Is Internet in peril after US cedes control of ICANN?

Imagine an internet run like many Middle Eastern countries, that punish what they deem to be blasphemy... Or imagine an internet run like China or Russia, that punish and incarcerate those that engage in political dissent. says Ted Cruz.

Internet freedom is now at risk with the president's intent to cede control to international interests, including countries like China and Russia, which have a long track record of trying to impose online censorship, says Stephen Miller, Trump's policy director.

Are these apprehensions valid? What happens to internet when the internet body called ICANN goes out of a binding agreement with the US government?

ICANN and the management of Internet addresses

The internet addresses presently are assigned by a non-profit organization called Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which is governed by an agreement with the US government.

After the expiry of the agreement, that happened on 30th September, 2016, the oversight of the US government - though indirect and rarely used - has ended.

Opposition politicians in the US were agitated over this abandonment of control. Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and others took Obama to task for this. Four Republican state attorneys sought a restraining order from a federal judge but failed.

In the past 47 years of Internet's existence, the job of assigning and closely implementing the operation of IP addresses has grown tremendously as the technology has grown beyond anybody's expectations. Initially, the Ministry of Defense of the US did the job and when ICANN was created in 1998, the responsibility was taken over by this body. 

Though ICANN's working was has not been free from criticism, it has rather appreciably handled the job in the face of numerous challenges. 

The supporters of US control feel that now the organization might lose control and play in the hands of authoritarian nations and private players. Much of their protest is political, as instead of being the sole supervisor, the US now becomes one of nearly 165 nations in the Governmental Advisory Committee.

More details on the transition and Internet governance

The governance of internet has been a matter of debate since inception of ICANN. A large number of social organizations wanted it to be free from US control, even if technical, and it being governed by the global community. Some nations had mooted the idea to give control of ICANN's functions to an international body such as ITU.

In March 2014, the US Department of Commerce asked ICANN to convene the global community of Internet stakeholders and produce a plan for placing the internet addressing system in the hands of ICANN, with no binding agreement with the US government. This transition plan, the Department directed, must meet a series of strict criteria.

Till the transition plan was accepted, ICANN was to remain bound by its agreement with the US Department of Commerce. An agency within the Department, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) did the actual oversight over the Internet's addressing system.

In March this year, ICANN submitted 'IANA Stewardship Transition Proposal' to NTIA. (IANA stands for Internet’s addressing system, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority.) 

The period just before March and after that has been very hectic. A large number of US industries and other organizations supported the move while a number of politicians and organizations opposed it. Internationally too, a big debate ensued in which global internet organizations, UN bodies, governments, social groups... all had their say. ICANN itself and people behind it had to carry out a large number of transitional works and lobbying with stakeholders all over the world.

In June, the offer was accepted by the Department and it was decided to free ICANN from NTIA stewardship from 1st October, 2016.

On 30th September, ICANN’s contract with NTIA was allowed to expire. As a result, the coordination and management of the Internet’s unique identifiers becomes fully privatized and in the hands of the multi-stakeholder community.

Interesting though it may sound in the midst of the hype created by Trump and others, ICANN does not control the internet; it controls only the matters relating to internet addresses. In fact, most of technological aspects of internet are governed by a society called the Internet Society (ISOC). Founded in 1992, ISOC now has over a hundred organizations and thousands of individuals as its members. Its aim is to foster global cooperation and coordination on Internet technologies. It also serves as a global clearinghouse for Internet related information.  A number of international bodies work under the oversight of ISOC and ICANN to administer and oversee networking, technology, standards, addresses and names, and various other aspects. A number of UN bodies too have a role in coordinating different matters.

What happens now to Internet addresses?

Rest assured, nothing changes as far as governance of Internet or even internet addresses is concerned. 

There are likely changes in the naming system but these will be to accommodate new demands. ICANN is not going to be in the hands of rogue nations or ugly commercial interests the way some US politicians forewarned.