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Can we find the all-powerful 14th Server?

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Dan Biddle Dan Biddle | 10:10 UK time, Friday, 14 August 2009

There are 13 root servers that control a major element the internet. But is there a secret 14th server that controls them all?

Our production research into nations, the web, censorship and control have uncovered a theory posited by internet governance scholar Professor Ang Peng Hwa that 

'...there is a "hidden server" that reportedly controls the other 13 servers from a secret location in the U.S. He suggests U.S. manipulations of the master server caused the Iraqi .iq domain name to disappear during the 2003 U.S. invasion, thus crashing the entire Iraqi internet.'

Watch the video of Ang Peng Hwa's speech here (be warned this is on an older platform and may take a long time to load), wherein, after some considerable exposition, he declares that essentially there is one root server controlled by the US Government from which all other servers take their lead, that could be used to disconnect an entire nation from the web.

But, here's our thing - we can't find any further mention of this suggested 14th Server. It's hard to even call it a conspiracy theory with so little information beyond that supplied by Ang Peng Hwa.

Professor Ang Peng Hwa himself jokingly references the X Files when describing the 14th Server. So we're left wondering whether the truth is out there... Is this apocryphal nonsense we should forget about immediately? Or have we stumbled upon the internet's own Area 51?

If you have any knowledge, links, stories around the notion of an all-powerful 14th Server - we'd love to hear from you.

As long as we don't end up in War Games territory...

To clarify and assure that we haven't tumbled completely down the rabbit hole, we're not saying that there are only 13 physical servers that stand between us and total manipulation / destruction of the internet. However, there have been attacks on the 13 servers, and physical root servers have been moved in response to such attacks and security threats.

ICANN, the US organisation who controls the 13 servers, clearly states in their blog post 'There are not 13 Root Servers' that:

'There are not 13 root servers.
What there are is there are many hundreds of root servers at over 130 physical locations in many different countries. There are twelve organisations responsible for the overall coordination of the management of these servers.
So where does the 13 number come from?'

'Due to its fundamental design assumption of a singly rooted hierarchical namespace, the domain name system (DNS) comprises one of the few (logical) single points of failure within the Internet. More specifically, the root of the Internet namespace is held in 13 geographically distributed root name servers operated by nine independent organizations. In a worst case scenario, loss of all 13 of the root name servers would result in significant disruption to Internet operation as name to address translation (and vice versa) would no longer function.'

This was posted as response to the fears surrounding the turn of the Millennium and the Y2K bug, and is obviously older information than the later blog about 13 servers and the greater distribution.

So the nature and semantics of the 13 Servers are themselves an area of popular concern - a common touchstone for doubts as to the internet's enduring resilience and permanence. There's plenty to read about around that subject - and our research continues as to the indestructibility of the internet.


  • Comment number 1.

    I don't know anything about the 'one server to find them all and in the darkness bind them' but your post made me think about conspiracy theories.

    The internet is an amazing medium for the dissemination of bullshit. I have been astonished recently to meet several people who talked seriously about the illuminati, reptilians, and other stuff that I had always considered to be the crackpot fringe.

    People are under threat; economically, from the perceived terrorists, from the changing face of our societies, and the issues are often too big and complex to deal with easily. When someone offers a simple explanation that fits your level of understanding, then a lot of people are going to accept that explanation. The internet enables simplistic explanations to spread like a contagion, empowering David Icke and Al-quaeda in equal degrees, and the tendency to seek out information that confirms what we believe only makes the problem worse.

    All this stuff spreads because people don't trust the authority figures in their world. Basically, there's a leadership void as the people who claim to know best are failing to meet people's expectations of them. And that void is being filled with simpler 'truths' in which some other higher power is at work.

    The implications for conventional government are huge. If they want to fight this they have to not only figure out how to get their message across, they also have to really work on their message. In the past, governments have been able to rely on having a near-monopoly on authority, so they could get away with fudging the statistics on knife-crime, for instance. Nowadays there are a thousand different interpretations available, so there's an onus on governments to be above reproach.

    I think lessons need to be learned from the likes of Richard Branson or Steve Jobs - people who spend a great deal of time building their personal credibility, their brands. In order to win the battle for our hearts and minds, politicians need to be people we will trust in preference to other sources so that we seek out their opinions when faced with challenges from the wider world. People need to feel comfortable, when faced with difficult choices about what is right, with the idea that the government is the best place to look for guidance. Currently we believe youtube and wikipedia before we believe the people we elect to take care of us. Confirmation bias again!

