MEME 4.01

David Bennahum: [Some people say,] "Well, who made you king?"

Jon Postel: Exactly. It comes up from time to time.

DB: What do you say to that?

JP: I say, "This is the way it is."

--Jon Postel, keeper of the Internet's top-level domain names, in MEME 4.01

Jon Postel died on Friday, October 16, 1998. What follows is the transcript of an interview I had with Jon in 1995. This interview, and its introducton ,was posted to this Web site in early 1998. I have left the rest of the text as it was originally. -- David Bennahum

Sometime by the end of 1998 you'll likely find a whole new kind of Internet address-- new suffixes like .BIZ or .WEB or .SEX-- suffixes which will mark a change in the way the Internet is governed. In a sense, those who control the names on the Net control everything, because when all metaphor is said and done, the Internet is mostly a big pile of words. Words, like MTV.COM or ALTAVISTA.COM and HARVARD.EDU have become brands with real financial value. And for a long, long time one person controlled the issuance of new words. His name is Jon Postel. The Economist magazine recently called him "God."

Jon PostelFrom his office in Southern California, this scientist has been responsible for administering name disputes at the highest-level of the Internet's naming architecture. It is he who decided whom in a foreign country would be given control of a two-letter code. It is he who held, as Fortune magazine put it, "control of the little black book of Internet addresses that enables the Internet to work."

When the Internet existed as a collective of mainly academic, governmental and military sites, this system was politically acceptable. Postel's been involved with the Internet for over 20 years, since the time it was called ARPANET, and his central control of Names was a simple, efficient way of managing what was the Net's ur-database. But in 1993 when the National Science Foundation transferred administration of sub-domain names, names like MICROSOFT.COM and MEMEX.ORG, to Network Solutions, a Virginia-based company, the old-boy network began to falter. With commercial entities relying on the Internet for commerce and brand expansion, the question of adjudication, control and accountability for the issuance of new "top-level domains" became a matter of great interest. The idea of one man-- Postel-- controlling a database of increasing value became politically untenable.

In May 1997 the National Science Foundation announced that it would not renew its contract with Network Solutions. In July, the Clinton administration announced it would transition the management of names to the private sector, and called for public input. Swamped with feedback, the consensus-building process stalled. Since then, Clinton has called in Ira Magaziner, a long-standing advisor, to manage the process. Word is that the resulting governing body will probably resemble a Board of Directors, with Postel as a member.

In September 1995, I interviewed Jon Postel. That week, Postel was in the midst of his first big public-relations crisis-- Network Solutions had announced it would charge a $50 registration fee per domain-- ending years of free