Internet Infrastructure Ignorance

While at Internet Identity Workshop 2005 this past week, one of the interesting issues that
came up several times related to name spaces.  Specifically, there
were numerous times where people voiced their opinions about how name
spaces “should” map onto the Internet, and they used DNS as an example
of how things “should” be.  The problem is that they demonstrated,
by their words and arguments, that they were ignorant of how DNS
works.  The infrastructure of the Internet has become so
transparent, that it seems to me people have begun to make gross
assumptions about it’s architecture, and this is what is the root of
many of the security and privacy issues that we are seeing today.

I was looking forward to the presentation by Drummond Reed about XRI/XDI.  One of my concerns in any solid digital identity solution is the freedom to choose. 
I am not a big believer in compulsory community membership, but instead
believe that true freedom is represented by our ability to move in and
out of various communities at will, and to create new communities as we
want.  I really like this thought from “The Meaning of Life – Part II“:

There are millions of different social groups in the world, political, economic,
religious, philosophical, and cultural. These groups are all trying to bring
their particular vision into focus and build a life that is related to the
central principles of the group. Each of these groups is an experiment in
progress. As time passes, the ideas that are developed within these groups
either spread to the society as a whole or are abandoned as unworkable. This is
a Darwinian process that develops better ideas in the same way that evolution is
supposed to develop better animals. You can find more information about this
notion of “idea evolution” at the Memes: Introduction site. Even
groups that you personally dislike are working in your behalf, attempting to
build visions of the world that might allow you to interact with the world more
creatively and successfully.

Groups also serve as symbols in the social world. Groups with different
beliefs than your group provide you with viewpoints you wouldn’t have otherwise
considered. They also represent parts of your own mind that you are not focusing
on. However, if you fear those parts of your mind, this representation can
degenerate into projection, which is a bad thing.

What does this have to do with DNS and digital identity?  It is that I want the freedom to NOT
have one name, one identity, or one reference across all
communities.  Yes, there might be some places where I would
benefit from some level of federation.  At Internet Identity Workshop 2005 I actually
saw where OpenID is intended to not only provide Single Sign-On, but
also is specifically designed to cause a level of federation across web
sites.  I DO NOT
want this to be a requirement.  I am ok with it being an option.  It is this flexibility that I
believe will allow a particular solution to become successful and

So … I really wanted to hear more about XRI/XDI and i-Names
because I specifically wanted to learn if they were going to try to
“root” the entire name space into one fixed community.  My real
question was:  “Is XRI/XDI yet another Internet ‘tax’ like Domain
Names (DNS), where you have to pay some entity on an annual basis to
use the value of the technology?”  Or, was XRI/XDI simply one
solution that could be “rooted” anywhere, and allow for the emergence
of various communites to use the technology, and have the naming
relative to the community.  To my relief, the latter was
true.  XRI/XDI is based on specified root servers, and so naming
resolution is based on what root servers you choose.  In the end,
what this means is that my i-Name is only relative to the community.  It is not necessarily a globally unique identifier
for me.  It also means that any community can set up their own
root servers, and create name spaces of their own.  In the end
this means that =drummond.reed only refers to Drummond within the context of a particular community!  Bingo!  I like it!

What shocked me was the almost immediate upset expressed by numerous
people at the conference.  They wanted these names to be
absolutely globally unique . .. so that no one would ever be able to
get “my” name, and there would never be any ambiguity about who was
being referred to by an i-Name.  I fully understand the desire,
however what shocked me was the references to DNS as having this
characteristic!  People actually believe that DNS provides an
absolute unique identifier in any context!  The DNS system has
become so transparent, and ubiquitous that people no longer realize
that it is simply one community for naming on the Internet … and
there is nothing locking people into using it.  These people do
not seem to realize that I can set up my own root servers, and resolve
and DNS name to any IP address that I like!  In fact, I’m quite
surprised that the Open Source community has not stepped up to revolt
against the “Intenet tax” imposed by ICANN and re-ignited the efforts
of OpenNIC, AlterNIC, and many of the other early pioneers in creating
a truly free naming system on the Internet.

DNS naming only works because
our servers, workstations and laptops all obey the rules, and the
default configurations imposed on us by our Operating Systems, ISPs,
and DHCP servers.  Anyone who has installed a DNS server could
easily find the default InterNIC root server list in one of the files
on their system …  /var/named/
on my Fedora Core 4 install.  I could go into my DNS server and
define “” to be any IP address that I want.  If you
then happened to route through my DNS server (by being on my network)
then you would get *my* name resolution … not InterNICs.  If I
was an ISP, or even an Internet Cafe, there is little that you could
do, and in fact you would most likely just trust
that the DNS server you were using was trustworthy.  Another
common hack used by trojan horses on the net is to modify your local hosts file.  Most all systems have a hosts file that will resolve naming on your local machine without requiring DNS at all!  If I put an entry in your hosts file for “” then it will never even use DNS to attempt to resolve the name correctly.

There is nothing in DNS that stops me from adding other root servers, and creating my own free
Top Level Domains (TLDs).  It is only because people just fall in
line with the DNS configuration that it works.  It is only because
we allow our machines to automatically join the ICANN community. 
It is only because of our ignorance and lack of education about how all
of this works that we think that DNS names are globally unique in all
situations.  DNS names, and all naming, are the products of
specific communities or contexts.  Although these communities
might grow to be so large that we can’t seem to see anything else,
there still is the something else.  I actually like it that way.

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