March 20, 2014

What happens to the internet after the U.S. hands off ICANN to others?

A screen shows a rolling feed of new 'Generic Top-Level Domain Names (gTLDs). (Andrew Cowie/AFP/GettyImages)
A screen shows a rolling feed of new ‘Generic Top-Level Domain Names (gTLDs). (Andrew Cowie/AFP/GettyImages)

This weekend, hundreds of people from dozens of countries will gather in Singapore to discuss the future of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a multinational organization that oversees the address book of the internet thanks to a contract issued by the U.S. government.

The contract expires in September 2015 and the U.S. Commerce Department announced last Friday that it would eventually transfer key internet “domain name functions to a global multi-stakeholder community.” Some Americans worry this will cede “control” of the internet to nations that will impose regulations that change the basic open character of the internet and make it less hospitable to American interests.

It is important to remember that no one, no government and no organization “controls the internet.” ICANN is a crucial cog in the functioning of the internet because computers (and the people who use them) cannot find each other on the internet without Internet Protocol (IP) addresses. ICANN oversees how those addresses are doled out and how they are named. No IP address; no connectivity between your computer, smartphone, or tablet and others. No IP address; no website.

It is such a huge system that the original creators of the internet in the 1970s-1980s substantially underestimated how many addresses would be needed. They built a system that allowed for about 4.3 billion addresses, and the world has been scrambling in recent years to expand to a system, called Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6), that allows for roughly 340,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 addresses. (Yes, that’s right.)

Top internet domainsICANN’s big job is to ensure that when users try to access a website or send an email, they end up in the right place. It is perhaps best known for coordinating the Domain Naming System (DNS), the key bits of information that fall on either side of the “dot” in a web address. It set up the nomenclature for the right side of “top level domain,” which, for most of the history of the Web consisted of a few familiar suffixes –  .com, .org, .net, .edu, .gov, .mil and some country-specific domains like .af for Afghanistan and .by for Belarus. A raft of new top-level domains are now being reviewed or have recently been approved, many of which are trying to tie a top-level domain to a particular topic such as .museum or .plumbing. 

ICANN makes arrangements with “registries” to administer those top level domains. In turn, those accredited registries handle the material on the left side of the dot – selling or providing local domain names to websites or email providers.

The internet would break down without this kind of basic coordination, but there are plenty of important things on the internet that ICANN does not regulate:

  • Bad actors on the internet: ICANN is not a policing enterprise. It does not investigate hackers or spammers or those accused of trademark violations (e.g. an organization pretending to be a famous brand product).
  • Content on the internet: ICANN is not in the business of monitoring and regulating child pornography, hate speech, scams, spoofs or other illegal material. Laws in international organizations, or in countries, states or localities, govern such activity, and the law enforcement personnel in those realms are responsible for those policing functions.
  • Internet access itself:  That is provided by Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that are not under the control of ICANN.

Still, there are really crucial internet “real estate” issues for ICANN to sort out and any number of legal issues that bring it into court.

Even more important, at times, are the political atmospherics of ICANN. Despite the fact that most ICANN board members are not American, despite the fact that the CEO is Egyptian, there are many in the international community who assume that the U.S. has outsized influence on the group. In the wake of revelations that the National Security Agency has been gathering up enormous amounts of information on people’s internet activities, several countries have announced plans to host meetings on the future of internet governance that will push for non-U.S. control. Some believe that the U.S. announcement was aimed at reassuring other nations that it would not retain control of ICANN.

As the Singapore meeting proceeds it will be interesting to see if the U.S. provides more details about what kind of “multi-taskholder” structure would be satisfactory as a body to run the organization. The Commerce Department statement only specified what it would not be: The department “will not accept a proposal that replaces the NTIA role with a government-led or an inter-governmental organization solution.”

Obama Administration officials emphasized that this transfer was not handing power over to Russia and China or other governments with histories of censorship. Perhaps they were aware of the broad international sentiment against internet censorship that the Pew Research Center just reported.

There are important questions to resolve in Singapore and beyond: how the board and staffing of ICANN will be structured, who gets to pick people for which jobs, who gets to vote when policy is made, how non-government stakeholders like companies and non-profit organizations will have a say in ICANN affairs, and what kinds of appeals mechanisms will be available to those who are on the losing side in policy choices.

It would not surprise many if the transfer of ICANN to another overseer extended beyond the September 2015 end of the current contract – perhaps well beyond.

Topics: Future of the Internet

  1. Photo of Lee Rainie

    is director of internet and technology research at Pew Research Center.


