The Root of the Problem

Internet Map

An interesting story appeared recently from Nancy Scola at The Atlantic on a little-known event in Internet history (yes, it was only 14 years ago, but in Internet Time, history started yesterday!) Scola recounts the tale of Eugene Kashpureff and “AlterNIC.” Annoyed by the dominance of the Internet by Establishment types, Kashpureff created an an alternative Domain Name System (DNS) root server (which determine the resolution of domain names into Internet addresses) in 1995. This had worrisome implications for those who wanted to maintain the singularity of the Internet. As Scola puts it:

Splintering DNS forks the Internet so that Internet users might never know where to go to get domains, or what they might get. If they connected to some DNS directories, they might enter and get Pepsi. Chaos could ensue.

But simply setting up an alternative DNS mapping makes no difference unless you convince people to actually use it. What was alarming about Kashpureff is that for several multi-day periods in the summer of 1997 he used a hack to divert traffic intended for the “official” InterNIC website to his own (Of course this only affected that one domain name, not every domain that users tried to reach; Kashpureff did not trick users into his alternative Internet wholesale). Scola makes this more than a curious anecdote by relating it to present-day concerns about government intervention in the Internet, particularly the recently proposed Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA), which would give the U.S. government the power to force the de-listing of domains deemed to be incorrigible copyright violators:

If COICA is enacted, writes [the Center for Democracy and Technology] in its analysis, the bill would mark "a significant step towards the balkanization of the Internet." What happens, suggests [networking expert Paul] Vixie, when Bollywood decides that it wants the same power to demand domain takedowns as Hollywood seems to have?

This is certainly a worrisome possibility (and I'm reminded by Lawrence Lessig's observation that between 1995 and 2005 Congress passed 24 bills intended to reduce IP piracy but only 1 bill to reduce spam, though the total economic cost of the former is estimated to be a fraction of the latter). What piques my interest as a historian, however, is the fact that despite the Internet's reputation (then and now) as the ultimate force for individual liberty, there still were (and are) some vexed by its monopolistic impurities. At any rate, it seems clear that the Internet is not (and never has been) a pure anarchy. As Mitch Kapor is supposed to have said, "Inside every working anarchy, there's an Old Boy Network." How, then, did the Internet's creators and their successors come to accept the particular compromises that they have between democratic and elite governance?