China may have divorced itself from the internet’s American-run authoritative domain name system, if a report from that nation is accurate.
But there is substantial doubt that the country, long known as one of the key opponents to the US’s lock on the internet’s naming and addressing systems, has in fact set up its own alternative DNS root system.
An announcement from the Chinese Ministry of Information Industry said that a number of new Chinese-language top-level domains, including the Chinese equivalents of .com and .net, will be added to the DNS in China.
Following this announcement, the English-language version of the People’s Daily Online reported this means internet users don’t have to surf the web via the servers under the management of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers of the US.
For some observers, this indicated the start of the long-feared Balkanization of the internet. By setting up a non-ICANN root DNS system, the chances of incompatibilities emerging in cross-border internet traffic would be increased. Emails may reach the wrong targets. Surfing to overseas sites may become unreliable.
Currently, the DNS is set up as a hierarchy with a single top layer. Every DNS query ultimately takes its lead from a root server directory managed by ICANN under contract with the US government’s Department of Commerce.
That arrangement is controversial in some nations, and was subject to years of debate within the UN’s World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). WSIS concluded last November that the status quo, on DNS matters at least, should continue.
While many have expected China to attempt a split from the ICANN-managed root, there is considerable doubt among internet experts today that China has indeed gone down the alternate root path.
Combine an authoritarian government’s PR machine, the Chinese media, a highly technical subject matter, and a far from eloquent translation into English, and the assertion that China has split from ICANN may be unreliable.
As of press time, ICANN staffers we spoke to did not have the final word from China on what had happened, but there was a sense that it was not as bad as some reports had made out.
John Klensin, former head of the Internet Architecture Board, told us he believes China has not in fact launched its own rival DNS root. It’s more likely the country has just updated the Chinese naming system that has been active for many months.
This means that, rather than thumbing its nose to the US and setting up a whole new root to deal with Chinese-language domains, the nation has merely mandated that its ISPs recognize certain Chinese suffixes and translate them so they can resolve in the regular DNS.
A similar idea was used by a US firm, New.net, which tried to sell non-ICANN domains such as example.shop and example.sport, and paid ISPs to resolve them.
A system like this has been in place in China since at least March 2005, according to California and Singapore-based i-DNS.net, which supplies software for translating internationalized domain names into ASCII-compatible DNS.
This means that if a user types in example.com in Chinese characters (.com would be something like .gongsi for company, but we don’t have the character set to reproduce it here), the ISP adds .cn to the end, and it resolves in China’s own DNS, which is still ultimately tied to the ICANN root.
To the everyday Chinese web surfer, it would look like .gongsi and .com are hierarchical equals, but to the international ICANN-managed DNS, it would appear, more accurately, that .gongsi is actually subordinate to .cn.