In September, nearly 47 years after American computer science professors set the stage for the Internet, the US government is set to cede control of the cyberspace’s underlying technology for the first time. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a non-profit body that administrates domain names and Internet protocol addresses (IPs) globally, is slated to become independent from the US Department of Commerce on September 30, after a two-decade long slugfest for decentralisation of its control. The ICANN will now be governed by a “multi-stakeholder” model, including businesses, individual users and members of governments across the world.
What ICANN is
When the ICANN was founded in 1998, the initial plan was to restrict its anchoring contract with the US Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) for a short period of time, and for ICANN to eventually become independent in a couple of years. ICANN, however, subsequently resisted attempts by the United Nations’ International Telecommunication Union to take over its job. IANA (the Internet Assigned Names Authority, the part of ICANN that handles country codes, Internet numbers and protocols) then went on being part of ICANN, despite concerns raised by a number of countries over the US’s stranglehold over the Internet.
The new governance architecture proposes to completely revamp this arrangement post September 30, 2016.
The transition has been worked out through a global consultation process and is being coordinated by the ICANN, which currently operates under a mandate from the NTIA to manage the Internet as per a contract that expires in six months’ time. The proposal for the transition that has been crafted over the course of two years, with inputs from businesses, academia, governments and others, was endorsed at an ICANN board meeting in Marrakesh, Morocco, earlier this month. There, ICANN had submitted a final transition plan to the NTIA. If all goes according to plan, post-September 30, the gatekeeper role of Internet addresses will be free from US oversight, and these functions would shift to the broader global online community.
What it does
To reach another person on the Internet, a user has to type an address into his or her computer — either a name or a number. That address has to be unique, so computers know where to find each other. ICANN coordinates these unique identifiers across the world. Without that coordination, having one global, connected Internet would not be possible.
So, ICANN’s role is akin to that of a “traffic cop”, checking that network addresses are securely registered, and function properly. It manages the database for top-level domain names such as .com and .net, and their corresponding numeric addresses that allow computers to connect, working under the mandate from the NTIA to manage all this under contract.
What it doesn’t
While ICANN was formed as a not-for-profit partnership of people from all over the world dedicated to keeping the Internet secure, stable and inter-operable, it doesn’t actually control content on the Internet. So, it cannot stop spam, and it does not deal with access to the Internet. But through its coordination role of the Internet’s naming system, it does have an important impact on the expansion and evolution of the Internet.
ICANN’s role is to oversee the huge and complex interconnected network of unique identifiers that allow computers on the Internet to find one another. This is commonly termed “universal resolvability”, and means that wherever a user is on the network — and hence the world — he or she receives the same predictable results on accessing the network. Without this, users could end up with an Internet that worked entirely differently depending on the user’s location on the globe.
While ICANN will now be governed by a “multi-stakeholder” model, including businesses, individual users, India’s push for a multi-stakeholder model envisages a pivotal role for governments as the custodian of cyberspace in the wake of security threats from terror groups. India has described the role of the government as “an important stakeholder” and “a custodian of security” for the global Internet infrastructure. India’s proposal, as enunciated in Marrakesh, is that the Internet should be managed through the multi-stakeholder approach, and that governments should have “supreme right and control” on matters relating to international security. India in its submission has said that under the new transition, the body managing the Internet should have “accountability towards governments” in areas where “governments have primary responsibility, such as security and similar public policy concerns”.
The transition process in not without its share of controversy. US politicians and corporations have expressed concern that their government is “giving away” the Internet, and that powers such as China and Russia may hijack control.
While work is in progress to set rules on who should manage the Internet post September 30, the transition is unlikely to affect how users interact online. It will, however, shift the technical supervision of the online address system to ICANN itself, with a system that ensures no single entity can exert control over the Internet.