This article is part of the “Who Controls the Internet?” installment of Futurography, a series in which Future Tense introduces readers to the technologies that will define tomorrow. Future Tense is a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. On Thursday, Nov. 10, Future Tense will hold an event in Washington, D.C., titled “Will the Internet Always Be American?” For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.
Learning to navigate the World Wide Web in the ’90s was a little bit surreal. After suffering through those excruciating dial-up noises, you opened a popular browser like Netscape Navigator and typed a string of funny letters and symbols—a URL, they called it—into an “address bar” and voila! You would magically be transported to, say, a site dedicated to the instant classic Space Jam. And even if the site wasn’t actually on GeoCities, it usually had that restrained GeoCities aesthetic.
Today, surfing the web has become routine, but for most people the inner workings of the network remain just as mysterious as they were back in the 1990s, when the commercial internet was just starting to take off. For example, few know much about the internet’s Domain Name System, or DNS, which helps keep the internet working on a technical level. The DNS functions, in essence, as the internet’s “address book”—it’s how you can be confident that when you type a URL like www.spacejam.com into an address bar, you’ll actually get to the website you intended to visit. And, unless a major distributed denial-of-service attack happens to be underway, that process is usually so seamless that you don’t even have to think about it.
This apparently seamless operation is actually the product of a fairly complex system of naming and numbering that was developed by computer scientists in the early days of the Internet. Today, it’s managed by a number of technical organizations, including a little-known nonprofit organization based in California: the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN.
If ICANN sounds vaguely familiar to you, it could be because you heard Ted Cruz or Donald Trump’s fearmongering in September about how the United States was giving up “control of the Internet” to foreign powers like China and Russia. A Trump press release said that if President Obama’s “Plan to Surrender American Internet Control to Foreign Powers“ succeeded, “Internet freedom will be lost for good, since there will be no way to make it great again once it is lost.”
The Trump campaign was talking about the “IANA transition,” the long-overdue end of the U.S. government’s formal role in ICANN oversight, which officially happened Oct. 1. Trump’s rhetoric is largely nonsensical, but it is a good example of the widespread confusion about what ICANN is and its role in internet governance. That’s why it’s important for ordinary users to recognize that there’s no secret “giveaway” happening and ICANN doesn’t “control” the internet in any sense of the word—although it does play a key part in the global coordination system that keeps the network running. So here is a guide to what ICANN actually is and what all the recent fuss is really about—and I’ll keep it as jargon-free as possible.
ICANN’s origin story goes back to the 1980s. Before Cruz graduated from middle school or Trump “wrote” The Art of the Deal, the computers scientists who created the early internet realized that they needed a more efficient and scalable way to send messages over the network than having to know the numeric Internet Protocol, or IP, addresses assigned to every computer on the network.
Enter Jon Postel, a researcher at the University of Southern California’s Information Sciences Institute whose contributions to the early development of the network have earned him the nickname ”god of the Internet.” Postel initially created a simple, phonebook-style directory so that he could manually keep track of the name of every computer on the network and its corresponding IP address. But then he and his colleagues had a better idea, one that would accommodate the future growth of the network: They created the DNS, which organizes the names into hierarchically nested domains (like .com and .edu) and stores the information needed to resolve names into their corresponding numeric IP addresses on a decentralized group of servers located around the world.
For most of the 1990s, Postel coordinated the allocation of IP addresses as the head of a voluntary organization called the Internet Assigned Number Authority, or the IANA, which was supported by the U.S. government. But by 1998, two things had become clear: The internet was growing too large and important for such a critical resource to be managed almost entirely by a single individual, and the U.S. government’s close involvement in the day-to-day management of a now global resource was becoming increasingly uncomfortable.
ICANN’s design included several key features meant to ensure its success and foster legitimacy. First, the organization would be multi-stakeholder. In other words, the organization would allow—indeed, encourage—participation from a wide range of people and organizations beyond governments, including technical experts, the business community, civil society representatives, and academics. Second, ICANN would operate through a “bottom-up process,” meaning that policy changes had to be discussed and approved by participants throughout the organization, rather than emanating from the top down. And third, ICANN’s processes and decision-making would remain open and transparent, to safeguard it from capture by any one faction.
