Why is the U.S. Surrendering Control of the Internet?

Why is the U.S. Surrendering Control of the Internet?

There was a recent announcement that, by prior arrangement, ICANN will be cut loose on October 1, 2016 from its sole government steward, the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). It will become answerable to multiple stakeholders worldwide, including countries, businesses and technical bodies. Many may be wondering, “What does this mean?” or “Why is the U.S. surrendering control of the Internet?” We will answer these questions and how this might affect you.

Why is the U.S. Surrendering Control of the Internet?

What is ICANN?

While many may believe America owns the Internet, this is not the case. However, it does, currently, oversee the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). ICANN is a Californian nonprofit private entity that controls the Domain Naming System (DNS). It is also responsible for coordinating the domain name hierarchy and IP addressing for the entire Internet. ICANN is a Californian nonprofit private organization, but its decisions influences your online life. Originally, these services were performed under U.S. Government contract by the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) and other entities. ICANN now performs the IANA function.

According to the ICANN website, “ICANN is governed by an internationally diverse Board of Directors overseeing the policy development process. ICANN’s President directs an international staff, working from three continents, who ensure that ICANN meets its operational commitment to the Internet community.” The Government Advisory Committee contains representatives from 111 states (108 UN members aka United members of the United Stations, the Holy See, Cook Islands, Niue and Taiwan aka Chinese Taipei), Hong Kong, Bermuda, Montserrat, the European Commission and the African Union Commission.

So, How Does This Affect You?

One of the “key functions” to be ceded by the United States includes control of the master list of all top-level domains, such as .bike and .chat. If this list is not operating reliably and consistently, vast swathes of the Internet become inaccessible. It is also a hot topic politically right now — and for the last three decades — because it has been under the thumb of the U.S. Department of Commerce. Needless to say, many countries — particularly Russia and China — don’t like the U.S. government’s power in domain-name creation.

It’s currently possible for China’s government, say, to prevent users in its country to access certain websites. However, it does not have the ability to block the creation of entire top-level domains. This could theoretically change without heavy U.S. influence over ICANN. As a result, could lead to a fragmented Web and greater censorship of the Internet. Most stakeholders, however, see issues like copyright and spam as playing a large role in future debates. Therefore, that will inevitably lead to discussions of censorship.

While the surrendering of control isn’t a big surprise, the timing is curious and almost certainly political. How the Internet community handles the change will likely determine whether we stay with one global Internet or fragment into separate, isolated networks.

Why is the U.S. Surrendering Control of the Internet?

Giving control of key Internet functions to a single government is problematic. How comfortable would American businesses, or the American government, be if the root DNS zones were under the control of the Chinese government? Or the Russian government? That is an issue most of the world has been living with for decades. At any point, countries such as Russia and China say, the U.S. government could arbitrarily use the root DNS zones as a vehicle for its geopolitical agenda, maybe deciding that countries it believes restrict human rights or sponsor terrorism don’t deserve to be on the Internet.

At this point, that has never happened. The U.S. government has largely stood aside on top-level domain controversies (like the creation of .ps for Palestine). However, in 2005, the Bush administration did use its authority to block the .xxx top-level domain (which eventually went live in 2011). There’s always a background concern that world events or a changing political landscape could lead the United States to abuse its position of power.

ICANN Participation in Other Countries

Because of this, many countries have resisted participating in ICANN over the years, seeing it as a little more than an organ for the U.S. government. Some countries have proposed the management of the Internet be  by a truly international body, such as the United Nation’s International Telecommunications Union. However, this effort was scuttled in 2012, but there’s still discontent, especially in the wake of ongoing surveillance revelations spurred by Edward Snowden. Brazil has openly discussed forming coalitions to set up their own alternative root services, effectively creating their own Internets. Countries such as Russia, India and the EU are mulling the same thing. Conversely, China already exerts strong state control over the Internet in its borders.


These are just the basics of “Why is the U.S. Surrendering Control of the Internet?” The internet is essential to worldwide communications and commerce, and control of the root DNS zones could easily become one of history’s most powerful economic sledgehammers — or a devastating tool for censorship.

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