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Copyright

Title: Ruling the Root
Author: Milton L. Mueller
Publisher: MIT Press
Copyright: 2002
ISBN: 0-262-13412-8
Pages: 327
Price: $32.95
Rating: 83%

Somewhere in the United States, there resides a server that contains the IP addresses for all of the dot-coms. If you need to find Microsoft.com or Amazon.com, this server is the only one that can definitively tell you where they are - and every second, three thousand computers are requesting addresses so their owners can find the sites they need. 

In a sense, the root server is not critical for a functioning internet; its contents are mirrored and cached away in alternate servers all over the world.  If it were to crash, thousands of servers would still have the data that the master root document contained... At least for awhile.  But there's one thing that no non-root server can do: 

Add a new .com address. 

This root controls every single address.  Unless the core root server approves it, about 75% of the internet will never be able to find your fantabulous www.iownthisbusiness.com site.  Adding sites to the .com database - or even adding other alternate top-level domains, like iownthisbusiness.uk or iownthisbusiness.kids - is so vital that quite literally, the entire future of the internet rests on who controls the root

Ruling the Root documents the battles and ideologies that have driven that war, from the first hosts.txt file all the way up to the current uncomfortable ICANN regime.  It tells a fascinating story - but the huge amount of players involved, combined with the lack of a narrative thread, makes it difficult to follow a lot of the time.   

Milton does a fantastic job of setting up the many core moral dilemmas of the root server: If you create two separate top-level domains for children-safe sites and porn - .kids and .xxx, as Congress has tried to do for ages - then does that make whoever assigns sites to those domains responsible for tracking content?  If John Pepsi registers Pepsi.com, does Pepsi have a case for trademark infringement - and if it does, doesn't that screw the thousands of smaller internet sites who may have legitimate claims?  Furthermore, does Pepsi have a right to sue if Consumer Reports uses the third-level domain of pepsi.consumerreports.com to discuss the health problems of Pepsi products in an unflattering light?  Does it have the right to sue if someone registers a mistyping of Pepsi, like Pepso.com, in order to drive traffic - or even to create a porn site?   

And then there are the international concerns: If you create country domains, does Great Britain have the right to control the content of all the .uk websites?  Can China cut off any website that's registered .china?  Can we create a non-Roman DNS character set that can have Japanese kanji-defined website names?   

Milton also sets up the core technical dilemma of the root server quite well; in the internet, everything is done by consensus.  It might be possible to create an alternate root server as a competitor - but if there are few domains on that server, then people are unlikely to ever access it.  If few people access it, then companies aren't likely to register domains.  The internet is full of tipping points, where no standard is legitimate in any form except by the sheer weight of de facto numbers.   

That creates a difficult problem when it comes to negotiation.  You have no other options that are truly workable, and yet every single person on the internet has a stake in the net - including, in many cases, the fiercely independent and anticapitalistic technical geniuses who helped create the root in the first place - creating a free-for-all that nobody can truly win. 

Mueller does a fine job of looking at the infrastructure historical precedents to the root server battles - the railroad gauge wars of the 19th century, the AC or DC battle of the electrical companies - showing how people have fought over standards in the past.  And yet he also shows how the very nature of the internet turns it all upside-down, giving power to groups that wouldn't have it in the real world.  

Where the book breaks down, however, is about a third of the way in, where Mueller starts discussing the core of the book - the battles.  Mueller can't be faulted for missing anything - almost every group that had any place in the negotiations is mentioned, along with several organizational charts.  But when in 1998, when the internet exploded into the public eye, the number of people who suddenly became involved became... Well, everyone.  What you wind up with is a book that at times feels like a transcript of parliamentary procedure - you have pages where seven different players are referenced so quickly that you may not be able to catch up.  The core players, like IANA, ICANN, NSI, and the unwieldy gTLD-MoU, come through clearly - but the minor players get lost in the shuffle.   

The book is unflaggingly complete, not leaving out a single detail - and it will no doubt serve as the backbone for a more casual, but much more readable, book later on.  It would have been a lot easier to follow if Mueller had focused in on the personal experiences of a few key players, following their strengths and strategies, so that the reader would be able to go, "Oh!  ICANN!  That's the organization that Diane Bell got appointed to!"  As it is, there are pages that whiz by in a blur of intricate points of negotiation, and it's difficult to figure out who wanted what. 

Still, even that is fascinating in a way - seeing the unadorned complexity of the battle for the root, naked and sisyphean, makes you truly appreciate the finesse with which ICANN was eventually created.  And Mueller goes out of his way to indicate the uncomfortable, and unique, position that ICANN occupies; it is a theoretically independent group that makes its own decisions, but thanks to the weight of consensus, if any one of the core players pulls out the entire current registry structure would collapse.  It "owns" the root server, but the Department of Commerce still has the rights to it - and any attempt to shift the power away from the US could send politicians screaming to the newspapers, claiming that "We're giving away the internet!"  ICANN must straddle big business, America and the international communities, and the small but vocal independent internet heavyweights - and it must do it flawlessly.   

In the end, the book fails short of being a gripping narrative - I found myself sliding by certain pages, particularly the ones with org charts - but it does present a fascinating picture of how people see the internet, and shows quite compellingly how delicate world-class negotiations can get.  In that, I highly recommend it for any student of world history.... Because this is history in the making, documented as thoroughly as you will ever find. 

William Steinmetz, MCSE and A+-certified, worked as a chainwide buyer for Waldenbooks for five years, picking out only the best computer books to send into malls across America.  He currently works as a freelance writer, doing reviews for Amazon.com and editing various websites.  He likes Magic: the Gathering, roleplaying, and other ridiculously geeky activities.