The Day Jon Postel Freed The Internet Root From US Government Control

Jon Postel in 1994, with hand-drawn map of Internet top-level domains. Photo By Irene Fertik, USC News Service. © 1994, USC. [used with permission]

This post is about Jon Postel a/k/a the "god of the internet," the U.S. Government and its claim on the Internet Root, as well as IANAICANN, the Root Zone Maintainer Verisign, successor to Network Solutions (NSI), and the IANA Stewardship Transition. [UPDATE: Part 2 of this post is now What Is The US Government's Claim to the Internet Root?]
"In the Domain Name System (DNS) naming of computers there is a hierarchy of names. The root of system is unnamed. There are a set of what are called "top-level domain names" (TLDs). These are the generic TLDs (EDU, COM, NET, ORG, GOV, MIL, and INT), and the two letter country codes from ISO-3166. It is extremely unlikely that any other TLDs will be created."--Jon Postel, March 1994, RFC 1591
On January 28, 1998, Jon Postel emailed eight of the [then] twelve operators of the Internet's regional root nameservers, instructing them to change the authoritative Internet root zone server from Network Solutions NSI's A.ROOT-SERVERS.NET ( to DNSROOT.IANA.ORG ( The operators complied with Postel's instructions, thus dividing control of the Internet between 8 non-government operators and the 4 remaining U.S. Government roots at NASA, DoD, and BRL with NSI. Though usage of the Internet was not interrupted, Postel soon heard from senior US government officials who threatened him to undo this change--
"According to news reports at the time, Postel made the switch without approval from anyone. Some said it was merely a “test” meant to show that the internet’s directory infrastructure could be repositioned as needed. But others said that Postel was making a statement — that he was trying to show the White House that it couldn’t wrest control of the internet from the widespread community of researchers who had built and maintained the network over the previous three decades. The White House was just days away from revealing a plan to reorganize the way the internet’s directory system was governed."--Remembering Jon Postel — And the Day He Hijacked the Internet | WIRED
Washington Post - Saturday, January 31, 1998 - Page H01:   "... Internet community leaders affiliated with Postel spent the week embroiled in tense negotiations with the Clinton administration over the government's  future role in controlling some of the network's key operating functions ... Some computer user groups, including those affiliated with Postel, had urged the government to end its oversight of the network sooner. "It's very hard to believe the timing was entirely coincidental," said one senior government official familiar with the incident. Postel did not return phone calls seeking comment yesterday, but in a statement he said the reconfiguration would result in "no change to the data" in the directory-information computers, called "root servers." He said that "once this test is completed, [the servers] will revert to the previous arrangements."... One of the reconfigured servers is located at the University of Maryland at College Park ... Gerry Sneeringer, the assistant director for networking for the university's Academic Information Technologies Service, said he received an e-mail message last week from Postel asking that the change be made. "If Jon asks us to point somewhere else, we'll do it," Sneeringer said. "He is the authority here." Akira Kato, a researcher at the University of Tokyo who runs another root server, said in a telephone interview that he, too, reconfigured his server after getting an e-mail from Postel. J. Beckwith Burr, a [U.S. government] Commerce Department official who co-authored the administration's report, said the incident "caused a lot of concern ... We have asked that the system be returned to the situation it was in before and that no such tests are to be undertaken without consultation again." (emphasis added)

Within a week, the US NTIA issued a proposal to "improve" technical management of Internet names and addresses, including changes to authority over the Internet DNS root zone, which ultimately, and controversially, increased U.S. control over the Internet. On October 16, 1998, Postel died of heart problems in Los Angeles, nine months after the DNS Root Authority incident
All of which would be an interesting footnote in the history of the Internet, but for the US Government's Department of Commerce, NTIA, March, 2014, announced "intent to transition key Internet domain name functions to the global multistakeholder community," including NTIA's procedural role of administering changes to the authoritative [Internet] root zone file; its historic stewardship of the DNS--the Internet Domain Name System, including its roles in the IANA functions and the Internet root zone management functions--see: NTIA Q&A, March 2014.

Part 2 of this post is now here: What Is The US Government's Claim to the Internet Root?
further info:
ICANN | NSI-NSF Cooperative Agreement | 1 January 1993
Verisign Cooperative Agreement | NTIA
IANA Functions and Related Root Zone Management Transition Questions and Answers | NTIA
USC/ISI's Postel Center

From Domain Mondo: Steve Crocker's Remembrance of Jon Postel Was The Best Thing That Happened at ICANN 51

Domain Mondo archive