U.S. policymakers were reluctant, however, to give ICANN complete control over the internet’s address book without any means to guarantee the nascent organization’s stability or longevity. So they carved out a small, seemingly innocuous role for themselves: an oversight contract between the Commerce Department and ICANN for procurement of the IANA functions. (I know, I know, this is a lot of abbreviations and acronyms, but bear with me.) The IANA contract would allow the U.S. government to make sure that the DNS continued to run smoothly and that ICANN was fulfilling its commitments to transparency, consensus-based policymaking, and multi-stakeholder participation. They originally envisioned a trial period of a few years, with the goal of getting the U.S. government out of the internet governance business as early as 2000.
While completing the transition in two years may have been a pipe dream, ICANN is now a fully fledged adult. The past 18 years have given the U.S. government plenty of time to assess the organization’s stability and identify the safeguards needed to ensure its continued success. Indeed, the relationship between ICANN and the U.S. government has often been described as “clerical” or “technical” because of how hands-off the Commerce Department has remained. ICANN has its flaws—as its critics will be quick to point out—but most experts agree that it has matured into an organization that functions reasonably well.
That’s why those in the know weren’t terribly surprised when the Commerce Department announced in March 2014 that it intended to finally let the IANA contract expire. The announcement represented a formal declaration that because the system can function on its own, it no longer made sense for one government to have any kind of special role, no matter how small, in overseeing it.
Of course, it wasn’t a matter of simply letting the IANA contract expire. Members of the multi-stakeholder community immediately began the difficult process of crafting a transition plan that would replicate and strengthen the existing accountability mechanisms without requiring a government contract. After nearly two years of hard work, they presented their final plan at the ICANN meeting in Morocco earlier this year. The Commerce Department, the ICANN board, and practically everyone in the internet community gave it their blessing, recognizing that while the plan may not have been perfect, it was certainly good enough to greenlight the long-awaited transition.
Unfortunately, a small but vocal group of critics continued to argue that—despite historical precedent, years of careful planning, and an explicit commitment to multi-stakeholder governance—the transition was actually a thinly veiled attempt by President Obama to hand over power to the Russians and the Chinese. (Although Russia and China have long been popular bogeymen in the internet governance world, this was a particularly bizarre assertion given ICANN’s technical role and the Obama administration’s strong track record on internet freedom issues.) These are the same individuals who proposed legislation back in 2014 to block the transition and attached appropriations riders in 2014 and 2015 that made it harder for Commerce to participate in the transition process itself. They argue that the transition would destroy internet freedom, and many supported an eleventh hour attempt to stop the transition through a lawsuit filed in Texas mere days before the contract expired. (Fortunately, the judge denied their request for a temporary restraining order.)
The problem is, these critics were dead wrong. Not only did they fundamentally misunderstand what ICANN is and the nature of its relationship with the U.S. government—they also proposed a “solution” to the problem that would have the opposite of its intended effect. As I (and many others) have previously explained, completing the transition in a timely manner was actually the best way to stop foreign governments from grabbing a larger role in internet governance. For starters, the new oversight model clearly rejects any formal government role in ICANN oversight. And perhaps more importantly, ICANN’s multi-stakeholder model is a much more appealing alternative to the intergovernmental solution that countries like Russia and China have tried to replace ICANN with for years. Many foreign governments would prefer to bring DNS management under the purview of an organization like the United Nations, because it is a more sympathetic forum—and one where governments are the only stakeholders who can meaningfully participate.
For now, though, ICANN is safe. While the internet community will continue to pay attention to important issues like keeping ICANN accountable, hardly anyone else noticed when the transition officially happened Oct. 1. And that’s how it should be. Internet users have more important things to worry about—like whether they are ever going to make Space Jam 2.