Type TechRepublic into a search engine, and no matter where you are in the world, the request will reach the computers serving TechRepublic.com. The internet’s Domain Name System (DNS) makes that possible.
This information may seem like little more than trivia to most; however, over the next several months, major decisions about Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the maintainer of DNS since 1998, are going to be made, and the outcome of those decisions could affect all of us and how we use the internet.
What is ICANN?
ICANN manages the system of addresses (global identifiers) given to every device attached to the internet. From the ICANN website, “In more technical terms, ICANN coordinates the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) functions, which are key technical services critical to the continued operations of the internet’s underlying address book, DNS.”
The IANA functions include:
- Address and Routing Parameter Area (ARPA) top-level domain management
- Internet DNS root zone management of generic Top-Level Domain (gTLD) and country code Top-Level Domains (ccTLD)
- Internet numbering resource allocation
The key piece to the puzzle is the National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA), a government agency under the auspices of the US Department of Commerce. NTIA is the organization responsible for advising the President on telecommunications and information policy issues. More importantly, NTIA is responsible for contracting ICANN to control the IANA functions referenced earlier.
Never meant to be permanent
Referring to the Commerce Department’s 1998 Statement of Policy, this NTIA press release states, “From the inception of ICANN, the U.S. Government and Internet stakeholders envisioned that the U.S. role in the IANA functions would be temporary.”
Temporary has turned into 17 plus years. Every time changing leadership has been discussed, fireworks start. For example, 10 years ago, the United Nations’ Working Group on Internet Governance, in this report (PDF), declared:
- No single Government should have a pre-eminent role in relation to international Internet governance.
- The organizational form for the governance function will be multilateral, transparent and democratic, with the full involvement of Governments, the private sector, civil society, and international organizations.
The UN’s suggestions did not sit well with US lawmakers. More than a few times in the congressional report, ICANN Internet Governance: is it working?, members of Congress voiced their objections. Also, several members of the House of Representatives introduced resolution H. Con Res 268 (PDF), which states:
“It is incumbent upon the United States and other responsible governments to send clear signals to the marketplace that the current structure of oversight and management of the Internet’s domain name and addressing service works, and will continue to deliver tangible benefits to Internet users worldwide in the future.”
Things quieted down for approximately eight years until the next volley.
Thomas Claburn, in this InformationWeek Government column, quoted Milton Mueller, professor at Georgia Institute of Technology School of Public Policy, as saying, “A decade ago, foreign governments were indignant about US control over the Internet. Then came the Snowden revelations in 2013.”
Mueller adds that Snowden’s activities started the pot boiling in earnest. However he opines, “Yet, as much as other countries might resent US control, they recognized that at least the US could hold ICANN accountable.”
To clarify what Mueller said, ICANN is not officially controlled by the US government; ICANN is an independent nonprofit contractor. However, most countries, Mueller, and others feel the US government has substantial influence over the organization.
What’s happening now?
The most recent development is the July 2015 Proposal to Transition the Stewardship of the IANA Functions from the U.S. Commerce Department’s NTIA to the Global Multistakeholder Community (PDF), a 199-page document by the IANA Stewardship Transition Coordination Group (ICG) offering suggestions of how to fulfill the Commerce Department’s 1998 Statement of Policy regarding ICANN. The ICG is soliciting public comment about having a multistakeholder group oversee IANA functions. The last date for commenting is September 8, 2015.
As to what multistakeholder means, Claburn quizzed Mueller about it. “Multistakeholder is a code word for self-governance by the Internet community,” said Mueller. “That’s new [as a governing structure] and that’s why we’re kind of groping along here.”
What’s at stake?
Those who have commented about the proposal, as well as members of governments and leaders of businesses and organizations are surprisingly in agreement: change is needed. Yet, there is concern that international organizations are near impossible to manage, and with the internet being a vital conduit for the world community, great care must be taken in deciding who is given the authority to control what exists and what does not exist on the internet.
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