For the last 47 years, the US government has controlled the Internet’s ‘address book’ from behind the scenes. From 1999, however, a private non-profit organization called Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) was awarded the contract to coordinate the Internet’s names, numbers, and protocols on behalf of the US government. On Saturday, that private firm took full control of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) contract. From the ICANN website,
‘Today, 1 October 2016, the IANA functions contract officially expired. As a result, the coordination and management of the Internet’s unique identifiers is now privatized and in the hands of the volunteer-based multistakeholder community.’
What does ICANN do, and what does this mean for the Internet?
In 1999 the US Department of Commerce (DOC) contracted ICANN (based in Los Angeles) to coordinate IANA. Including the Domain Name Services (DNS), which keeps the World Wide Web running smoothly around the world.
DNS is what allows the web addresses that we all know and love (such as ours here at www.bestvpn.com) to be converted into their relevant numerical codes (or IP addresses as they are known, which look like this: 18.104.22.168). As such, DNS can be best understood as the world’s Internet address book.
What many people don’t realize is that ICANN is a private firm that holds an enormous amount of power over the world’s Internet. It is for that reason that pressure has been growing for many years for the US to give up its stranglehold over the company – in favor of shared control by the international community as a whole. Last year that pressure failed, and ICANN remained under the supervision of the US government.
That kept the DNS system; the assigning of IPv4 and IPv6 addresses; the operation of root name servers; as well as decisions regarding top-level domains (TLDs) – amongst other things – in the hands of the US government. In fact, the US had a direct hotline to the firm’s executive branch and could directly put pressure on ICANN to alter decisions it didn’t agree with.
Take the power back
One common concern was that the US government ultimately held the power to not only put US domains offline at will but also to harm the world’s Internet. How? By causing chaos for regional internet registries located around the world by stopping them from effectively coordinating their databases.
As such, despite the fact that regional internet registries are mostly independent – and do run on their own – any prolonged issues at ICANN could cause the web to come apart. Causing a hugely catastrophic disruption the likes of which we have never experienced before. As such, control over ICANN was in many ways seen as an Internet ‘kill switch’ and this left a bad feeling in the stomachs of many people.
It is with that unnecessary power in mind that this year the US administration once again came under pressure to relinquish its iron grip over the Internet, this time successfully.
What made the US finally give up its hold over the Internet?
The tug of war started in 2006 when ICANN made it clear for the first time that it was going to attempt to wrestle itself out from under the US. At that time, drawing on earlier input from the UN, ICANN decided to press for independence from the contract with the DOC. It failed.
Then in 2012, a majority of states signed the UN’s International Telecommunications Union (ITU) which gave the UN more say over the future evolution of the Internet. The US was enraged and walked out of the meeting – as did its western allies. The tides, however, were changing.
The weight of the decision plus the Edward Snowden revelations – which alerted the world to the depth and breadth of US spying – had put a finality on the US’ hold over ICANN. Last Saturday that countdown ended and the US finally lost its grip.
Who runs ICANN now?
After 47 long years of control, the US DOC National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has lost the power to control the Internet via ICANN. From now on ICANN will instead answer to a global multistakeholder community.
That community includes private-sector representatives, technical experts, academics, civil society, governments and individual Internet end users. As such, the change is seen as a step in the right direction to a more globally and equally controlled Internet.
ICANN President, Göran Marby, has tweeted the following in response to the US’ loss of power over ICANN,
Some people, including Senator Ted Cruz, claim that giving up the US’ hold over ICANN is a dimwit move from the Obama administration. In their eyes, it allows “dangerous” regimes such as North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, China, and Russia to begin to assert a troubling influence over the Internet.
Although it is true that the nations in question do traditionally exert higher levels of censorship over Internet regions than the US, it is unlikely that they would be able to have any drastic influence over ICANN. After all, taking power away from the US and handing it to the global community is meant for the greater good of the Internet, rather than to harm it.
Plenty of support
Other critics feel this is a huge step in the direction of a ‘privatized’ corporate Internet. In reality, however, although top technology firms such as Microsoft, Google and Facebook do support the transition of power – that is as part of companies’ public support of a fair and equal Internet for all. In fact, support for the change is widespread and even backed by US national security officials.
Even the inventor of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, has advocated in the past for the US to lose its hold over the net. In his opinion, the transition was necessary for the safety of the Internet as a whole. Though he did also stress that both corporations and governments ought to be kept out of the business of controlling the Internet,
‘The removal of the explicit link to the US department of commerce is long overdue. The US can’t have a global place in the running of something which is so non-national. There is huge momentum towards that uncoupling but it is right that we keep a multi-stakeholder approach, and one where governments and companies are both kept at arm’s length.’
As such, it is only a minority of Republican supporters that are making the claim that Obama has ‘given the Internet away.’ An opinion that on the whole can be understood to just be nutty propaganda. The vast majority of people feel that the US not having sole control over ICANN is a good thing, and the shift is being hailed a historic moment for the Internet. Only time will really tell.