Interview from 1995: Who made this man the ‘King’?


The late Jon Postel was an American computer scientist who among his many contributions, administered the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) until his untimely death in 1998.

In 1995,  David S. Bennahum, then a contributing writer for WIRED, had an interview with Jon Postel, and the following dialogue ensued:

David Bennahum: [Some people say,] “Well, who made you king?”

Jon Postel: Exactly. It comes up from time to time.

DB: What do you say to that?

JP: I say, “This is the way it is.”

The interview’s timing was crucial: That same week in September 1995, Network Solutions ended years of free domain registrations, implementing a $50 dollar fee per year, per domain.

With the current planned relinquishing of the IANA role on the Internet, effectively terminating the US government’s role, this 1995 interview becomes part of the Internet heritage.

Here is the intro to the interview:

David Bennahum: How are you?

Jon Postel: Frazzled.

DB: I would imagine. Is that a normal, usual state?

JP: No, things are particularly interesting this week.

DB: What’s going on?

JP: Well, the InterNIC decided that this was the time to introduce charging for registering domain names, and there are a few people that seem to think it’s necessary to discuss this. For some reason, they all want to discuss it with me.

DB: Why is that?

JP: Well…

DB: Well, I have this impression that you’re somehow deeply involved with these issues.

JP: Yes, I have been… Somehow, being involved in the network for a long time, I have gotten this role of being involved with what they call the technical aspects of the administration of the Internet. And one of them is how to set up these domain names. So in some sense, I’m in charge of what are the top-level domain names. Up until now, everybody has been fairly comfortable with the InterNIC actually doing the work of defining these top-level domain names. But basically, when somebody sends you a message saying “I’d like a new top-level domain name,” that gets handed to me, and I explain to them why that’s a bad idea. Then they pretty much go away and we go on as before. But now, with the InterNIC introducing charging, there’s a lot of suggestions that they are in a monopoly position, and this is not healthy, so that we have to have somehow competing registry services, and that means that there be some other domain names around that are roughly equivalent to the existing ones, so people have some choices about what names they choose and who they do business with.

DB: I don’t really understand how that would work. What does that mean for practical purposes?

JP: Well, suppose there’s a .COM name. Maybe there can be some other domain names like BUSINESS or BIZ or REST or something, and some other company was in charge of doing the registration in the U.S. domain. So then you’d say, “Gee, I’m thinking of getting a domain name. Do I want to get it from the InterNIC, or do I want to get it from New Company #1? Gee, the InterNIC charges fifty bucks and this other company charges thirty bucks. Maybe I’ll get it from this other company.

DB: But the cost is so low, it doesn’t really matter.

JP: It’s really quite bizarre, because it’s more of a perception issue than a practical matter. For anybody that’s really serious about having a network connection, paying something like fifty dollars a year to have a domain name is, like, not really a problem. You’re really only talking about the really top-level names, which are presumably the things that get these to big companies or universities or big organizations where they would spend more money thinking about it to write the check than actually writing the check would cost.

DB: I guess part of what’s happened is that the InterNIC has, in a way, become part of big… There’s some big business now involved with it that wasn’t there before.

JP: It’s been big business for a year. I mean, I was talking to somebody else, and they were saying, “Well, do you think this is a place where the research community and the business community will go parting their ways and go separate directions?” I said, “No, I don’t think so, because the business community has already taken over the Internet.” You know, maybe there are these vestiges left behind of some academic influenced interests, but this is just a step on the transition of making it all a business oriented situation.

DB: And that’s changing the rules of the game, I guess, to some degree.

JP: Yes, the rules of the game has gradually changed. Domain names are free; domain names cost money. That’s one of the rules changes. There really isn’t very much argument that charging for domain names to at least recover the cost of doing the job is a problem. There’s really nobody arguing that fifty dollars is too much in principle, or that it’s wrong to charge for domain names. But there are people who are saying, “If fifty dollars is more than it actually costs to provide the service, then having only one company being able to do this puts them in a monopoly rip-off position, and this is bad.”

DB: What company is that?

JP: Network Solutions.

DB: Network Solutions, yeah? How much money can they really be making off of this?

For the complete interview, click here.

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