Some thoughts on Stuart Lynn's 'Authoritative Root' Discussion Draft
Date: Friday June 01 2001, @05:54AM
Topic: Alternate Roots

Stuart Lynn's discussion draft (" A Unique, Authoritative Root for the DNS") is prompting some, er, discussion. {See Judith Oppenheimer's posting here, for instance) Here's some more. Lynn's discussion draft proceeds from a faulty, and exceedingly dangerous, premise: that we must have a "central coordinating entity" for domain names. It's wrong now, as it has been wrong many times in the past.

June 1, 2001

To: Stuart Lynn, ICANN

From: David Post

Re: Your Discussion Draft (28 May 2001) "A Unique Authoritative Root for the DNS"

You have asked for comments concerning the ideas that you have put forward in this draft. There are any number of points that you make that are worthy of serious discussion in the Internet community; I will confine myself to a small number of comments about what I regard as the most serious and far-reaching of them.

1. From the Abstract: "Although the Internet allows a high degree of decentralized activities, coordination of the assignment function by a single authority is necessary where unique parameter values are technically required. Because of the uniqueness requirement, the content and operation of the DNS root must be coordinated by a central entity."

This is, simply and most profoundly, incorrect. The analogy - and it is as precise an analogy as one can ask for - is to language systems generally, or any naming system (e.g., the system of 'biological classification' under which species are given their proper 'names'). [If you are interested in a more comprehensive development of this argument, please click here] The rules of the English language give names to objects - table, chair, domain, computer ... There is a "uniqueness requirement" if we are all to understand one another with precision; if you call the object on which I am writing this note a "tomato," and I call it a "computer," we will not be communicating very efficiently. Confusion and chaos will reign.

But somehow we muddle through without a central coordinating entity. It's amazing, no? You and I can somehow communicate with one another - not perfectly, not without ambiguity, but reasonably effectively. All without an authoritative source of definitions! Sure, there is a great deal of confusion in this system; there are innumerable private languages, dialects, jargons, etc. out there, and navigating through them all is a complex task. But that is the price we pay (and we must pay) for the evolution of the languages we speak. Not only do we take for granted that we do not have a central coordinating entity - some ICANN-like agency that tells us which words we need and which we don't, or how conflicting uses are to be resolved - we take for granted that such an entity would be a catastrophe for the continued richness of the language itself.

If I want to set up an "alternative naming system," I do not need Stuart Lynn's permission or anyone else's; I am entirely free to do so - subject, of course, to the constraint (an only to the constraint) that my new system will only be effective to the extent I can convince other English-speakers to use it.

If you think that you have a better plan for English, I respectfully suggest you're wrong. Many people throughout history have thought they had better plans, by the way. ICANN has its predecessors. The 18th century saw a vigorous debate about the need for a central coordinating entity for natural languages - and ICANN lost that debate. The pronouncements of the Academie Francaise about "authoritative" French usage had, let us not forget, the force of law at one point in time; and well-meaning and deeply intelligent people thought we needed such a "central coordinating entity" for English as well. (John Adams among them; Adams proposed an equivalent Academy of English, to check the "natural tendency" of language to "degenerate," to the Continental Congress). History has shown the misguided nature of these efforts, and it will show the misguided nature of ICANN's efforts as well.

This is not to say that there is no room for entities who play a coordinating role; far from it. Dictionaries, learned societies, usage pundits, and all the rest have an equal claim to providing an "authoritative" source of names - and we, the users of the English language, get to decide which (if any) of them we want to obey. It's called unspoken consensus, and it works - indeed, no other system can work as well. ICANN can earn that consensus position by virtue of its stewardship of the DNS; it cannot, and it must not, simply declare itself to be playing that role and demand that we all follow its dictates.

2. From the Summary: "Put simply, deploying multiple public DNS roots would raise a very strong possibility that users of different ISPs who click on the same link on a web page could end up at different destinations, against the will of the web page designers."

"Against the will of the web page designers"? Since when is that the criterion of effective DNS performance? Let me repeat: I can call the machine I'm working on a tomato. It is my will that everyone on the planet do so as well. It would be nice, I suppose, if I could impose my will on others, but I can't, and I shouldn't be able to.