  1. DevSALIMstacking133 years ago

    There is a simple answer to this. Everyone leaves this internet, and we start over with Internet 2.0 with icann back in the USA where it is safest. China and turkey and Singapore and Russia can stay on ghettonet, which is what the old internet will be

    مجتمع سليم

  2. Gregory Shatan3 years ago

    At a very high level, this is a decent article, and it takes a reasonable view of the overall situation. Sadly, this article is riddled with significant errors (and some less significant). Going down the article:

    1. Nearly 2000 people from 150 countries attended ICANN49 in Singapore.
    2. Most of what ICANN does is not “thanks to a contract from the US government.” The IANA Contract only covers ICANN’s performance of the IANA Functions. Most of what ICANN does has no direct relationship to IANA. Indeed, there is functional separation between IANA and the rest of ICANN, as required by the IANA Contract.
    3. ICANN does much more than “oversee the address book of the Internet.”
    4. I’m not sure what you mean by a “multinational organization,” but ICANN is a US non-profit incorporated in California.
    5. The NTIA is not transferring “important domain name functions.” It is transferring oversight over those important domain name functions — the IANA functions performed by the IANA group within ICANN. This is a critical distinction.
    6. ICANN’s “big job” is assuring the “security, stability and resiliency” of the Internet and administering the entire DNS (Domain Name System). The issues around routing of Internet traffic are a relatively small part of what ICANN does.
    7. .museum, which is cited as one of the raft of new gTLDs, has actually been in operation since 2001.
    8. Registries in almost all cases own the TLDs, including all of the new gTLDs. Only a few TLDs, including .com, are operated under “arrangements” with registries. They do not sell domain names to end users — that is done by registrars (such as GoDaddy or TuCows). Your link for “accredited registries” actually goes to a page describing registrars. Registries must find registrars willing to sell domain names in their TLD.
    9. While Fadi Chehade is of Egyptian heritage, he was born in Lebanon and left for the US at the age of 18 (32 years ago) and is a US citizen and resident (while continuing to hold Egyptian and Lebanese passports). Describing him as “Egyptian,” while technically correct, is reductive and misleading.
    10. Only Brazil has so far called for a meeting on the future Internet Governance (NETmundial), which is being held in conjunction with ICANN and emphasizes the multistakeholder model of governance (where government are only one set of stakeholders). No other country or region has yet done anything similar.
    11. The NTIA has specifically said they will not “put their thumb on the scale.” Within the parameters they have set, they want the global multistakeholder community (of which many US corporations and individuals are part) to craft the solution, facilitated by ICANN.
    12. None of the “important questions” you cite are really on the table. ICANN already has a robust governance model, and its not expected that any of these things will change (except in the most disruptive potential proposals). There may be subtle changes to accommodate the new mechanism for oversight of the IANA functions, and there may be a heightened examination of certain aspects of ICANN’s governance model given the amount of scrutiny it will be under (but ICANN undergoes repeated “Accountability and Transparency Reviews” under the Affirmation of Commitments between the US and ICANN (which you failed to mention at all). Some of those questions are really off the table (such as “appeals” by losers in “policy choices”). Also, the policy development process is a bottom-up, consensus-driven (i.e., no voting) multistakeholder system; policy recommendations go to the Board, which then votes on them (and typically must adopt them unless rejected by a supermajority vote) — this is at the core of the ICANN governance model and is highly unlikely to change, and certainly not as part of the IANA oversight transition.
    13. Thinking of the NTIA as an “overseer” really overstates the relationship; the NTIA “oversees” (actually doublechecks and approves) various technical changes in the Root Zone Files that are transmitted from registries to the IANA group at ICANN to NTIA and on to VeriSign. There is also a “stewardship” aspect that is worth noting, though somewhat harder to define.
    14. ICANN is not being “transferred” to another “overseer.” First off, it is completely unclear what form the oversight mechanism may take; it may or may not be an entity. Second, whatever the oversight role is, it is likely to be different in many ways from the NTIA’s role, while still being consistent with an oversight role relating to the IANA functions and assuring a secure, stable, and resilient Internet, free from domination by foreign governments.
    Other than that, you did make a number of good points, and just about anything I didn’t comment on was accurate. I think your overall view of the situation is reasonable. This is a complex situation, and not easy to grasp. I hope you will take the time to understand it well, since the IANA transition will be with us for a while, and understanding ICANN is an essential part of understanding Internet Governance and ultimately the Internet. It took me years to know what I know, and there’s always more to know. I hope you find this comment helpful.

    1. Lee Rainie3 years ago

      Yes, Gregory, it is a helpful comment. Thanks.

  3. Brad Jensen3 years ago

    There is a simple answer to this. Everyone leaves this internet, and we start over with Internet 2.0 with icann back in the USA where it is safest. China and turkey and Singapore and Russia can stay on ghettonet, which is what the old internet will be

  4. Sam Liberman3 years ago

    I suspect that lots of people and companies will be allowed to charge internet users for things that are now free. But then , what is government for but to give things of value to our business friends; so that they can charge us more.

    1. Lee Rainie3 years ago

      Sam: Whether it’s a good thing or not, ICANN doesn’t address issues like this: Who can and can’t charge for stuff online and what they can charge.

      I was really struck when I saw the data in our chart yesterday about the share of domains that are dot-coms. Commerce and things related to commerce are huge parts of online life.


  5. Robert L Burwell3 years ago

    Strangely for a man of 55 it is unusual that I might have a pertinant opinion on this subject but in my youth as a rural resident we had a party line (more than one family on the same phone line) and you were supposed to respect on another’s privacy which they did not. I was disappointed for the invitation of my privacy when talking to my girl friend as a teenager but you have to know someone is listening in your life at all times and even a farm boy gets it and approves of it. This is one of the most important moments in a global world, restrictions should not exist at this level, if sects of sociaty wish to enforce censorship that is their issue and will change with passage of time, it is more important to get it right than on time.