By 2015, the heart of the Internet will no longer beat in the United States.
On Friday, the United States Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) announced its intent to concede its control over the domain name nonprofit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to a multistakeholder model. The move will significantly globalize the governance of a key part of the Internet – who is in control of domain names – a move that comes after increased pressure to break down US control over the technical underpinnings of the Web.
“The timing is right to start the transition process,” says Lawrence E. Strickling, assistant secretary of commerce for communications and information, in a statement. “We look forward to ICANN convening stakeholders across the global Internet community to craft an appropriate transition plan.”
The US has maintained centralized control over the Domain Name Systems (DNS) since the late 1960s, when ARPANET began to morph into the network of government and research networks that would lay the groundwork for the Internet. Essentially, the DNS is what translates Web pages from a series of numbers to suffixes such as .com, .net, and hundreds of others (as of this February). For about a decade, ICANN, which is controlled by a variety of stakeholders, has been contracted by the US government (NTIA) to regulate this process.
In essence, this gives the US government the capability to nix any domain name address it wants, or at least make it very difficult to find online (though there isn't indication the US has done that yet). In the meantime, there has been a movement by several countries, especially Russia and China, to transfer this control to the UN. Russia and China have been the loudest voices against the US control, likely due to the domain name-nixing powers: they can block access to certain websites, but they can’t prevent anyone from actually registering a domain name with content they deem questionable.
The US government had hinted that it is willing to concede its DNS power to multi-player control as early as 1997, but the ICANN contract goes until September 2015. In the meantime, NTIA is asking ICANN to put together a multistakeholder proposal, a change ICANN says it is prepared to make.
“The Internet technical community is strong enough to continue its role, while assuming the stewardship function as it transitions from the US government,” says ICANN in a statement.
ICANN hasn't made a specific statement about who may make up this multistakeholder control, but it will contain a mixture of governments and private sector companies.
"Even though ICANN will continue to perform these vital technical functions, the U.S. has long envisioned the day when stewardship over them would be transitioned to the global community," says Dr. Stephen D. Crocker, ICANN's board chair, in a statement. "In other words, we have all long known the destination. Now it is up to our global stakeholder community to determine the best route to get us there."
Though there haven’t been specific issues with the US government contract thus far, the partnership hasn’t been without its naysayers.
Just last Wednesday, on the 25th birthday of the World Wide Web, Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee called for an Internet Bill of Rights, which would ensure individuals’ right to access, privacy, and freedom of expression (among other principles) online. He has long expressed his frustration at America's centralized control of domain names.
"Now, 25 years on, Web users are realizing they need human rights on the Web,” he says to CNN. “We need independence of the Web for democracy, we need independence of the Web to be able to support the press, we need independence of the Web in general. It's becoming very important to sort out all that."
The US has also come under closer scrutiny in the past year more than ever before, due to NSA spying revelations. In addition to extensive spying on US citizens, it came to light that the NSA spied on world leaders, such as German chancellor Angela Merkel and Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff. This has sparked an international conversation about online privacy rights, especially as the US houses many of the world’s most powerful technology organizations on top of DNS governance.