Who Owns the Internet: ICANN, IANA, & the US Government's Announcement about Transitioning Key Internet Functions

Robyn Norgan
Mar 26, 2014

You've probably seen several headlines about the US government's plans to give up control of the Internet. Some of these headlines are pretty good at grabbing people's attention - some even claim the US is giving control of the Internet to China - and as a result people have quickly made up their minds about the issue. However, before you decide whether or not you think this will be a positive or negative change, we wanted to give you the facts.

The History of ICANN & IANA

First things first, let me give you a little background on ICANN and IANA. Now I know what you're thinking - too many acronyms! Well, hold onto your seat because there's plenty more where that came from (DNS, IP, NTIA, TLD - seriously, there's going to be a lot, so bear with me!), but first let's start by defining these two important acronyms. ICANN stands for the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers and IANA is the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority. ICANN is a non profit that was created by the US government in 1998 and IANA is one of it's departments. ICANN's job is to coordinate the unique identifiers that make up today's global internet - basically they make sure that each Internet address is unique, so computers can find each other and you can find what you're looking for when you type in say,

ICANN coordinates IANA, which does key technical functions including managing the Domain Name System (DNS) and coordinating global Internet Protocol (IP) addresses. IANA is one of the Internet's oldest institutions, dating back to the 1970s long before ICANN was created. Before ICANN, IANA was administered by the Information Sciences Institute (ISI) at the University of Southern California (USC) under a contract with the US Department of Defense. Today, IANA is coordinated by ICANN under a contract with the US Department of Commerce, specifically the National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA), and that contract ends on September 30, 2015.

The US Government's Role in the Internet & the Plan for Transition

Under the current contract, the NTIA's responsibility is to perform the IANA functions described above as well as some related root management functions under a cooperative agreement with Verisign, the registry that runs .COM and .NET as well as a range of Internet security services. The NTIA's announcement of its plans to transition this responsibility has lead many to question what will happen to the IANA and its functions as well as the Internet as a whole (the agreement with Verisign is not directly a part of this transition, but likely would require that NTIA coordinate a related transition). At this point, nothing will change until there is a clear transition proposal. According to the NTIA, this transition proposal must have broad community support and address the following four principles:

1. Support and enhance the multistakeholder model;
2. Maintain the security, stability, and resiliency, of the Internet DNS;
3. Meet the needs and expectation of the global customers and partners of the IANA services; and,
4. Maintain the openness of the Internet.

At this time, the plan is to have ICANN start the process of developing a transition plan. During this process, ICANN is expected to work with the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), a large international community of network designers, operators, vendors, and researchers who develop and promote Internet standards; the Internet Architecture Board (IAB), a group that oversees a number of Internet task forces including IETF; the Internet Society (ISOC), a non profit organization that is "dedicated to ensuring the open development, evolution, and use of the Internet for the benefit of people throughout the world"; the Regional Internet Registries (RIRs), a non profit member-based organization that provides services related to the technical coordination and management of Internet number resources; top level domain (TLD) name operators, also know as domain registries (not registrars, which is what we are - learn the difference); Verisign; and other interested global stakeholders.

According to ICANN president Fadi Chehade, this announcement is "an important step toward preserving and protecting the open Internet." In his recent article titled, "Important Corrections to General Inaccuracies and Misconceptions Regarding US Announcement and IANA Functions," he emphasizes that this is a move towards a globally accountable, multistakeholder governing body that will promote the free exchange, as opposed to a potential authoritative government takeover that would result in censorship of free speech, as many have suggested. In the article, Chehade also reminds us that the role of ICANN, and by association IANA, has never been to control content on the Internet. It's role is more administrative and focused on coordinating the technical aspects of the Internet. Plus, the NTIA has stated it "will not accept a proposal that replaces the NTIA role with a government-led or an inter-government organization solution."

Both Chehade and the NTIA have pointed out that this transition has been in the works for many years. According to the NTIA's original announcement, this transition "marks the final phase of the privatization of the DNS as outlined by the US government in 1997." As it turns out, the US government's role in IANA was always planned to be temporary. The US Commerce Department's Statement of Policy dated from June 10, 1998, around the time of ICANN's creation, outlines the US government's commitment to "a transition that will allow the private sector to take leadership for DNS management." In fact, over the past 16 years since its creation, ICANN has been administering IANA functions with increasing autonomy, according to Chehade. He assures us that this transition will not affect the functionality of Internet.

What Does the Future Hold?

It remains to be seen as to what will happen with this transition. It definitely sounds like the transition is not being taken lightly, as it has been in the works for years. A move away from government control could certainly be a good thing, as long as it is done right. Hopefully in the end we will continue to see an internet that is free and open, and, as Chehade puts it, "belongs to everyone." What do you think of the transition? Tell us your views in the comments.

Still a little confused about what's going on? Check out this great article "The Misguided Freakout Over ICANN" by Jonathan Zittrain, a professor of law and professor of computer science at Harvard University and a former trustee of the Internet Society.

Robyn Norgan
This post was written by RDBN, also known as Robyn Norgan, who just loves acronyms ;)