Inventing Protocol (MIT Press, 2019)

My first book, under contract with MIT Press, is an explanation of the ontological and axiomatic systems that structured the design of key Internet protocols—and continue to structure their incremental advances today. These systems are important because they impose strict limitations on both incremental and clean-slate efforts to improve the internet.

It is true that formal and technical criteria can decide aspects of protocol specifications, implementations, as well as their gradual evolution. These criteria can even appear self-evident. However, protocols determine, and are not reducible to, these narrow technological criteria.

I examine the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP), Internet Protocol (IP), Universal Datagram Protocol (UDP), Exterior Gateway Protocol (EGP), Border Gateway Protocol (BGP), the Domain Name System (DNS), Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP), and a series of end-to-end cryptographic protocols. I also analyze key predecessors of these protocols in order to make clear their ontological and axiomatic basis.

I also explain how these same ontological and axiomatic systems also influence organizations that administer and govern the Internet today. I conclude with lessons for protocol design in the 21st century.

The Domain Name System Security Extensions in the IANA Function (Google)

This study, underway for Google, is an assessment of how the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) Function will incorporate the technical and administrative requirements imposed by the Domain Name System Security Extensions (DNSSEC).

The IANA Function administers the Internet's unique identifiers (or, name bindings): things like IP addresses, domain names, and ports, which require different kinds of uniqueness (ranging from global to local) and thus different kinds of administration. DNSSEC represents a major change to the identifiers that require management, in part because it includes cryptographic identifiers.

Given that DNSSEC is designed to serve the security needs of other protocols Internet administration practices, it is crucial that its requirements be understood in advance. This project will complete in 2019.

The Technical Administration of Internet Identifiers (Google, ICANN)

In 2016 the US Government moved to transfer to the private sector its remaining authority over the technical administration of the Internet. In response to a congressional request, the General Council of the US Government Accountability Office provided a legal opinion that the transfer “raises a series of novel, complex, and highly fact-specific issues… Because of... the incomplete record before us, and other uncertainties, our opinion with respect to the U.S. Government’s property rights [in the final transfer of IANA Function to the private sector] is necessarily limited” (Report B-327398).

This report will resolve the uncertainties that placed limits on the GAO’s legal opinions. It does so by analyzing the intersection of law, contract, and the structure of Internet protocols: ultimately, it assessed the basis of legitimate authority in the administration of Internet names, numbers, and parameters (e.g., domain names, addresses, and protocol parameters). Because the Internet’s technical administration evolved out of the Arpanet, this report covers the period 1968-2018.

This work, supported by Google and ICANN, will culminate in a report, as well as an interactive visualization (released in 2018-19). I serve as lead author; my co-author, Russ Mundy, is former Chief Scientist of the Defense Data Network (the predecessor to NIPRNET, SIPRNET, and JWICS).

Cyberspace and National Security

My activities in this area involves two projects: i) the intersection of national security and communication standards, ii) the geopolitical significance of Internet topology, and iii) the geopolitical consequences of cyberattacks (with Dave Farber).

This work is underway and I plan to announce parts of it during 2018.

The Meaning of my Academic Fields

When I am acting in my capacity as an academic, I am usually identified as a historian of technology, or someone active in the field of Science and Technology Studies, or, STS. Given that much of my current research is 'applied' -- helping people solve immediate problems -- these fields can appear arcane or confusing. Here is an inital pass at explaining what they are, and how they can provide value.

A word on STS. It is a new field by academic standards. It was created in the 1960s by scientists, historians, sociologists, anthropologists, and others as part of an effort to understand the relationship between technical and scientific knowledge, technical systems, and society. In the 1960s, the connections between science, technology, and society were not only increasingly obvious, but also understood as crucial to everything from a well-run economy to national security. Added to this demand for understanding was a set of analytical tools–developed initially by historians and sociologists–that demystified the observed variation in institutions and forms of knowledge, explaining how they are generated by other social forces. STS practitioners thus applied these tools to science and technology. Today, STS does not follow a single or small number of paradigms (such as economics or astronomy). Perhaps owing to the irreducible complexity of its object of study – society – it is instead a distributed mode of inquiry that incorporates different methods from a variety of fields.

A word on the history of technology. The study of history is immensely varied, but the common theme is systematic explanation, of social change, over time. Historians of technology study the roles of technology in that change over time. Much public attention is devoted to new technologies and their invention. While this is certainly an area of inquiry for historians of technology, it is only one component of the place of technology in society. Technology, new and old, is not only invented, but it is also maintained, repaired, and depreciated; it exists not only discrete products, but it comprises systems, and vast infrastructures that structure our lives and our thinking in unobvious ways. To complicate things further, technology is itself shaped by the politics, cultures, economic forces, etc., of society. Historians of technology seek systematic explanation of this complete picture.

There are two general classes of reasons why scholars engage in STS or the history of technology. One is utilitarian, an effort to better understand technology in society so that we can generate better social and technical outcomes. The other is curiosity, which when institutionalized is called inquiry: we should know things about the tools that mediate our relationship with the physical world and each other. While I see value in both, I am more focused on the former. Rather than study industries or entire historical periods, I have focused my research on challenges surrounding the present-day Internet, and the recent history that can provide insights into why the Internet functions (or breaks) the way it does.