Midnight 1 October 2016 was a historic moment in the history of the Internet with ICANN, a non-profit organization, finally taking control of the global domain name system (DNS). The U.S. government’s contract to perform the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) functions (the IANA contract) has expired. Whilst the U.S. certainly invented the underlying technology (with British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee having created the World Wide Web allowing the sharing of information on the Internet), this transition is an important step in establishing that the Internet is a decentralised network belonging to no one.
What is the background?
Ever since the creation of ICANN in 1998, the role of the U.S. government in managing Internet functions was questionable. Indeed, in 2006 ICANN clearly stated that it would seek control of the IANA contract. This was resisted by the U.S. government for many years – but understandable to some, given the development of the Internet and its interest in ensuring that the transition of the IANA contract and the domain name system was done in an orderly fashion.
In 2012, it looked like the United Nations ITU (International Telecommunications Union) might move towards having greater control over the Internet. However, many in the global internet community had serious reservations about that possibility. Whilst ICANN was also considered and received some criticism, it was nevertheless a known entity that functioned. The choice was important because the Internet is a critical infrastructure today.
But what exactly are we talking about?
The expiration of the IANA contract is only part of the picture. The penultimate chapter of the privatization of the Internet process began in 2014. The U.S. government asked ICANN to convene the global multi stakeholder community comprising private-sector representatives, businesses, IP owners, technical experts, academics, governments and individual Internet end users, to formulate proposals for the stewardship of the Internet and the Domain Name System (DNS) as well as enhancing ICANN’s accountability mechanisms. Two years of substantial work later, the plan was presented to the U.S. government and eventually approved.
But then further politics came into play, seeking to prevent the transition and arguing that the transfer could lead to certain authoritarian countries taking control of the Internet and eventually censoring content throughout the world. However many leading figures including some of the web’s founding fathers, refuted such claims arguing that blocking the transition would be a far bigger risk to the Internet’s long term well-being.
Last week at the eleventh hour, legal proceedings were brought by four U.S. state attorneys general, against the U.S. government seeking a temporary restraining order. It was claimed that allowing the transition would, among other things, put free speech at risk and would give away U.S. government property (a.k.a. the root file, the gigantic directory of domain names and their associated servers). The U.S. attorneys general argued that the transition needed Congressional approval and, moreover, that a loss of U.S. control generally would jeopardise well-established domains. The U.S. district judge put the kibosh on that action on 30 September 2016 and disagreed. In turn, over the weekend, the U.S. government said “bye bye” to the Internet and transitioned control to ICANN.
What is the effect of this on Internet Users?
None. In effect, ICANN plays a significant, but carefully defined role in the Internet’s ecosystem. The stewardship of the IANA functions is now with ICANN. Indeed it was ICANN that drafted the final proposal that was accepted by the U.S. government. Its goal was to ensure, in the words of Steve Crocker, ICANN Board Chair, “that the Internet of tomorrow remains as free, open and accessible as the Internet of today”.