On October 1, the US government formally gave up control of the Internet to ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. This move had been in the making for the past nineteen years. On the surface, it sounds like the United States has given up its power and authority over the Internet, and this has riled up some conservative lawmakers, most notably Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. In reality, however, the Obama Administration finally brought the plan to fruition largely to protect the Internet from control by other governments.
For the past two decades, the United States government has held a contract with ICANN to maintain one of the Internet’s most important services, the Domain Name Service (DNS). DNS is the critical service that frees Internet users from having to know the numeric addresses of their favorite websites. DNS translates an address like www.lewisu.edu to an Internet Protocol (IP) address, which is how the routers and switches that power the Internet actually locate where to send data. If you have ever paid to have your own web address (also called domain name), your web host first checked with ICANN to make sure that that name was not taken. Then, if it the name you wanted was available, it was mapped to your server’s IP address. ICANN records these mappings in the files of 13 root DNS servers, the ultimate authorities on what domain names correspond to which IP addresses. Those 13 servers then propagate those updated files to the thousands of more local DNS servers that actually help fill your Internet requests. The US government has simply made sure that ICANN performed this role acceptably.
The US government decided not to renew its contract with ICANN, instead deciding that ICANN would independently coordinate this activity on the Internet. So, in actuality, the government has not given up much control, because it didn’t have much control to begin with. The operation of the Internet is actually controlled by a diverse group called the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). The IETF includes technical experts from universities and industries, representatives of Internet companies, and officials from the world’s governments. This diversity aims to preserve the bottom-up approach to identifying and solving problems that is so much better at solving technical problems quickly than a top-down approach directed by government edict would be. Working groups draft technical documents and policies that shape the way the Internet provides its services, but no one government has authority over how the global Internet functions. Certainly, countries like China have been able to regulate speech in their own countries by building firewalls that keep out traffic they don’t want, but that kind of policy doesn’t extend beyond the limits of that country. And the US, even when it had contractual oversight of ICANN’s operations, had no say in such matters.
Divesting “control” of the Internet is a good step, because a number of countries had been pushing to centralize oversight of the Internet in a United Nations task force called the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). Since the United Nations is comprised entirely of governments, entrusting control to the ITU would surely have meant top-down governmental regulation of the Internet. That would have posed an immediate and much greater threat to free speech. Despite the impassioned speeches of some conservative lawmakers who have tried to describe this as yet another American giveaway of power, the move to entrust ICANN with independent oversight of worldwide DNS operations is a smart one, because it essentially preserves the status quo.