The Internet’s Great Lesson for IT Departments

As the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers gains control of the internet's low-level functions this week, let's take a look at the situation that led to ICANN's creation. It offers an important lesson for any IT department.

The decision to put stewardship of the internet in the hands of a nonprofit was not made overnight. It’s been in the works since the days of Internet Explorer 4.0.

But at the beginning of this month, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) finally completed that transition, turning a public function (previously managed by the U.S. Department of Commerce) into a private one.

In the past month or two, there has been a bit of controversy around this move, particularly after a lawsuit was filed by four state attorneys general last week. But that case was thrown out by a federal judge on Friday, and the transfer went through without a hitch on Saturday.

Nearly five decades after the internet first came to life, the technology’s basic controls are now in the hands of a nonprofit organization.

Certainly, we can agree or disagree on whether the federal government should have handed this responsibility over to ICANN. But I want to highlight a story regarding ICANN’s creation that I think offers a number of important lessons regarding technical functions and transition of power.

It’s one that hits closer to home than you might guess.

Jon Postel, an early architect of the internet who was to work with ICANN upon its 1998 founding. (Public.Resource.Org/Flickr)

The Man Who Ran the Internet

See, before ICANN became a nonprofit organization in its own right, a key technical function now handled by ICANN was mostly being carried out by a single person. And that person, legendary computer scientist Jon Postel, was supposed to take a leadership role at ICANN.

Instead, Postel died unexpectedly, due to complications following heart surgery, just four weeks after ICANN was founded in 1998.

Postel stumbled into his role as the internet’s first steward. As Wired reports in a 2012 retrospective, he was there at UCLA when the earliest nodes of ARPAnet were put into place, and he helped build the often complex protocols that define the modern internet’s underpinnings.

Eventually, Postel took on a role that, to put it simply, made him the primary person in charge of the internet’s many knobs. A researcher at the University of Southern California, he directed a series of administrative tasks through the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, an organization he started in 1992. (He had an assistant at IANA, Joyce Reynolds, but he ultimately took the lead role.)

In a 1997 congressional hearing discussing the distribution of domain names to the public, Postel described in layman’s terms how IANA worked, at one point comparing its standards-setting and control of the internet’s Domain Name System to the way the phone system works. The difference? Postel and IANA were at the center of this entire system.

“The role of IANA is much more one of coordination than of control,” Postel told the panel. “The IANA tends to implement the consensus of the internet community and its policies and decisions about the allocations of addresses, names, and the maintenance of those various protocol conventions.”

(Postel added that this work was a “side task” to his primary job as a researcher of communications protocols.)

Postel faced much pressure over this organizational setup at the hearing, which drew attention to the fact that he was largely a one-man show, creating a single point of failure for the internet.

And in one case, Postel went rogue. In January 1998, he ordered the operators of eight of the internet’s primary name servers to move the main root server to something under his control. The federal government soon noticed his little protest; soon afterward, discussions that led to the creation of ICANN began.

John Klensin, another early internet figure, told Wired in 2012 that Postel felt major responsibility for how the internet ran.

“Jon tended to figure out where he needed advice or calibration and where to get it, but also tended to tell people that he had to be the final [or] official decision maker, that he would have to take the heat if things went wrong, and that he thought he would get better advice if those advising him could be kept out of the spotlight and protected from any public attacks or fallout,” Klensin said.

Does Your Association Have a Jon Postel?

To put this all another way, ICANN was put together in many ways to replace the work of one individual—a person who, tragically, died before much of his institutional knowledge could be shared with the new organization.

Many association departments, especially those that deal with technical issues (the IT department in particular), could learn something important from this story. Many staffs have people with major stores of institutional knowledge, so much that the department would struggle to continue without them.

What if Postel had died a year earlier, when this transition plan wasn’t already in the works? What sort of disruption would that have caused for the internet, which depended heavily on his knowledge to function for the first 30 years of its existence?

And at your association, if you were to lose a senior staff member—or, at least, your on-staff genius—to turnover and transition, would your organization be the lesser for it? Who would know how to do all those technical things that you need on a daily basis—to dive into the database and shake out the best information possible, to work closely with members, to manage your online presence?

Last month, association consultant Jeffrey Cufaude made this point when he recalled his work years ago as state president of the Illinois Association of Student Councils—and the scrapbook full of ideas that represented the association’s institutional knowledge.

Looking through the scrapbook, he realized something important.

“The pages reminded me I was one of many,” Cufaude wrote on his Idea Architects blog. “My job was to build on what others had created, add my contributions to it, and turn it over to the next person … both the scrapbook and my seat at the table.”

Jon Postel was important to the internet. He took on a lot of boring but critical tasks, and if he hadn’t, the fledgling network would have faltered. But he was, ultimately and necessarily, replaceable: The internet survived despite the fact that we lost his brilliance.

At your organization, it’s important to respect institutional knowledge, as well as the importance of writing all of that stuff down for the next person, no matter how important and capable the current person is.

You don’t want to learn that lesson the hard way.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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