  • Comment number 2.

    Going a little bit off-topic: traditional media, including the BBC, is subject to the same scrutiny and confirmation bias from the public. In the past I have written to let Justin Webb know that dinosaurs are not mammals, to query the report that China plans to build a motorway linking Beijing to Taipei, to ask how a nuclear submarine can have a range of 8,000km instead of being effectively unlimited, and point out various other simple factual errors. I'm not an expert on any of these topics, but I have some interest and that's why I read them. I often find that the reporters have got things wrong. Presumably they care less than I do?

    So now I constantly find myself wondering about the reliability of everything else I read, on topics I know less about. Can I trust the BBC to get its facts straight on the price of potatoes if they can't handle elementary biology or they've forgotten that Taiwan and Beijing are seperated by hundreds of miles of water and a civil war? Trust is eroded every time you get something wrong, The problem is, of course, that right and wrong are shaped by what we already know.

    Leadership and governance rely on authority. Governments and traditional media face the same challenge in a world ehere anyone can publish anything: you have to provide explanations that are simple enough to understand yet complex enough to satisfy more critical thinkers, in order to make them more attractive than the next person's explanation. If you get it wrong, they'll be blowing things up or accusing the Queen of having reptile ancestry before you know it.

    Democracy relies on people being better educated. Interesting plea here for a new approach to numeracy: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/arthur_benjamin_s_formula_for_changing_math_education.html

    And the 'what to watch next' link is to a speech about 'creativity', which is a whole different topic. Do we want millions of creative but biased people coming up with dangerous new theories on everything?

  • Comment number 3.

    Last one:

    Every week or so, when the cookiei expires, a Google search will take me to their Chinese-language site and I have to click the 'Google in English' link again. They keep doing this even though I'm signed into gmail with my preferences set to English, am using a browser with preferences set to English, and an operating system that is also set to English. And don't even get me started on youtube.

    Google have simply decided that because I'm in Taiwan it is somehow helpful for me to have them do things in Chinese. It doesn't matter what I tell them, they know best. They could choose to give me information in the language specified in my OS settings, browser settings, or gmail preferences, but they don't.

    Why is this? It can only be that it hasn't occurred to them that people travel. They're using geographical location to make inferences about people. I suppose that's OK if nobody uses a mobile device while overseas, but if the internet is making national boundaries less relevant maybe the big names in the computing world need to understand that?

    So what about the 'missing million' Britons mentioned in my earlier post? According to the US census 2000, eighteen percent of Americans or 47 million people, spoke a language other than English at home.

    Google obviously subscribes to the idea of a nation-state as a homogenous mass of people with a common identity and culture. The reality is a lot different. But despite all the hype about how the internet breaks down borders, an awful lot of the big players have a very parochial view of how things work.

    I guess that the internet can't yet handle non-ascii URLs because the people who created the protocols didn't ever stop to consider that the world does things differently from the way they are done in the USA. Back to the idea that the internet is under US control.....

  • Comment number 4.

    There are 13 _logical_ servers, but these are load-balanced between a multitude of locations using a system called anycast, where a number of physical hosts in different places behave as though they're a single host.

    There doesn't need to be a mysterious 14th server:

    The root zone is controlled by ICANN, but all changes go through the US Department of Commerce before being authorised. Verisign is (still, I think) responsible for actually making the update happen once the DoC has approved ICANN’s updates.

    Whether or not this process happens by way of an additional server holding a copy of the zone (either at ICANN, the DoC, or Verisign) is pretty irrelevant—it's just an implementation detail. I'd be very surprised if there wasn't at least one “hidden master” (that is, it's an authoritative source, but is only visible to its slave servers) purely for security and stability.

  • Comment number 5.

    A bigger hidden “scoop”, incidentally, is that the entire domain name industry, including ICANN’s, VeriSign’s and the Department of Commerce’s roles only exist because operating system vendors and systems administrators allow it to.

    There’s nothing stopping, in technical terms, everybody using an alternative set of root servers (it’s been tried in the past, but it didn't catch on). It’s a pain, as there are logistical problems in terms of user expectation, but the whole thing is purely convention: your (or your ISP’s) DNS servers look at the root servers because they’ve been configured to, not because it’s written deeply into the protocols which make DNS work.


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