There’s been a lot of buzz lately around the upcoming transition of ICANN out of the federal oversight of the U.S. government in favor of allowing the organization to function independently. The issue has become highly publicized due to the efforts of various politicians, but along the way many of the facts about the issue have been distorted.
As a complex issue, a lot of the information that has been floating around in regards to the change is misleading, or in some cases, entirely untrue. But the ICANN stewardship transition is an important issue that needs to be fully understood. We’ve put together a basic explanation of what’s happening and how it will effect the internet as a whole.
What is ICANN?
The first step toward understanding the ICANN transition is knowing exactly what ICANN is and its role in internet governance. ICANN, also known as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, is a nonprofit organization tasked with overseeing IP address space allocation, protocol parameter assignment, domain name system management, and root server system management functions. Essentially, they oversee the day-to-day functions of the naming and numbering system needed for the internet to function.
ICANN is a multistakeholder organization that is made up of some of the brightest minds in the business, technology, public interest, and academic fields. Most are volunteers who have applied or been nominated for a role in the organization, and represent internet users from countries across the world.
What will the ICANN stewardship transition do?
First and foremost, it’s important to understand that this transition is the final step of a nearly two-decade long process overseen by the U.S. Department of Commerce to privatize the coordination and management of the domain name system. According to an ICANN fact sheet, it has also been supported by all U.S. presidential administrations since 1998.
For years, ICANN has been under subcontract from the Commerce Department. But in March 2014, it was publicly announced that a plan had been set into motion to transition ICANN into an autonomous organization over the following two years. If the transition goes according to plan, the contract between ICANN and the government will be allowed to expire as of October 2016 so that the United States’ role in overseeing the organization will end. ICANN will continue to operate its day-to-day functions as usual, but as an entirely privatized entity that no longer reports to a governmental department.
Does this mean the United Nations/China/Russia/anyone else will be able to control the internet?
In a word, no. As a multistakeholder organization, ICANN has been and will continue to be run by numerous stakeholders from across the globe, all of whom are dedicated to overseeing the domain naming and addressing system. Contrary to popular belief, the U.S. government has never had control over the internet—it’s been run by the many members that make up ICANN since its inception.
According to PolitiFact, there are representatives from 171 countries on the organization’s Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC) who advise ICANN’s 20-member board. And yes, this includes representatives from countries like Russia, China, and the U.K. But it’s important to note that ICANN cannot be easily swayed by the influence of a single or even multiple countries. Any recommendations made by the GAC must be unanimous—so if even one country objects to a proposed action, the recommendation will not be allowed to move forward (Although information and suggestions can be passed on to the board without a consensus).
Will the transition cause widespread internet censorship?
Again, the simple answer is no. ICANN is solely a technical administrator—and according to a public statement from ICANN in response to Sen. Tom Cruz’s Senate floor speech protesting the transition, the organization does not have the ability to regulate internet content in the first place.
And the fact remains that countries like Russia and China already impose internet censorship within their own borders—and that’s unlikely to change whether or not ICANN remains under U.S. authority. ICANN departing from American control does not mean it will fall under the rule of a different regime, so the prominence of internet censorship is unlikely to increase or decrease dramatically during this transition.
Where can I find more information?
If you’d like to learn more about the ICANN stewardship transition, visit ICANN’s website.