Why is the U.S. surrendering control of the Internet? (And why should you care?)

ICANN domains

Al Gore may not have “invented the Internet,” but Uncle Sam has always held the keys. Until now.

In what’s been described as a bit of a surprise move, the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration has announced it intends to transition “key Internet domain name functions” over to the International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the group that’s responsible for much of the technical underpinning and standards that define the global Internet. Boring news? Perhaps – but it may also be one of the most consequential things to happen to the global Internet in decades. Here’s everything you need to know about the U.S. giving up “control of the Internet.”

What’s the big deal here?

One of the “key functions” to be ceded includes control of the master list of all top-level domains – everything from .com and .net to the huge slate of new top-level domains, like .bike and .chat. If this list is not operating reliably and consistently, vast swathes of the Internet become inaccesible. It’s also a bit of a political hot potato: Right now – and for the last three decades – it’s been under the thumb of the U.S. Department of Commerce. Needless to say, many countries – Russia and China, in particular – don’t like the U.S. government’s power in domain-name creation.

The change may determine whether we stick with one global Internet or fragment into separate, isolated networks.

While it’s currently possible for China’s government, say, to prevent users in its country to access certain websites, it does not have the ability to block the creation of entire top-level domains. Theoretically, that could change without heavy U.S. influence over ICANN and, in turn, could lead to a fragmented Web and greater censorship of the Internet. Most stakeholders, however, see issues like copyright and spam as playing a large role in future debates, and that will inevitably lead to discussions of censorship.

The handover itself isn’t a big surprise – it’s been envisaged since the late 1990s. But the timing is curious and almost certainly political. How the Internet community handles the change may determine whether we stick with one global Internet or fragment into separate, isolated networks.

What exactly does the U.S. government control?

The Internet seems like a decentralized thing, with no clear nerve center, but there are a few vital, centralized functions handled by the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), a subgroup of ICANN, that let the Internet work. One of those is the operation of the root DNS zones.

DNS, or Domain Name System, is the technology that translates names like digitaltrends.com into IP addresses (like that our devices actually use to connect to, well, anything on the Internet. The root DNS zones are at the heart of that lookup system, and serve as the final authority for every top-level domains, from .com through .guru.

Ostensibly, there are just 13 top-level root servers (though there may be more), all of which are controlled by the U.S. Department of Commerce, a historical legacy stemming from the Internet having been developed in the United States. Commerce has always intended to hand over control of the root DNS zones and other key functions to non-governmental hands – the original plan hoped for a transition by the year 2000. But that didn’t happen – and then 9/11 did happen – and the issue of “who controls the Internet” became politically heated.

It’s not as if the root DNS servers are in the basement of the Commerce Department, however. The agency contracted with ICANN (at no cost) to operate the root DNS zones, and ICANN in turn worked out a deal with VeriSign to handle operations. (VeriSign also runs the .com and .net registries under separate contracts.)

But the ultimate authority for the root DNS zones rests with the Commerce Department. For folks who have faith and confidence that the U.S. government will not interfere with the open operation of the Internet, this isn’t a problem. Folks who find themselves at odds with U.S. government policy or actions have never been comfortable with the arrangement.

Why is the U.S. giving up control?

Placing key Internet functions under the control of a single government is problematic. How confortable would American businesses – or the American government – be if the root DNS zones were under the control of the Chinese government? Or the Russian government? That’s the dilemma most of the world has been living with for decades. At any point, countries like Russia and China say, the U.S. government could arbitrarily use the root DNS zones as a vehicle for its geopolitical agenda, perhaps deciding that countries it believes restrict human rights or sponsor terrorism don’t deserve to be on the Internet.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller

So far, that’s never happened, and the U.S. government has largely stood aside on top-level domain controversies (like the creation of .ps for Palestine). Back in 2005, however, the Bush administration did use its authority to block the .xxx top-level domain (which eventually went live in 2011). There’s always a background concern that world events (consider what’s happening now in the Crimea) or a changing political landscape could lead the United States to abuse its position of power. Just last week, the chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), lashed out at ICANN about a proposed .sucks top-level domain, calling it a “predatory shakedown.” Although Rockefeller is in favor of ceding U.S. authority to ICANN, the weight of the U.S. position in the current regime is obvious.

As a result, many countries have resisted participating in ICANN over the years, seeing it as little more than an organ for the U.S. government. Some have proposed the Internet be managed by a truly international body, such as the United Nation’s International Telecommunications Union. That effort was scuttled by the United States and its allies in 2012, but there’s still discontent, particularly in the wake of ongoing surveillance revelations spurred by Edward Snowden. Countries like Brazil have openly discussed forming coalitions to set up their own alternative root services, effectively creating their own internets – Brazil is hosting an ICANN conference on the topic next month. Russia, India, and the EU are mulling the same thing; China already exerts strong state control over the Internet in its borders.

So: the timing of the United States’ decision is both a way to assure the international community the U.S. won’t use that control to push its own agenda and a geopolitical move in itself. The timing of the announcement will certainly recast April’s Internet governance conference in Brazil, perhaps helping dampen interest in break-away or balkanized national Internets. And an open Internet is clearly in the interest of the United States, both as an economic and cultural force and (more cynically) as a vast source of intelligence.

So who will be in charge?

No one knows how the root zones and other key services will be managed once the U.S. government cedes control. The Commerce Department’s current contract with ICANN runs through September 2015, so that’s the soonest we’ll see any change. It might take longer – ICANN isn’t known for moving quickly. ICANN says it plans to set up a process for “global multistakeholder stewardship” and will begin seeking input at its 49th Public Meeting in Singapore later this month.

No one knows how the root zones and other key services will be managed once the U.S. government cedes control.

ICANN’s management of this transition may be a crucial test. ICANN has establishes a multi-stakeholder process that’s vastly liberalized top-level domains, created a revenue base, and kept core Internet operations going. The pressure of assuming responsibility for essential root function might splinter ICANN’s process into a fractious mob – or it might be a chance for ICANN’s multi-stakeholder model to truly shine.

ICANN will undoubtedly feel pressure to shift at least a portion of the operation of the DNS root zones and other services away from VeriSign. Although the company has been handling the guts of the Internet for decades, VeriSign is an American company subject to U.S. law. The U.S. government considers itself to have the authority to shut down any domain in a registry run by VeriSign – that includes .com and .net, as well as top-level domains like .tv and .name. VeriSign will continue to run those registries after the top-level zone transition – but many wonder if the U.S. wouldn’t use the same leverage with VeriSign to control operation of root functions if push came to shove.

The U.S. has been clear it does not want to see another government or inter-governmental group (i.e., the United Nations) take over root operations. However, it also doesn’t want ICAAN to become an unaccountable agency in charge of the Internet. The U.S. may relinquish control of root function, but it’s not going to be hands-off in matters of Internet governance.

After all: the Internet is now essential to worldwide communications and commerce, and control of the root DNS zones could easily become one of history’s most powerful economic sledgehammers – or a devastating tool for censorship.

(Images via NPR, Wikipedia)