The Internet Finally Belongs to Everyone
The United States no longer controls the address book for the Internet.
On Saturday, the US government handed the last vestiges of control to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, an independent organization whose members include myriad governments and corporations as well as individual Internet users. The nearly-20-year-old ICANN was already overseeing the distribution of Internet addresses, and now it officially owns the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, or IANA, the database that stores all Internet domain names. IANA is what ensures you see the WIRED website when you type “www.wired.com” into your browser.
In recent months, many voices have complained about this change, including Senator Ted Cruz, a former Republication presidential candidate, and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, claiming it would undermine the Internet as we know it. But don’t panic. Very little will change after Saturday’s handover.
That said, the symbolism of the event is enormous. The Internet finally belongs to everyone.
From to 1988 to 1998, IANA was managed entirely by two people: Jon Postel and Joyce Reynolds. That changed shortly before Postel’s death, when the Department of Commerce created ICANN and granted it a contract to manage IANA. The idea was to eventually give ICANN full ownership of IANA, but politics got in the way. Then, earlier this year, ICANN finally approved a transition plan.
The plan was hailed by industry groups like the Internet Association, which represents companies like Amazon, Google, and Facebook, and by non-profit advocacy groups like Public Knowledge and Access Now. But it was met with instant opposition from certain Republican politicians.
Cruz campaigned against the transition for months, claiming it would allow China, Iran, and Russia to censor what we in the US can see on the Internet. Trump weighed in with an ominous press release claiming that President Barack Obama planned to give control of the Internet to the United Nations. And last week, four red-state attorneys general launched a failed attempt to block the handover, insisting it was an unlawful transfer of government property.
On Friday, a judge tossed the case from the attorneys general, allowing the transition to go through. And now that ICANN ows IANA, we don’t have to worry about the arguments from Cruz and Trump. After all, they make no sense.
No More Nonsense
Apparently, Trump was feeding off a recent column from L. Gordon Crovitz, where former Wall dStreet Journal publisher argued that ICANN would team up with the UN in order to keep its antitrust exemption. But as ICANN general counsel John Jeffrey pointed out, ICANN has never had an antitrust exemption. In fact, the Department of Commerce explicitly stated in 1998 that ICANN would be subject to antitrust law.
Nor does the transfer give countries like China or Russia control over IANA—let alone the entire Internet. Both countries are part of an existing ICANN committee called the Governmental Advisory Committee, or GAC. The GAC advises ICANN and can force ICANN’s board to vote on proposals, but forcing a vote requires a consensus from the GAC, so no one country push policies without support of the rest of the member states. The board can still vote down the GAC’s proposals. And because ICANN is based in California, it still has to follow US law, as do US companies like Verisign that handle domain name registration under contract of ICANN.
Someone could, in theory, bribe the members of the ICANN board into taking on particular policy positions. But the board is elected by outside organizations composed of businesses, non-profits, and Internet users from around the world. And those organizations can recall individual board members, or the entire board. This, in theory, provides checks and balances that keep control of ICANN, and IANA by extension, from falling into the hands of any one country, company or organization.
Power to the People
That said, ICANN isn’t perfect. Many critics—such as Internet policy analyst Milton Mueller—have argued that the board has serious accountability problems and that its election process is opaque. Some argued the this is reason enough for the US government to keep control of IANA.
But ICANN’s accountability problems predates the IANA transition, and it’s unlikely that forestalling the transfer would have made much of a difference. The US government’s only real power over ICANN was the ability to take control of IANA away from ICANN and give it to another organization, a “nuclear option” that probably would have caused more problems than it solved. ICANN reform must come from its member organizations, not from government pressure.
Ultimately, the transfer of IANA to ICANN is more of a formality than a real change of policy. But it’s an important formality. The fact that the US government had the final say over the domain name system never sat well with the rest of the world, especially after 2013 when Edward Snowden revealed the scope of US Internet surveillance. Severing that last tie to the US will allow foreign governments and companies to have confidence that the Internet is outside of the US’s control.
What’s more, ICANN’s new governance system could be a model for managing international commons without relying entirely on governments. In that regard, conservatives, libertarians, and other skeptics of government power should be encouraged by ICANN’s existence. ICANN might not be perfect. But it just might be the future.