The US government said on the 23rd January 2016 that it would relinquish control of ICANN, the internet Administrator, and allow it to become independent. The US government has always possessed control of ICANN since it was first launched 47 years ago, but now it has seen fit to give up that control.
Initially, it fell under the domain of the US Department of Commerce; this is something which will change drastically on the 30th September 2016, only months away from now. The US government's mandate expires on the 30th September 2016, so both ICANN and the US Congress clearly want to make a natural change after this. There will be plans heard in the US Congress over the next few weeks to finalize plans for ICANN to become independent, and it is then that we will begin to hear more detail about what the future holds for the organization.
To replace the state control of ICANN, there will instead be a new system which has been described as being "multi-stakeholder", which means that individual users of the internet, businesses, and members of foreign governments will all have a share in the decisions made by the internet Administrator. This is a drastic shift, as the US government has shown in the past that it prefers to police the internet from within its own administration.
The CEO of ICANN, Fadi Chehadé has spoken out about the move, saying it is not as dramatic as we might think:
People have aggrandized the role of the US government in what we do. But the change is actually minimal. It's important symbolically because the US was really a steward for the internet, but for day-to-day accountability, it is minimal.
What Does ICANN do?
ICANN stands for the internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, and the organization does not control the internet in any way but acts as more of a policing force. It is a nonprofit organization which was initially set up in 1998, and it is responsible for taking care of the maintenance of a variety of databases, all stored within the US, which are all related to the different namespaces of the internet.
The most famous project that ICANN have completed, and continue to maintain, is the Internet's Global Domain Name System; this is what dictates that the internet has top level domains and standards such as root name servers. ICANN also controls the Internet Protocol address spaces for IPv4 and IPv5, as well as the domain registration for regional address, which are country specific addresses.
In short, though ICANN does not control any of the content which is on the internet, it does control a lot of behind-the-scenes detail; it is designed as an organization whose purpose is to maintain and steward the everyday running of the internet, and by establishing domain name standards and upholding the internet Protocol, it helps make sure the internet is safe and secure.
The Story of ICANN's Independence
Though the internet Administrator is only just getting the go-ahead to become independent of the US government, this is not the first time that this issue has been raised. In fact, ICANN has been moving gradually toward independence for at least ten years: in an agreement in September 2006, it gained the ability to set its own agenda and points of focus, rather than having them dictated to it by the US government. Back in 2013, the CEO of ICANN, who will leave in 2016, gave an interview with The Wall Street Journal in which he praised the calls then coming from Brazil for the body to become detached from the US administration.
This was then followed by a tentative proposal from the US government that ICANN would indeed become independent, in 2015; they then reneged on this plan, saying that it was not the right time, and they would prefer to wait another year.
In a blog post at the time detailing the decision, Assistant Commerce Secretary Lawrence Strickling wrote:
“It has become increasingly apparent over the last few months that the community needs time to complete its work, have the plan reviewed by the U.S. government and then implement it if it is approved.”
The journey to independence for the internet auditor has then been a long one: despite it being first inaugurated in 1998, and many calling for its independence for a decade, we are only just beginning to see it happen. There are a variety of reasons why many have wanted to keep ICANN as a facet of the US government, and as this move toward severing ties between ICANN and the US administration is debated, many have their doubts.
Some US politicians have expressed the concern that the US is 'giving away' the internet, and journalist Peter Roff wrote of the change in US News:
A takeover of the nonprofit internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers by the Chinese, the Russians or some combination of governments unfriendly to … the democratic process is a possibility that must be taken seriously.
Though the move has caused concerns for many, for others it has been long awaited and marks an important moment in the development of a free internet. It will take more time to access exactly how the creation of an independent ICANN will impact the vast numbers of users on the internet and the businesses and organizations which use it to run their affairs. It is clear, however, that this is a striking moment in the development of the internet, and in the number of stakeholders which share the responsibility for its administration and security.