Internet Governance History (written 2010)

Excerpts from A Brief History of the Internet (prepared for Diplo Foundation by Ian Peter, 2010)





Much like the Internet itself, internet governance evolved as needs had to be met, and began to involve stakeholders as they started to make their presence felt.


In the beginning, Internet governance was just the technical community, and the only real issue was development and adoption of technical standards.


And because they figure prominently in early internet governance arrangements, a good place to start is the standards groups. Here, although this is not an exhaustive list, we need to look at the International Telceommunications Union (ITU), the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).


The Standards bodies


The oldest of the standards bodies is ITU, founded in 1865.  Given that telephony infrastructure is what the Internet was built on, and continues to play a key role in internet service provision, many ITU standards are important to internet operation. The ITU originally represented countries, who originally owned telecommunications infrastructure in most countries, but later more industry presence became necessary as telecommunications deregulation and privatisation occurred in most countries.


But the Internet technical community wanted something less bureaucratic and more attuned to their needs. It should be remembered that  most telecommunications companies were not major players in the emerging Internet. They became more involved from 1990 on, as a commercial Internet got underway.

To involve the emerging Internet technical community, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) was founded in 1986.  IETF  evolved from the INWG (International Networking Group, founded 1972), and describes itself as “a loosely self-organized group of people who contribute to the engineering and evolution of Internet technologies specifications”. The IETF is unusual in that it is not a corporation and has no board of directors, no members, and no dues.


Associated with, and preceding the IETF in some cases, are a number of bodies. An early development in 1979 was the Internet Configuration Control Board, (ICCB) which from 1984 underwent a number of name changes but kept the acronym “IAB”  Internet Advisory Board, Internet Activities Board, and then Internet Architecture Board. IAB oversees IETF, and also the Internet Research Task Force (IRTF) and the RFC Editor. The latter is an interesting early development dating right back to 1969 when Steve Crocker developed the First Request for Comments (RFC01). This format for discussion and development of Internet standards has remained to this day in  IETF.


The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is the third “standards body”, and effectively addresses issues with the World Wide Web architecture. It separated from IETF in 1994 as it believed IETF to be incapable of dealing with its particular range of issues. W3C has been particularly active on internet accessibility issues and a range of standards to do with the WWW.


IANA and the DNS


But other administrative needs began to emerge as the Internet grew. And we should start our history here with the mother of all systems, the world’s largest database, the Domain Name System or DNS.

Each host on the Internet has a range of IP (or Internet protocol) numbers. The Domain name system (DNS) maps the numbers to names of hosts or websites (eg, Thus, when a user enters a name, the Internet knows which number to send the query to by looking up the DNS database.

The DNS was introduced in 1984, several years before commercial traffic was able to be part of the Internet.

Associated with the DNS is the WHOIS database, which stores details of the names and addresses of domain owners and technical contacts. It was named after a UNIX operating system command (whois) which gave basic details about system users. Whois was established essentially to allow technical managers of hosts to contact their peers.  Like so much of the early Internet infrastructure, the whois database used the American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII). ASCII doesn’t accommodate non English character sets well, thus setting into play a number of technical issues still being resolved in 2010 to allow a truly multilingual internet.

From the late 1980s and the person most responsible for major  administrative functions in the developing Internet was Jon Postel.

Postel originally looked after names and numbers, and basically is responsible for the early administration of the DNS – or domain name system. It is the DNS adminstration which evolved into ICANN – but the story of how it got there is a fascinating one.  Working from the Information Science Institute (ISI) at the University of South California (USC). Postel was also responsible for allocating blocks of IP addresses to the newly developing  Regional Internet Registries (RIRs), management of domain names and top level generic and country domains, and also , under the auspices of IANA, a system for co-ordinating the Internets root servers (more on these later as well!)

As mentioned before, originally Postel administered the Domain Name System (DNS) himself. But as it became a bit too large, in 1988 he formed the IANA (Internet Assigned Numbers Authority Originally a one person organisation, it soon became clear that something more stable and internationally acceptable was needed.


ICANN evolution


What followed was quite intriguing and involved a group of players who are still involved in  Internet governance  discussions in 2010. To quote Wolfgang Kleinwachter (2009)[i],


His (Postel”s)  first idea was to use the “Internet Society” (ISOC), established in 1992, as an umbrella organization. In 1994 he proposed adding 150 new generic Top Level Domains (gTLDs) to the existing Domain Name System consisting of seven gTLDs[7] and 243 ccTLDs in 1994.

Postel’s initiative was not co-ordinated with the US Department of Commerce. Network Solutions Inc. (NSI), a private company based in Herndon/Virginia which managed .com, .net, and .org as well as the A Root Server, was rather angry about such an initiative. In 1992 NSI had been given a contract by the DOC to be the sole domain name registrar for the three gTLDs .com, .net and .org. Based on such a monopoly position NSI saw in the emerging domain name market a grandiose new business opportunity. Consequently, NSI opposed the Postel plan to introduce 150 competitive gTLDs at this early stage in the development of a global domain name market. NSI lobbied the US Congress and the DOC, which finally intervened with Postel’s plan and stopped the handover of the DNS management to ISOC and the introduction of 150 new gTLDs.


Postel’s frustration about this governmental intervention prompted him to look for other options. He approached the Geneva based International Telecommunication Union (ITU)…… Postel’s idea was to create a new form of public-private partnership for Internet Governance by bringing technical organizations, private sector institutions and intergovernmental organizations together, launching a bottom-up policy development process and creating a new form of oversight body for the management of some of the key Internet resources. Postel pushed for the establishment of an “Interim Ad Hoc Committee” (IAHC) which was formed in summer 1996”.


