The Internet is made with carrots, not sticks

The Internet is at once global and local. The nature of internetworking means that the global Internet is built only of other networks. There is a small but key point of coordination on the Internet, called the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA).

The U.S. Department of Commerce National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) recently received a proposal to change the stewardship of IANA. This proposal is good for the Internet, the companies and organizations that depend on it and the people who use it. To understand why this is so, it is helpful to understand a bit about the coordination points, and why they have worked well so far.

The Internet is a radically distributed system: Almost all of the technical operation is undertaken without any direct coordination with anyone, performed by an enormous number of independent operators. This means that interoperation across networks is fundamentally voluntary. In your network, you make your rules, and there is no stick (outside of national law) to make you interoperate with others. Instead, there is only the carrot: if you interoperate, you get the benefits of that interoperation.

For example, on the Internet we use names from the Domain Name System (DNS), like “” But the DNS is also a completely distributed system. It consists of units called zones, operated mostly independently from one another. Any place there is a dot (“.”) in a DNS name, there can be (but need not be) a new zone. 

When it comes to the Internet, carrots will beat sticks every time.

This makes it possible for the DNS to grow with the Internet: You don’t need a single, large bureaucracy running the whole thing. Rather, lots of different actors behave independently without a great deal of central coordination, permitting the whole thing to work better than a system that is all run by one organization. This is the near-magic that is the functioning of the Internet today.

It turns out that the magic is made a little easier with a minimal amount of central coordination. IANA’s job is that minimal coordination. In principle, we could do this some other way, but this is how we do it now. It has worked well for nearly 30 years, as the Internet has grown from connecting a few thousand devices to the billions it connects today.

ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, has operated IANA for the past 18 years because the networks that make up the Internet have agreed that it should play that role, not because any outside authority required that it do so.

Here’s what IANA does.

First, to allow data packets to go from one network to another, it’s necessary to be able to tell one another which network you’re operating. To make that work, when you say, “I’m running this network,” everyone else needs to know what “this network” means. The way we do that is to use a common set of numbers to represent the networks; to use a common set of numbers, it is convenient to maintain a starting-point list, called a registry. IANA maintains that registry.

Second, to make it easy for the various networks to connect to one another reliably, they can use common mechanisms configured in a particular way. The mechanisms are called “protocols,” and it is convenient to have a single place to look up the configuration settings. Different people decide what the settings need to be for different protocols, but everyone writes them down in a single place. Keeping those lists of settings — the protocol parameters — is another IANA job.

You don’t need a single, large bureaucracy running the whole thing.

Finally, names that are assigned on one network won’t be any use to those connected to other networks unless the other network users know how to get to those names. To know how to do that, it is convenient to have a place to start looking. Mathematically, a way to do that (and one that is not too hard to implement in computers) is a tree structure, which by definition starts from a common root. We do this today in the Domain Name System (DNS).

Maintaining the registry of the common root (also known as the “root zone”) is IANA’s job. (This job turns out to be special because the policy source for the root zone turns out to be ICANN, which also operates IANA. The other two registry types have well-defined sources of policy for how they ought to be maintained, as well. Regional Internet Registries [RIRs] set the policies for numbers and the Internet Engineering Task Force [IETF] sets the policies for protocols.)

The DNS attracts a lot of attention, in part, because nearly every Internet user comes across these names when they use the web or email. But notice that the DNS itself is a matter of convenience. We could have other naming systems on the Internet. There are peer-to-peer systems that have already been invented and are in fact deployed that do not depend on DNS. There are alternatives that have been proposed but turn out, for practical purposes, to depend on the DNS anyway, even though they don’t need to do so. There are lots of possible ways to name things. DNS with a common root is what got us this far — though a system could emerge to replace DNS in the future.

Now, because of the nature of the Internet, which relies on all those interconnected networks voluntarily interoperating, the convenience of centralization is a trade-off. The central point of control that IANA provides is traded for the advantages of simplicity in protocol design, implementation and operation.

But if the central control is too great — if, for instance, someone starts trying to impose controls down through the DNS tree, or starts trying to demand strict interconnection regimes along geopolitical lines or whatever — then all the independent networks that are now gaining the benefit of easy interoperation will get less “carrot” than they do today.

The Internet scales the way it does because the overwhelming majority of interconnections among the largest Internet service providers (ISPs) are done with a handshake, without the overhead of money and contracts getting in the way. If the world decides to make that hard, it changes the business models of all the ISPs.

Similarly, part of the reason DNS scales so well is because the coordination ends at a delegation point: the root zone delegates “.org” to Public Interest Registry, and after that has basically nothing to say about what happens inside the .org zone. Similarly, Public Interest Registry delegates to me, and they don’t have anything to say about what I do in my zone.

The plan presented to the NTIA preserves how — and why — the Internet works. We should resist proposals that could change the ground rules that allow networks to voluntarily coordinate to form the Internet. When it comes to the Internet, carrots will beat sticks every time.