Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Protocol Politics and IPv6...

What's going to happen when the Internet runs out of addresses? It may seem far-fetched to the casual user, but there is a finite supply of 4.3 billion IP addresses built into the current system, and we're on pace to reach that number within a few short years. Will it be cyber-doomsday?

Not likely. This problem was recognized, and a solution was put in place, over a decade ago. A new system of Internet addresses - called IPv6 - was designed to replace the current system - IPv4 - that would expand the address base from 4.3 billion to 340 undecillion. As always, when speaking in mathematical terms, if you haven't even heard of such a number, that means it's unfathomably large.

The problem is that the world is dragging it's feet in deploying IPv6 (which, by the way, is NOT backwards-compatible).

Why? This is the question pursued in Laura Denardis' book, Protocol Politics: The Globalization of Internet Governance. In it, she details the process behind how IPv6 was created, but her main argument is that such protocols are political in nature, and that their ultimate design reflects the values of the winners in the conflict that preceded them.

This is not a new argument. Scholars such as Lawrence Lessig and Milton Mueller have written books on the politics of code and how decisions over technical standards and protocols are inherently political, embodying certain core political values at the expense of others. Entering that ongoing conversation, Denardis is simply adding a new supporting example into the mix. In my opinion, her main contribution is not the rehashed argument, but the research she presents on how certain civil liberties - privacy, chief among them - is architected into the code itself. Her IPv6 case study profiles the various actors and conflicting interests that characterized the conflict during the formulation process, and that is the book's most valuable contribution.

It seems that there are two issues at play here: First, the politics over designing the protocol; and second, the politics of its deployment (or lack thereof). It's worth noting the distinction between the two when conceptualizing the roles of the various actors and conflicts involved.

Who knew a technical protocol like IPv6 could be so riveting :-)


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