Chinese operators hope to standardize a segmented Internet

But their efforts will be fruitless, according to DNS experts

A technology draft written by employees at China Mobile and China Telecom and submitted to the Internet Engineering Task Force describes how the Internet could be split into several parts using the Domain Name System and in the process give countries more control over their own segment of the network.

The DNS is one of the key building blocks of the Internet. Its most important task is translating IP (Internet Protocol) addresses to host names, which is done by a distributed system based on one unique root that is used all over the world.

The technology is developed by the IETF, on whose website the Chinese "DNS Extension for Autonomous Internet" draft is available for viewing.

Today, China blocks Internet access to some foreign websites. The goal outlined by the new document is to make it easier and cheaper for countries to create independent root DNS servers and realize Internet autonomy. Today, that is both costly and technically difficult, according to the draft.

"When you read the document it very much comes across as a way to severely segment the Internet," said Patrik Wallström, CEO at OpenDNSSEC AB, a not-for-profit company with the mission to facilitate the deployment of DNSSEC, which is used to secure DNS.

If the draft is adopted it would give, for example, China full control of content on the Internet for users in the country as well as how it can be accessed and by whom, Wallström said.

The reason for adopting the draft into a standard architecture would not be just for control, according to the authors. The current central architecture of DNS can't keep up with the fast development of Internet, they say.

That argument doesn't ring true, according to Jakob Schlyter, a DNS expert at Swedish consultancy Kirei.

"When you say something like that you have to back it up with some facts, which I don't think they have ... the DNS root has an extreme overcapacity," said Schlyter.

However, the chances of the draft being adopted is very remote, according to both Wallström and Schlyter.

Anyone can individually submit an Internet draft to the IETF. But since the intended goal with the Chinese document is standardization, it first has to be picked up by one of the IETF's working groups, and that isn't going to happen, Wallström said.

"It is a controversial subject, and the IETF works on standards that, in principle, are for the global Internet," said Wallström.

The idea of moving away from a central DNS root also goes against the IAB's (Internet Architecture Board's) technical comment from 2000, detailing the need for a unique DNS root to ensure the future of the Internet, according to Wallström. The comment came after several alternative roots came into existence during the nineties, he said.

"The Chinese draft would be a return to that," said Wallström.

Schlyter is equally convinced that nothing will become of the draft.

"There is an extremely small risk of it going anywhere. I say risk because I am proponent of a common namespace, and all that comes with that," said Schlyter.

Because of the minuscule chance of the draft ever becoming a standard, the underlying reason for publishing it may be something altogether different, according to Wallström.

"This is just me speculating, but with the arrival new generic top-level domains (gTLDs) a document like this one can be published to put more pressure on ICANN with the aim of maybe even splitting the organization into different parts where China has more power," Wallström said.

Today, ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), which is also a big proponent of a unique root, coordinates the DNS as well as a whole host of other Internet-related components. These were originally performed under a U.S. government contract.

Send news tips and comments to mikael_ricknas@idg.com

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Mikael Ricknäs

IDG News Service
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