn or .uk, the governments of China or the United Kingdom can determine whether your site is seen. Authoritarian governments try to create their own cores, chokepoints where they can censor or merely watch what their nations' users are doing. But even China, which is the most active censor, is slowly losing control of its Internet, because there are just too many users at the edge, too much traffic to watch, too much e-mail. Foreign governments often block U.S. sites, but their blocks may be unblocked through private action at the edge, like anonymizers and encryption. While the role of sovereign governments in Internet governanace is no longer denied, it is not absolute.

The problem, as with the world, is there is no higher authority. For a long time this was not a problem. Now it is.

It's a problem because the old public-private partnership ideal in the core is breaking down. Verisign's decision to defy ICANN and relaunch its SiteFinder "service" amounts to a Declaration of War against the current order.

As I said, Verisign runs the Domain Name Service for the .com and .net domains, under a contract with ICANN. It manages a key part of the Internet's core. ICANN, in turn, holds its power under a contract with the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Verisign's basis for defying ICANN is its need for profit. Verisign bought Network Solutions, the company that controls the contract, for $21 billion, at the height of the last Internet bubble. It has been trying to justify this purchase ever since. First it bought a third-party market for domain names. Then it hijacked expiring domain names for that market as a Waiting List Service, in order to control the re-sale market. Now there is SiteFinder, which re-directs mistyped domain requests to a paid search service.

If Verisign is unable to leverage Network Solutions' DNS contract to create valuable, proprietary services, it cannot justify the purchase of Network Solutions to its shareholders. Not that it really has any hope of that. Verisign sold NSI, minus the DNS contract, to a private group for $100 million last week. The remaining $20.9 billion investment rests on Verisign's control over the DNS. CEO Stratton Sclavos must control the DNS in order to survive.

The DNS is a central chokepoint for the .com and .net domains, which are the bulk of the Internet name space. Verisign invested money in managing and growing this asset, and thus feels it owns what it created. The analogy would be to a developer who takes out a long-term lease on some land and builds a skyscraper on it.

But ICANN granted only a short-term license to manage a resource it held responsibility for. It's as if Verisign built a skyscraper on land it held with a three-year lease.

Thus we have a conflict of private-vs.-public control of the Internet. If Verisign is able to defy ICANN and run the DNS as it sees fit, then it effectively controls the .com and .net domains. If ICANN can set rules under which Verisign has to operate, then it controls the .com and .net domains. Verisign loses.

That's the way the press is writing it. But, as I said, the Internet is run from the edge, by users and ISPs. Paul Vixie of the Internet Software Consortium is one of the people serving their interests. The ISC publishes the open source version of BIND, the software used by many ISPs to manage the DNS.

So when the Internet community revolted against Verisign's SiteFinder, Vixie issued a "patch" which got around it. He defended himself, writing "While we recognize the autonomy of zone publishers to publish whatever data they see fit, we also recognize the autonomy of DNS data consumers to filter out any content they deem objectionable." In other words the edge rules, not the core.

Other companies managing the edge object to Sitefinder. Microsoft has implemented its own solution to the misspelling problem in its Internet Explorer browser, moving those requests to a Microsoft Web site. Google has its own "solution," based on an Internet Explorer browser plug-in called the Google Toolbar. (The browser allows users to change the default search engine, and the Toolbar exploits this.) Copernic , a meta-search software program, also has a system for taking control of search.

Verisign spins the fight as one between public and private interests. It calls on other private companies to support it, claiming that "the right to innovate" is at stake against the "governmental" authority of ICANN. This is a bogus argument. Sclavos is just another victim of the bubble trying to save himself from drowning.

If there is a threat to the edge's control over the Internet, it lies in the hands of government and an upgraded Internet technology, Ipv6. The U.S. government has been restricting competition in the ISP space, adding regulation and serving the interests of a few Bell and cable companies. Ipv6 offers a bigger address space, but it also has a lot more programming overhead, overhead that could be used to choke off activities various governments want choked off at the core. Users would like some of this program - users hate spam - but users also want anonymity, which government is trying to eliminate.

So the struggle will go on. But it's not a struggle between Verisign and ICANN. It's a struggle between the edge and the core. Until governments force the core of the Internet to "get its act together" and serve their interests, the Internet will be ruled from its edges.


Shameless Self-Promotion

I work as a business analyst with Progressive Strategies, a New York research firm that has the ear of the world's top technology companies.

My last book, "The Blankenhorn Effect" won the Computer/Internet category in the 2003 Independent Publisher (IPPY) awards .

You have my permission to forward this newsletter widely. And if you have trouble subscribing let me know. Remember: it's journalism that keeps the Clues coming...


Shameless Promotion

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Takes on the News

Hardware Is Faster Than Software

After 20 years in technology journalism it's unusual for someone to give me a real "ah ha" moment, some statement that makes me sit up, take notice, and re-evaluate.

So congratulations and thanks go out this week to Fred Weber, CTO for Advanced Micro Devices, who delivered the amazing but obvious statement that hardware now evolves faster than software . Here's the money quote. "It's counter-intuitive to call software the glacier, but the reality of it is that it is."

