Who runs the Internet anyway?

Public and private groups grapple with regulatory issues

From its origins as an academic and military network funded by the U.S. government, the Internet has evolved into a global network owned and managed by private-sector vendors, end-users, and governments and regulated by a multitude of government-sanctioned bodies and technical committees. In other words, there is no single entity “in charge.” The Internet is a big group effort, the ultimate “coalition of the willing.”

Furthermore, there seems to be little agreement about how decisions should be made about the Internet’s future, including decisions about putting more intelligence and filtering into the Internet’s core or about adopting enhanced end-to-end protocols and standards.

“There’s this balance between public trust and support for the core and making sure everything gets paid for,” says Vint Cerf, senior vice president of technology strategy for MCI. “What goes in the Net really should be the community deciding what is going to be standard, otherwise you get balkanization, and the network will suffer. The biggest concern I have is that people will not continue to cooperate with each other.”

But some think the consensus process may be holding back the Internet. “It’s a problem that nobody’s in charge of it,” says Jeff Wacker, CTO of EDS’s Global Industry Groups. “It’s creating a dampening effect of what the Internet could be. … ‘Anything goes’ is a very dangerous way of living.”

VeriSign CEO Stratton Sclavos sees a changing of the guard under way as the Internet continues to mature into a more commercially driven enterprise. “The people who did the early network work, those people were great stewards in those first two decades and deserve the recognition and reward,” he says. “But there comes a time, in my opinion, when the network becomes so critical to business and the economy that you need to apply commercial best practices.”

And government’s role? “I’m not sure I have a good answer for that,” Sclavos says. “And we need to define the role of international governments,” he adds, claiming that U.S.-created organizations such as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) have not succeeded in becoming truly international bodies because most foreign countries want to keep control over their own DNSes. Indeed, a preliminary proposal was recently floated by a number of countries that suggested the United Nations-affiliated International Telecommunication Union take over some of ICANN’s regulatory responsibilities.

As the debate continues about the Internet’s development road map, new networks are forming in an attempt to deploy more advanced capabilities faster while still interconnecting on a least-common-denominator basis with today’s Internet. China’s Cernet network, for example, is building out connections to 320 million people at 900 universities in China, for which it must deploy the IPv6 addressing protocol because under the current IPv4 scheme the country is limited to only 16 million addresses. Other advanced international networks include SURFnet in the Netherlands; SuperJANET in the United Kingdom, and GEANT in the rest of Europe.

In the United States, a joint effort of 200 leading research institutions and 60 corporations called Internet2 is attempting to build out a higher-performance network through fast deployment of advanced protocols such as multicasting and IPv6 that have already been approved by standards bodies such as the Internet Engineering Task Force. But rather than ultimately diverging from the public Internet’s development road map, Internet2 is simply trying to be an advance scout, according to Doug Van Houweling, Internet2’s CEO. “Sticking with a shared platform that works for everyone is going to provide us all a lot more opportunity than if we start balkanizing,” he says.

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