In the murky world of Internet governance, few organizations play as critical a role as the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA).
IANA is ultimately responsible for assigning Internet addresses throughout the world. It is IANA that assigns all top-level domains. And it is IANA that doles out IP numbers to registries, which in turn issue them to Internet service providers and users.
The only problem is that, for all practical purposes, IANA does not exist. It does not have an official charter, bank account or even a staff.
It is simply a nifty term some one coined a decade ago to describe various duties performed by Jon Postel, a researcher at the University of Southern California's (USC) Information Sciences Institute (ISI) and one of the Internet's inventors.
For years, Postel has quietly made sure every Internet protocol has a unique identifier - and for years, no one saw the need to establish anything more formal.
That is, until now. Suddenly, as businesses have begun battling over domain names and the right to sell Internet addresses, Postel has been hit with lawsuits and controversy. For the first time, people are openly challenging his legal authority.
"No one wanted to talk to me yesterday," said Postel, sighing during a telephone interview last week. "Now I've got nine messages waiting from reporters."
The biggest headache might be the lawsuit. Image Online Design (IOD), a San Luis Obispo, Calif.-based Web design firm trying to get into the Internet registration business, has sued IANA and Postel for conspiring to block it from selling .web domain names.
Sources said Postel's lawyers will likely argue that IANA is simply a creature of the Department of Defense, which has traditionally funded the work Postel does as an ISI staff member.
But if that is the case, IOD attorney William Walter contends IANA does not have any business signing international agreements with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) to realign the domain name registration system.
IANA, along with the Internet Society, are the main forces be hind the International Ad Hoc Committee's (IAHC) plan to add seven more domain names, including .web, and as many as 28 new registries under the umbrella of ITU.
"We've asked them time and again to tell us the source of their authority, and they won't," said Walter, who this week will step into Superior Court in San Luis Obispo on IOD's behalf against IANA and IAHC.
Postel's attorneys are expected to ask to move the case to Los Angeles, closer to where Postel lives; Walter said IOD will agree in order to expedite the lawsuit.
Meanwhile, Network Solutions, Inc. the company that registers the .com, .org and .edu addresses, has started grumbling about the amount of money funneled into ISI on Postel's demand.
The Defense Department said it gave IANA $450,000 in late 1995 and has given it millions over the years. NSI said it pays Postel $240,000 a year to manage the .us domain, a country specific code that Postel for some reason registered under his name and ISI's.
"Why he did that was never ex plained," said Tony Rutkowski, a former executive director of the Internet Society and now a strong advocate for reform. "But it was a revenue opportunity for ISI."
Postel denied anything sinister was involved. He said the university simply "volunteered" to handle the domain in 1986 and has been doing so ever since. The money, he said, just covers expenses.
Wondering about IANA
Yet even more importantly, as the Internet Society and other organizations establish more formal institutions for running the 'Net, observers are also starting to wonder about IANA. Under proposals to create a new American Registry of Internet Numbers and the Council of Registries, IANA (meaning Postel) would indefinitely remain the ultimate authority.
"The single point of authority is the IANA ... Dr. Jon Postel," said Don Telage, NSI president. "This has worked well, but we need to rethink the situation."
With the growing controversy over Internet domains, Telage called for a transition to a more "stable structure" and a clear "legal authority."
Though reluctant to talk about the details, Postel confirmed he is finally talking to USC, the Defense Department, registries and Internet organizations about turning IANA into a more formal organization. He said he started the work in March, when the Defense Department indicated it planned to stop funding IANA. He hopes to complete it by June.
In the meantime, Postel said he did not want to reveal too many details for fear of opening up the process to public debate. "You can have too many cooks stirring the broth."
Perhaps the strangest wrinkle to the controversy is how poorly even Internet insiders understand IANA. For instance, Don Heath, president of the Internet Society, described it as an instrument of the Internet Architecture Board (IAB), which oversees the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), and said it is funded by the National Science Foundation.
Postel said Heath is wrong on both counts, though Postel does sit in on IAB meetings because of his numbering duties.
A history lesson
To truly understand IANA, Postel said it is important to consider how the Internet evolved - going back to the beginning of the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANet) in 1969.
At the time, the 'Net was run by a collegial group of researchers and funded by the Defense Department. Postel even went to the same high school as Vinton Cerf, who created TCP, and another Interet pioneer, Steve Crocker.
At the age of just 25, Postel got involved in running the Network Management Center, which conducted performance tests and analysis on the earliest roots of ARPANet. Since then, Postel has taken on more duties and become one of the most venerated members of the Internet elite.
He has been the request for comment (RFC) editor for a quarter of a century. He was the one who made sure every segment of the net work had a unique identifier. In fact, he is mentioned at least 17 times in a book on the origins of the Internet: Where the Wizards Sleep.
"IANA is just a name we invented in the '80s to describe this work," said Postel, who sports a long white beard, ponytail and sandals.
Postel said all the money, including the NSI and Defense Department funds, actually flows through USC's ISI. IANA does not even have a bank account.
Nor does it have a formal staff or members. Postel said other ISI employees help out as needed, adding up to the equivalent of 4.25 full-time workers. But no one has a business card or 'badge that says IANA."
Although Postel is ostensibly in charge of all domain names and IP numbers, he says these duties do not take much time. Now and then, he simply allocates a new block of IP numbers to a registry or helps registries with special requests. But the registries actually handle all the day-to-day details on their own.
What takes the time, he said, is numbering other IETF protocols, such as extensions, so each one is uniquely identified. It is not glamorous, but it is important work. The Defense Department grant also covered his work as RFC editor - acting as the final check before publishing any IETF standards.
IANA probably got the most attention, however, for kicking off the IAHC process. Postel circulated a draft proposal last year and then urged the Internet Society to appoint a committee to work out the details. He has backed the recommendations, and may travel to Geneva later this month for a formal signing ceremony. Postel considers the .us domain a different matter. That is handled as a subcontract under the NSI's cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation to register domain names. The agreeement runs out next year.
"There's a little confusion surrounding that," he said. "That's separate from IANA."
But in March, Postel said the Defense Department decided to stop funding the work. The department said the Internet could no longer be considered a university re search project and qualify for its grant program.
What lies ahead
So Postel said he is scrambling to raise a half-million dollars a year from other sources. He said other U.S. government agencies will likely pitch in. He is talking to the European registry RIPE and other IP number registries about pitching in $50,000 a year.
And he is also busy working on setting up a more formal organization but avoided getting into details.
"We're going through a big transition," he said, and "we don't know how this will turn out. I don't feel comfortable talking about it."
But he acknowledged that there will have to be some sort of oversight board and process for selecting his eventual replacement.
"I've done it for all these years," he said, "but I can't do it forever."
In the meantime, he assured Internet users that they can trust that the process is working. All the money, he said, has been audited by both the U.S. government and the university.
"Certainly, as we come up with a new structure, it will be published," he said. Currently, IANA's Web site has just the barest details about IANA.
And some people are having a hard time telling the difference between IANA and Jon Postel.
At a recent IETF party in Memphis, Tenn., for instance, network wonks got together to trade encryption keys. As each person's code was read, IETFers stood up to confirm it was theirs.
Halfway through the social, someone started reading IANA's key, and Postel stood up. The IETFer then read the IANA staff key, and Postel said it was correct. Finally, the group got to Postel's key, and he confirmed it, as well.
"Hey," someone shouted, "I thought you were named IANA."
Postel smiled, then said he was served with lawsuits under both names.