Byron Holland is President and Chief Executive Officer of the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA). View bio
Who are we? Why are we here? And why do we have such vocal critics?
I’ll address the last question first. I think that basically they fall into two general camps – though I’m likely to be criticized for this – the first are those who don’t really understand what CIRA does or what our responsibilities are. And shame on us for not telling our story better and educating people on CIRA’s reason for being. We are working on it, but it does not come naturally for an organization that has spent most of its young life as a technology operating company.
The second set disagree with our mix, pace, and chronology of activities. They want us to do more of X before Y, or a bigger dose of A rather than B. The vernacular often used here is “armchair quarterback”. This doesn’t mean that their views aren’t honestly or passionately held, it’s simply that the view from the sidelines is often quite different from the view on the field. But what is the view from the field? What is CIRA actually supposed to be doing?
We recently had our Board of Director elections. Fortunately they went well, with participation up 20% and several very strong new Directors added to the Board. However, during the election I was struck by the high degree of misunderstanding about the role of CIRA. CIRA was founded in the late ’90s as a not-for-profit, non-share capital, corporation designated to “…administer the .CA (dot-ca) domain space on behalf of Canadian users”. There are a number of other elements associated with this objective, such as the notion that the dot-ca is a key public resource; that we promote the development of electronic commerce; that CIRA rely on market forces and private sector leadership; that we follow fair and sound business practices; and that we are very transparent in our activities. There are others, but this provides a flavor of our specific obligation to the government. This is what we MUST do. In other words, we run the dot-ca registry and the Domain Name System (DNS) that underpins it.
What does this mean? Basically that when you register a dot-ca domain name you can be assured that you will have a unique address – we manage nearly 1.3 million of them – on the Internet and that your domain will not be hijacked. It also means that for everybody who types in a dot-ca address or sends an email which ends in dot-ca, the traffic will be routed to the correct place. We do this 24/7/365. We are never down. CIRA facilitates more than 600,000,000 transactions on an average day. That is over 400,000 a minute, in a 100% uptime environment. That is the core of what we do.
In 2006, CIRA updated its Letters Patent to expand one of its objects, in order to give CIRA the flexibility to now also “develop, carry out and/or support any other Internet-related activities in Canada”. This means that when we have taken care of our core obligation, the one that the Government of Canada requires us to do, and we have sufficient surpluses, we can support our Internet community undertaking “other Internet-related activities.” As a federal not-for-profit, CIRA may only do the things outlined in our Letters Patent. What people may not realize, however, is that our corporate objects do not set the things CIRA is required to do, but rather the scope of the activities CIRA is allowed to do.
Our Board of Directors has stipulated that for prudent planning and risk management practices, a reserve equal to a full year’s operating costs must be accumulated. Even though we are not quite there yet in terms of our reserve requirements, CIRA is already engaged in a number of these Internet-related activities. We play a significant role on the international stage, including having members of our executive in key roles of global responsibility. CIRA was the key catalyst in kicking off the next round of development for the software that runs 85% of the DNS, a significant contribution both to the domestic and international Internet community. Further, we are also a major supporter of Media Awareness Network, a not-for-profit organization focused on equipping young people with the tools and knowledge to use the Internet safely and wisely.
Our Board continues to work in this object of the corporation. Interestingly, it is this least “critical” function that generates the most criticism. In spite of the fact that we are already doing quite a bit as mentioned above, it is never enough, not the right thing, not fast enough. Ironically we get criticized for focusing on our core mandate, the one on which every Canadian and every Canadian business depends and benefits from.
So while our armchair quarterbacks may shout from the sidelines, the average Internet user can rest assured that we will continue to keep our eye on the ball. Through our actions we will maintain our global reputation as one of the best registries in the world, and as our resources allow, continue to build on our existing investment in other Internet-related activities for the benefit of all Canadians.
A few years back an author named Lynne Truss wrote a book called Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. The title was meant to highlight the importance of properly used punctuation. Had the commas been left out, the resulting title (Eats shoots and leaves) would have a completely different, albeit less violent, meaning.
Truss’ book came to mind after I heard that the Internet in Sweden was down for about an hour on Monday. Why did the dot-se (.se) websites stop working? A dot character stopped being added to the update script. A single dot: “.”
This wasn’t just any ordinary dot, however. This “.” is called a trailing dot. It is a critical part of the DNS lookup chain in that it specifies that .se is the top-level domain. Without it, the whole chain breaks down. When it wasn’t there, almost 905,000 domain names ending in .se were unavailable – all because of a dot.
These are the things that keep the people at CIRA, myself included, awake at night. There are over one million .ca domain names. CIRA resolves 25,000,000 transactions per hour on our DNS servers. These transactions include banking, email, research, and a host of other activities. The Internet has simply become integral to our lives as Canadians. To lose access to the Internet, even for an hour, would not be just a minor inconvenience for Canadians – it would be a nightmare.
At CIRA, we’re very proud of the fact that we operate in 100 percent uptime. But we also know that it only takes something as simple as a dot not being in the right place to crash the entire system. Small details, big consequences, and we’re the people who are responsible for making sure this doesn’t happen here. It’s a big responsibility, and it’s one we do not take lightly.
Commas, periods, dots. Pretty simple stuff that can come with pretty big consequences. Period.
