The Politics of Internet Control

Who Has Control?


The Internet is controlled by what is known as ‘root authority’, which technically speaking is the authority over the naming and numbering system, stored within a single file. This file and ‘root authority’ is the power to control domain names and numbers throughout the Internet and was controlled for ten years by a man named Jon Postel who single-handidly took charge of the naming and numbering system. This root authority forms the spine of the Internet and for users to be able to communicate online each and every computer needs a unique Internet address, which simply looks like a set of numbers. However, the most attention related to ‘root authority’ was focused on ‘domain names’, the worldwide unique name that is associated with an Internet address.

Jon Postel had this authority and to many was seen as the ‘God of the Internet’, however on the 1st January, 1998 a new era of Internet governance was set to begin. The US handed over partial control of ‘root authority’ with the help of the Defense Department, to a company named Network Solutions.

This was a commercial company looking to make money out of the Internet, the complete opposite of the Internet’s founding vision. Postel decided it was time to act and after side-stepping Network Solutions he had ‘root authority’ transferred to his computer and therefore changing which computer was recognised as the root, worldwide. This was a bold statement and one, which made it very clear that the most critical aspects of the naming and numbering authority still remained with the founders of the Internet.

This caused a monumental split of the Internet into two massive networks, with four servers recognised by the US government as root authority, consisting of NASA, Network Solutions, the US military and the Ballistics Research Lab and the rest of the servers by Postel’s computer. However, with the new era of Internet governance in place the US government soon threatened Postel with legal force, where he had no choice but to restore full ‘root authority’ back to the servers under government control. Where ‘root authority’ and ultimately control of the Internet remains to this day.

The Internet started out as a pilot model for self-governing systems that had the capabilities to flourish without any respect to geography or territorial borders. It was designed to allow like-minded users to join virtual communities that governed themselves without regard to top-down coercive structures of territorial governmental systems.

However, as highlighted in this chapter, the importance of geography and borders are second to none and are what allow governments to rule the Net within their own borders, with complete control of the Internet remaining with the US government who maintain ‘root authority’. One issue that can’t be overlooked however, is not just nations having the power to shape the architecture of the Internet in different ways, but that the US, China and Europe are all using their powers of coercion to form different versions of what the Internet should be.

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