Domain Name System (DNS) stakeholders should heed the cautionary moral from an ancient myth about straying in the strata.
It wasn’t that long ago that, during a visit home, my brother asked me, “Why are you so stuck on this Internet thing?” His direct question caused me to realize that I had never actually stopped and considered why I was investing so much time — and in such a highly visible manner — into Internet governance when I wasn’t being compensated for doing so and, in fact, was — not putting too fine of a point on it — flat broke.
Considering the source, the question demanded further reflection — and a response. After some introspection, I realized that my motivation is actually quite simple: the current DNS regime is offensive and not since the day in 7th grade when another boy smacked me across the face in the schoolyard — and four boys had to pull me off of him — have I been able to tolerate bullies. Regardless of original intent, ICANN and the system of governance it presides over have mutated into something that is unhealthy, unseemly, and unacceptable.
The practice of collecting tolls on the information superhighway has been obsolete for some time now, yet the toll booths remain. By persisting, these economic chokepoints harm the public interest by perpetuating and legitimizing the fiction that value is provided by the toll collectors. They also present an irresistible temptation to four for-profit companies and a non-profit corporation that have proven — time and again — to have a tendency for coveting and appropriating unearned and undeserved economic returns that don’t correspond to the value contributed in real terms.
An illustrative analogy might be that of companies engaged in mineral extraction. In many cases, these are monopolies that are entitled — by virtue of owning land or mineral rights — to explore and extract resources from a specific, discrete area in order to create value. However, this comparison only works up to a point.
That’s because mineral extraction enterprises may have a monopoly — and, in fact, can generate vast sums of cash — but risk to the public interest is limited because even the most resource-rich field has a shelf life. There’s a finite commodity that, at some point, will be depleted. This scarcity functions as an existential incentive for continual investment in exploration and innovation while also functioning as a defensive barrier that helps to protect the public interest from monopolistic rapacity. This is a rational — and free — system.
Legacy sponsored gTLDs, such as .COM, .NET, and .ORG, that have achieved scale, on the other hand, are an infinite digital commodity with relatively modest fixed costs and no inherent incentive for continued innovation. This results in a systemic version of addictive and co-dependent behavior as well as forming the ideal environment for corruption and profiteering that materially harms the public interest. This is a dysfunctional and, therefore, irrational system.
As others have pointed out, the legacy sponsored gTLDs were “found” bonanzas — literally, a concession granted by the United States Government and guaranteed by the full faith and credit of the United States taxpayer — that require minimal maintenance and print an endless supply of cash. Yet, a domain name registry is essentially an encrypted .TXT file that is published to a virtualized system of root and recursive servers. There is no longer any single point of failure for the Internet, such as a single authoritative root server. The “A” root is just one virtualized server cluster with 12 virtualized server cluster siblings and the so-called “hidden master” references functional operations of publishing the root zone file via Anycast — not an actual set of discrete server and network resources.
VeriSign, when it bothers to communicate at all, points to the sky and says, “because of registration fees, the sky is blue, and to keep it blue, we must raise rates.” What is left unsaid, and which very few seem to realize, is that the sky is blue today, just as it was blue yesterday and will be tomorrow — and anybody seeking to be paid to keep the sky blue is engaging in nothing more than a thinly veiled protection racket and foisting it upon an unbelievably gullible set of marks. A trained monkey — to say nothing of an AI-enabled resource — could perform the functions that VeriSign performs at an infinitesimal fraction of VeriSign’s current burn rate — which is, itself, a rounding error in an ocean of cash that is nothing more than an enormous transfer of wealth and inefficient resource allocation swaddled in a shroud of hocus-pocus.
The only consequence of putting the .COM registry out to bid would be that IBM, AT&T, or some other highly competent organization subject to the jurisdiction of the United States would operate it moving forward while charging an annual wholesale registration price of about $3 — while still turning a healthy profit. A stratified set of investors may experience modest corrective effects, and this would be essential to the imperative of restoring rational and free economics.
Many errors were made during the Internet’s infancy. Primarily among those, is that the resources that enable the DNS exist for the benefit of the public interest and, as such, should be owned by an organization that faithfully represents that trust. The tempest that punctuates debate about VeriSign’s potential ability to function as a registrar, as well as a registry, is revealed to be raging in a teapot when compared to the egregious injury inflicted upon the public interest by VeriSign’s vertical integration.
During the IANA transition, the .COM registry agreement was extended to correspond with the term of the new Root Zone Maintenance agreement between VeriSign and ICANN — which replaced what had previously existed in the Cooperative Agreement between the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and VeriSign. The primary explanation for why this extension was necessary was explicit and asserted that the .COM registry is “inextricably intertwined” with the root zone of the DNS and that they cannot be separated without destabilizing the DNS.
This is both true and untrue at the same time. That’s because the .COM registry is the root zone of the DNS — VeriSign has never maintained separate infrastructures and it has never been required to. It is this same infrastructure which has been partitioned in order to create the individual namespaces that can be leased to new gTLD operators who don’t wish to run their own infrastructure — who, instead, aspire to be brand developers, service providers, and marketing organizations. If this is untrue, then how can it be asserted that customers of VeriSign’s Back End Registry Services (BERS), along with the root zone itself, enjoy the same low latency and continual uptime as .COM when more than 90% of VeriSign’s free cash flow is used for stock buybacks?
Insult and injury in equal measure will continue to be inflicted upon the public interest until this dysfunction is resolved. One possible solution might be to separate ownership of infrastructure from the function of maintaining and operating it — a form of vertical disintegration.
The effectiveness of accountability reforms accompanying the IANA transition were predicated upon a community of stakeholders remaining vigilant and engaged to counter-balance what history and experience tell us inevitably happens when systems of governance are left insufficiently checked. This empowered community turned out not to be such an effective safeguard, and near-limitless economic resources have enabled the capture of the ICANN organization and its constituencies by its largest ratepayer — which appears intent on gaining an unrestrained range of operation in the DNS. For editing, encrypting, and publishing a .TXT file — this sad and sorry state of affairs must not continue.
As they say, past is prologue, and my next post will take cues from history — some more recent than others — to inform proposed solutions that can help set a corrected course for the future
By Greg Thomas, Managing Director of The Viking Group LLC – He is the executive director of the Responsible Consumers Alliance, a non-profit organization educating consumers of the Internet’s Domain Name Service (DNS).