Have you ever had the experience where you meet someone for the first time and in the process of getting acquainted they ask you what you do and who you work for, yet when you tell them their facial expression suggests that you must be speaking in some foreign language…basically they have no idea what you are talking about?
Happens to me all the time.
I usually get one of three responses:
So, how about those Senators?
Someone runs the Internet?
I thought the government did that?
To which I answer; they will have a better season this year, yes, and no.
Fundamentally, we are the steward of a public resource, the dot-ca.
But what does that really mean? Our primary tasks are twofold. We resolve, or handle, about 700,000,000 dot-ca queries every day. That’s about 25,000,000 per hour, or 400,000 every minute. We have to do this in a 100 percent uptime environment, meaning our infrastructure never, ever goes down. We can’t: business, government, communications and people all depend on their ability to be able to type in a dot-ca address and get to their destination. Needless to say, this takes some serious hardware and expertise.
The other main thing we do, what we are most known for, is registering domain names. Currently, we register about 1,000 new domain names every day. We manage people’s privacy associated with their domains, the security of their domains, and the integrity of the domain system.
But we also do some other stuff that’s pretty cool. Because the Internet is a global network, we have to work and communicate with colleagues around the world. As one can imagine, our colleagues in Russia, Brazil and Saudi Arabia, let alone Iran, have some interesting perspectives on how the Internet should be governed. Making the net work, from a global perspective, is something CIRA is deeply involved with.
We also have to manage our brand, to educate and inform Canadians about the benefits of dot-ca, about what CIRA does, and about Internet issues in general that are important to all our stakeholders. Getting the message out is a never-ending activity.
Finally, we have the opportunity to engage in other activities that are beneficial to the Canadian Internet landscape. For instance, right now we play an instrumental role in the development of Bind 10, the software that runs the majority of the worlds DNS servers, those very servers that handle the 700,000,000 transactions per day. We don’t own it, but we are significantly participating in Bind’s development for the benefit of the entire Internet.
In other words, CIRA does a lot of critical and very interesting work.
So, in spite of the deer in the headlight looks I often get when I describe my job, I am very fortunate to have what I think is one of the coolest jobs around, in a great organization, doing important work for all Canadians.
Yesterday was a major milestone in the development of the Internet, a day which I would argue is a major positive step forward in its evolution.
The newly minted CEO of ICANN announced that the organization has entered into a long term agreement with the United States Department of Commerce (DoC), an “Affirmation of Commitments” (the 4 minute video segment is worth watching). This agreement basically sets out the rules of engagement for US oversight of ICANN including the fact that the organization will remain headquartered in America, that the DoC will have a permanent seat on the new top-of-the-foodchain “Accountability and Transparency” committee, as well as the notion that the introduction of new gTLDs is not a foregone conclusion, that their consumer benefit must outweigh the costs. Of course there are numerous other details, but these are several of the major ones.
Why would I think the US having some oversight of ICANN is a good idea? A bit of historical perspective is required.
To begin with, the new agreement is replacing the existing Joint Project Agreement which expired September 30, 2009. The original goal, roughly a decade ago when all this began, was that ICANN would be set free of US oversight at the conclusion of the JPA and its predecessor Memorandum of Understandings, so it certainly has a precedent.
But what does the global Internet community get in return for this? As it turns out, quite a bit. The fact is that until today, ICANN was responsible to only one entity, the DoC. Given that the Internet is a global resource, there were and are many, many critics of this arrangement. Let’s be fair, if you are China, India, Russia – let alone numerous other less friendly countries – would you want all your Internet traffic coordinated through an organization that was fundamentally beholden only to the US? The new “Affirmation” now makes ICANN responsible to all countries in the Internet community, not just the US. It certainly addresses a number of the comments CIRA made during the DoC request for comments on this issue.
That’s great for countries, but what do we, ordinary Internet users, get? Turns out we get a fair amount too. Many individual citizens are pleased that the US has stepped back into a more equal, rather than preeminent role. But I would say that far more importantly, the “Affirmation” ensures a far higher degree of transparency and accountability than has previously been the case. This is very important for a private corporation that is coordinating the Internet on behalf of the world!
There is also a significantly more robust commitment to the security, stability, and resiliency of the domain name system (DNS). This is incredibly important for the functioning of the Internet and something that often gets lost in all the policy, money, and political squabbling. Of course, I am a little biased because that is what we do at CIRA , since it is the critical function for all of us who actually have a hand in operating the Internet.
There is an explicit nod to the fact that both the interests of consumers and competition must be served. This is very important for all those who make their livelihood as a result of the net as well as the general user, but I think it is especially important for those in less developed countries whose interests must now be truly taken into account. Finally, the DoC has effectively demanded that Internationalized Domain Names (IDN) must be implemented ASAP, a key requirement for the next billion people to come online!
Is the “Affirmation” perfect? No. But is it a significant step in the right direction? Absolutely. Ask yourself this question, and be honest…If some country is to have some degree of oversight to ensure ICANN stays upright, who would you want…really? I’ll tell you one thing, I know a lot of these people and they are smart, hard working, and committed. I am not naïve about it, but I am certainly okay with it.
Are there going to be bitter critics and unhappy countries? Of course. It’s always easy to take potshots from the sidelines, but I think Rod Beckstrom did a remarkable job of threading the needle on a very complicated, highly political and deeply controversial issue.