3. From Section 5 ("Experimentation"): "DNS experiments should be encouraged. Experiments, however, almost by definition have certain characteristics to avoid harm: (a) they are clearly labeled as experiments, (b) it is well understood that these experiments may end without establishing any prior claims on future directions, (c) they are appropriately coordinated within a community-based framework (such as the IETF), and (d) the experimenters commit to adapt to consensus-based standards when they emerge through the ICANN and other community-based processes."

Well. Consensus is a nice word. The notion that ICANN's process are consensus-based is a bit much, don't you think? By all means, DNS "experiments" should be subject to consensus-based processes - as they will be if ICANN leaves them alone, for no DNS experiment can "succeed" unless somehow the hundreds of thousands of Internet Service Providers out there agree to resolve names in the manner proposed. As we used to say in Brooklyn, that's the beauty part; it is inherent in the nature of language that it requires consensus to be effective.

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Compare to IDN Discussion
by lextext on Friday June 01 2001, @01:04PM (#716)
User #6 Info | http://www.lextext.com
It's interesting to contrast the discussion on internationalized domain names with the one on alternate roots. On the one hand, Lynn comes out strongly against alternate naming schemes in his recent discussion draft, but the just-released report from the Board's IDN working group at least appears to approach multilinguals with an open mind, even though some of the same problems exist. The other benefit of the IDN survey is that numerous views, some vigorously conflicting, were incorporated into the status report.

One item in the IDN survey submissions particularly stood out:

John Klensin observed that ICANN should "protect the Internet against abuses of the DNS that create the risk of damage to existing, conforming and deployed software, or of ambiguous or non-unique naming. The risks in those areas of ill-defined testbeds, "just send 8" strategies, encouragement of multilingual cybersquatting, etc., are considerable and have been identified repeatedly to ICANN. The solution is to start warning the relevant domains of the impact, with the potential of starting a redelegation process if they continue to encourage these efforts. If, as I suspect is the case, ICANN is effectively powerless to do this, then admit that and get out of this area until the various issues sort themselves out in the marketplace." (emphasis added)

That last sentence might be worth repeating for the alternate root discussions.

-- Bret
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Re: Some thoughts on Stuart Lynn's 'Authoritative
by craig.mctaggart@utor (craig_mctaggart canada com) on Wednesday June 06 2001, @05:42AM (#750)
User #671 Info | http://www.innovationlaw.org/cm/index.htm
Rather than being "simply and most profoundly incorrect", Dr. Lynn's statement that "coordination of the assignment function by a single authority is necessary where unique parameter values are technically required" is fundamentally correct.

Professor Post's comment, as well as many of his published works, do not recognize the inherently *binary* nature of computing and computer networking. Things are either on or off. In or out. 1 or 0. Computers are maddeningly unforgiving of ambiguity and diversity - two of the hallmarks of non-computer languages.

Arguments which apply in environments of diversity are inapplicable to environments of uniformity. You may wish to use a symbol other than the ampersand in email addresses, but your email won't get far. No one can tell you that you can't do so - you are completely at liberty to do so. This is good news for libertarians. But if you want to be heard via Internet email, you use that darned old constrictive, oppressive ampersand. The text comprising your message can be diverse. The codes in the header can't.

It is essential in Internet discourse to distinguish between the many layers which comprise networks, and similarly distinguish the kinds of arguments that apply at different layers. Professor Post's arguments relating to language may be appropriate at the content layer, where diversity is the rule, but not at the protocol layer, where uniformity is the rule.

If you don't believe Dr. Lynn, listen to the series of heavy-duty experts (e.g., John Klensin) who supported the unique root idea (in the abstract, at least) during the open mic segment of the discussion of Dr. Lynn's paper on Sunday June 3 in Stockholm. The majority of speakers supported it, in fact, contrary to the many who apparently disagreed in online comments submitted. I'm serious - listen to the feed.

Let's try to recognize that if we want one network that works everywhere, we need uniformity at some layers. Other networks, using other roots, are always possible, but by definition have less reach than this amazing network that we all use and love, which Dr. Lynn accurately describes as "the public Internet".

Craig McTaggart
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Re: Some thoughts on Stuart Lynn's 'Authoritative
by DavidP on Saturday June 02 2001, @04:45PM (#725)
User #25 Info | http://www.davidpost.com/
Well, I'm not embarrassed -- not yet, anyway. One of my mistakes is that I confuse a "protocol" with a "language" -- perhaps Anonymous could return and tell me what the difference is (and how it is relevant to this discussion)?
David
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