Why is that? It's mainly because of you and me, the users. It's we who change slowly, we who must be retrained by every new piece of software we see. My best friend has been change-resistant for decades, but I never understood the importance of that in the great technology scheme of things until Fred brought me up short with it.

Fred's point was that hardware makers should adapt to software rather than the other way around, but there is more to it than that. Hardware has raced past software and if you want to make an impact you should be programming silicon, not computers.

That's where the action is now moving. The World of Always On is about redefining computers, giving them new shapes, forms and interfaces, then linking them into the systems we've previously created. A server-radio, a sensor client, linked to slower-changing Internet and PC technologies. That's the future.

And it's in hardware.


The Secret of iTunes

The secret of Apple's iTunes , and its hope for profit, lies in plain sight.

Steve Jobs explained it to CNBC. "We don't make money on the music. Most of that money goes to the publishers," he said. "But we make money on the iPod."

Apple is becoming a player in the music game by being a "good guy" to the industry and making money on the hardware. The hardware profits enable it to invest in the user experience, and keep prices low against competitors who don't have the product advantage. It's a Nintendo strategy, control the player and you eventually control the game.

But Apple's real opportunity remains to be played. That would be the purchase of one or more major music publishers. With a market capitalization of $8.5 billion, Apple could afford to buy them. My guess is that Jobs is simply biding his time and waiting for the right deal to fall from heaven, as the publishers continue losing market share and value. Or he's building Apple for his own retirement, when he can sell it to Sony - which has a market cap of over $50 billion.

Vietnam Syndrome (A Political Rant)

The following may not be fully understood by non-American readers. Forgive me, gloss over it, or use the links to learn more. It may also offend some American readers. Again forgive me, gloss over it, but this is my newsletter and I do what I want.

The biggest lie in America is the one about Vietnam Syndrome. It is said to be a disease of fear. The Gulf War, Colin Powell said, cured it, back in 1991. But Vietnam Syndrome is not a disease of fear, it's a disease of arrogance and willful ignorance. It's raging right now in Iraq.

I wondered for a long time why so many millions of people, mostly male, continued to support the Iraq War. Even today most believe the claim that Saddam Hussein is leading the resistance, that the opposition is just a few malcontents, that behind the violence things are getting better. They claim we're going to win. Even Howard Dean is infected. He says we have to win.

All Americans are infected by the Vietnam Syndrome, just as all Southerners were infected by the Lost Cause after the Civil War.

Vietnam is not taught in American schools. If it is mentioned at all (and usually it's not) the lesson is a lie, or at best, ambiguous. The fact is we LOST. We deserved to lose. What we called Communism they called nationalism, and in the end more of them were willing to die for their country than were willing to die for the South Vietnam we created, because we created it. Millions and millions of Vietnamese suffered horribly for decades, first fighting the French, then fighting us. They lived in tunnels like rats. They had their homes and farms bombed. They suffered chemical weapons attacks. Yet still they fought. And as soon as we tired of it, they swept through and won. Communism had nothing to do with it. They've been struggling against Communism ever since 1975. But Communism was the ideology their leaders fought under. That's because Communists were the only people willing to give them arms against the French. Communists supported them throughout the war with America.

Outside America you know about the practice of historical lies. Whenever a Japanese minister lays a wreath at a grave of "Pacific War" dead, China and Korea howl, quite rightly. They demand that the Rape of Nanking be taught, that the atrocities of the 1930s be taught, and that the grandchildren be shamed with the sins of the grandfathers. Japan resists, and over time it is increasingly successful in this resistance.

The same thing is happening here. Look at that earlier paragraph again. What is there to argue with? That Communists supported the Vietnamese? That the Vietnamese fought? That they suffered? That they won?

The only cure for arrogance is humility, and Americans, like Japanese, like Germans, like everyone, resist that medicine. You go to a Republican meeting and preach humility, see how long you last. Preach humility on Fox, or at a Southern Baptist Convention. It's like trying to preach racial brotherhood to the Daughters of the Confederacy in 1900.

So Vietnam has become the Lost Cause. We are all the South. The "War On Terror" has brought out in America as a whole the equivalent of the 1910s' second rising of the Klan, which begat Jim Crow, the Leo Frank case, and that "great piece of celluloid" (Woodrow Wilson's words) from D.W. Griffith called "Birth of a Nation."

Whether we win or lose this war is irrelevant to the syndrome. The lies are the problem, and the lies remain manifest.

Americans praise the era of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson as the "Progressive Era." Yet it was filled with imperialistic wars - in the Philippines , in Mexico , in Panama , Honduras, Nicaragua, and the Domincan Republic . We felt then, as now, that we could do no wrong because our motives were pure.

But the world is bigger, and smaller, than it was a century ago. Until Americans are ready to learn the truth of their own history, the Vietnam Syndrome will dominate their lives.


Clued-in, Clueless

Clued-in is China , for the world-friendly way it handled its introduction to manned space flight. By treating space as a way to more fully integrate with the world, China is making friends instead of enemies, which these days seems to be the American way.

Clueless is the Online Journalism Review , for talking about the future of blogging with New York Times tech writer John Markoff, who doesn't blog.


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