The members of the IAHC were ISOC and Postel’s IANA, the Internet Architecture Board (IAB), the International Trademark Association (INTA), the ITU and the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO).  In 1997 they signed an MOU proposing a new Geneva based structure.


The US Government was unhappy about this, and within a few weeks began a process to ensure that this plan did not eventuate. Under the Clinton administration, they began a process to establish an alternative mechanism for DNS management, and its successive Green Paper and White Paper outlined a new organization.


Again quoting Kleinwachter,


“ The European Union supported in principle the idea of privatizing the DNS. But it criticized the US centric approach of the Green Paper. In a rather critical comment about the Green Paper the European Commission wrote: “The European Union and its Member States would wish to emphasize our concern that the future management of the Internet should reflect the fact that it is already a global communication medium and the subject of valid international interests.


Ira Magaziner, US President Clinton’s Internet adviser and the main architect of what later became ICANN, replied in a hearing before the US Congress to the European criticism: “The purpose of the Commerce Department proposal is to improve the technical management of the DNS only. The Green Paper does not propose a monolithic Internet Governance system. Frankly we doubt that the Internet should be governed by a single body or plan.”


Jon Postel again changed his plans and took active part in the debate which led to a “White Paper”, published in June 1998 by the US Department of Commerce.” [ii]


The US Government prevailed, and thus ICANN was born.- with a MOU with the US Government Department of Commerce which included in part “ICANN will perform other IANA functions as needed upon request of DOC”. Thus ICANN became a corporation under US law, with a contract to operate from the US government, despite concerns of many stakeholders.


Jon  Postel unfortunately died  in 1998,  just a dew days before ICANN was formally established,


ICANN originally claimed its mission to be technical co-ordination. However, because of the eccentricities and incomplete nature of Internet governance structures, ICANN has consistently worked in areas that cannot be regarded as technical co-ordination.


For instance, in 1999 it succeeded in establishing a Uniform Dispute Resolutions Policy (UDRP) for the top level domains; hardly a technical co-ordination task, but certainly a useful one for development of the new media.


Also there is the role of ICANN in creating a competitive environment in DNS, part of its contract with US Department of Commerce. This would normally be seen as a regulatory body’s responsibilities, not a technical co-ordination task.


Public policy matters where ICANN is active include intellectual property issues and security. Public policy matters where ICANN is not active include spam and consumer protection. The logic of involvement and non-involvement in various issues is not easy to follow except from a historical perspective.


2009 saw another important milestone in Internet governance, in that the long standing Joint Project Agreement (JPA) beween ICANN and the US Government was terminated. However, the US control of the root zone remains, and is the subject of some concerns with the international community.


ICANN related bodies

It is important to realize that ICANN doesn’t control everything in Internet technical co-ordination. An interesting history associated with the early growth of the Internet led to a number of other quite independent structures being established. These include:


  • Country domain administrators, who in many countries were early technical volunteers who have no formal relationship with national governments. In some developing countries, country administrators are located overseas and are not national citizens. Although a form of techno neo-colonialism remains in the administration of some country domains, and some hostility to co-operation with government authorities exists in others, most country domains are now forming appropriate locally defined relationships with their governments and their local constituencies.
  • Regional Internet Registries (RIRs) such as APNIC (Asia Pacific) and RIPE (Europe), which were set up before the ICANN/US Government contract was in place and retain substantial independence while administering the IP numbering system.
  • Root server operators, many of them volunteers. The 13 root servers (plus a number of subsidiary server clusters) are central to the way the Internet finds addresses (eg. Dot com, or dot cn for China etc. The central root server is administered by Verisign Ltd, and any changes need the approval of the US Dept of Commerce, usually on a recommendation from ICANN.  This authority is the centre of some contention among the international community. The Root servers are governed by the Root Server System Advisory Committee (RSSAC), not ICANN, under supervision by the US Government.


ICANN has a series of relationships with these separate bodies.


WSIS and the rise of IGF

The early networkers didn’t see much of a role for governments – but as the Internet grew, it became clear that governmental involvement was necessary, and that, given the transboundary nature of the Internet, global co-operation was a necessary component of governmental involvement. Out of these concerns grew the Internet Governance Forum.


The concerns were first expressed in the lead up to the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), during which internet governance became a major issue. At the first WSIS meeting in Geneva in 2003, this subject was discussed, and from these discussions a Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) was formed to discuss possible next steps and report back to the Tunis WSIS summit in 2005.


Not all matters were able to be resolved here, and the US Government in particular refused to countenance any changes to its unilateral control of the Internet’s root zone. However, there was agreement to form an Internet Governance Forum for a period of five years. IGF held its first forum in Greece in 2006, and in subsequent years in.Rio de Janiero (Brazil), Hyderabad (India), Sharm el Sheikh (Egypt) and Vilnius (Lithuania).  As this lesson is being written in 2010, the future of IGF after its initial five year period is under discussion, but there is widespread support for its continuance.


What is clear is that internet governance is still evolving – just as the Internet itself is. Issues such as cybercrime, copyright, privacy and national sovereignty were not on the minds of the Internet pioneers – but in the second decade of the 21st century these are beginning to loom large as new issues that need to be addressed more comprehensively. The Internet and the world are changing, and the rich history of the Internet certainly has some more chapters to be written in the future!


I trust you have enjoyed and gained from this short introduction to internet history.


References and further reading

[i] Wolfgang Kleinwachter, 2009, History of Internet Governance, (accessed April 2010)


[ii] Wolfgang Kleinwachter, 2009, History of Internet Governance, (accessed April 2010)


Milton Mueller, 2002, Ruling the Root, MIT Press



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