The Domain Name System, which helps users find their way across the Internet by substituting user-friendly names for numerical computer addresses, has performed well, but technical and political challenges must be met for the system to continue to operate effectively, says a new report from the National Academies' National Research Council.
Security must be heightened and steps taken to counter attempts to use the system to control other aspects of the Internet, a task for which it was not designed and is not suitable, said the committee that wrote the report.
It added that the Domain Name System should continue to be administered by a nongovernmental body - not turned over to an intergovernmental organization, as has been suggested by some nations and international agencies.
Currently, the Domain Name System is managed by both the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and the U.S. Department of Commerce under an agreement that calls for the transfer of full responsibility to ICANN in 2006 if the organization is able to fulfill an agreed-upon set of conditions.
Before turning over stewardship, the department should seek ways to protect ICANN from undue commercial and political pressures and to provide oversight of ICANN's performance, the report says.
ICANN currently has limited authority over critical elements of the Domain Name System: the generic global top-level domains such as ".com," whose use is open to anyone, and ".museum," whose use is restricted to the museum community; the country code top-level domains that are assigned to specific countries or regions, such as ".uk" for the United Kingdom; and the root servers, which give the locations of all the top-level domain computers.
ICANN has no formal agreements with operators of the root servers, yet their operation by diverse autonomous organizations and funding by multiple sources has been successful.
However, more formal coordination of those operators by ICANN will be desirable in the future to ensure rapid response to security needs, the report says.
ICANN should also increase the engagement of managers of the 243 country code top-level domains in its policy-making in order to be seen as the appropriate steward and administrator of the Domain Name System, the report says.
Currently, these domains have 26 million registrations, but ICANN has agreements with only a small percentage of managers
The 15 generic top-level domains contain more than 46 million domain-name registrations. ICANN added seven domains in 2000 and plans to add up to 10 more in 2005. Adding tens more annually for several years would pose minimal technical or operational risk, but the benefits of doing so are inconclusive, the report says.
The Internet and Domain Name System depend upon nonproprietary protocols and standards established by the Internet Engineering Task Force, an independent international technical organization, and upon having innovation in services and applications occur on devices at the "edges" of the Internet, rather than on the devices that perform the Internet's basic communication functions.
ICANN should strengthen its agreements with top-level domain operators to help ensure that they do not ignore agreed-upon standards or practices, the committee said.
The Domain Name System Security Extensions, software that will protect against potential attacks from hackers, should be widely deployed, especially for the root servers and top-level domains, the committee said.
The root server operators should also expand their distribution of copies of the root servers throughout the Internet.
Even if the Domain Name System successfully adapts and grows, Internet users will still face the challenge of navigating through an ever-increasing volume of content and services.
Since academic research has provided the basic technologies for many successful navigation tools such as search engines, public support for academic research on and advanced development of such technologies should continue, the committee said.
In addition, regulatory agencies of the U.S. and other governments should monitor the practices of commercial Internet search engines to make sure that the distinction between neutral and advertiser-sponsored search results is clear to users.
The study was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Commerce, National Science Foundation, and the National Academies.
The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, nonprofit institution that provides science and technology advice under a congressional charter.
Copies of Signposts in Cyberspace:: The Domain Name System and Internet Navigation
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