Last week, after thousands of hours of work and hundreds of meetings, the final steps in a comprehensive package on the historic transition of some key technical Internet functions, critical to the Internet’s smooth operation, to global stewardship were agreed to at the closing day of the ICANN public meeting in Marrakech. The prescribed plan is a testament to the hard work of the global Internet community and the strength of the multistakeholder model, and marks a significant moment in the history of the Internet. The community has completed a herculean task in negotiating the major concerns within the package and the final outcome is one that the i2Coalition is proud to support.
Setting The Scene
The Internet was never designed to do what it does today. Nobody could have imagined forty years ago that much of our daily lives would be impacted by it. With the Internet being truly global the very idea that a single government could have a special relationship with key Internet resources and functions, such as those managed by IANA and consequently the U.S. Government, became increasingly abhorrent. For the past two years, ICANN and the broader Internet community have been working towards one goal: removing the special relationship the U.S. Government has with the IANA functions and allowing for true multistakeholder governance over the Internet – a truly global resource.
Multistakeholder governance is one of two different schools of thought, or governance models, on how decisions regarding Internet governance should be made. The other is multilateralism. A multistakeholder governance model is a consensus-based system that attempts to take the opinions of all stakeholders – individuals, organizations, businesses and governments – into account when making decisions. It is slow and deliberative by design, and at its best is also open, transparent, and accountable. A multilateral governance model, on the other hand, is an international relations vehicle, driven by governments, with non-governmental participants serving in advisory roles. At its worst, it can lead to censorship, surveillance, or the suppression of voices and ideas. A ‘one government, one vote’ method of Internet governance under multilateralism would allow protectionism to trump freedom every time.
While no one group runs the Internet, a California nonprofit corporation called ICANN is responsible for an important part of it, and operates under a multistakeholder governance model.
So What Is ICANN?
ICANN stands for the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, and that is exactly what it is responsible for – managing the way names and numbers match up on the Internet.
That system of matching names and numbers is called the DNS (Domain Name System). One, albeit oversimplified, way of thinking about it is like a giant phone book that matches people’s phone numbers to their names, to keep things connected and organized. An important note that’s true for both phone numbers and domain names, is that they must be unique. A phone number cannot call two different phones, in much the same way that a domain name cannot point to two different websites.
When you type a website name (like google.com) into a browser or send an email to a friend, the domain names that you use are associated with numbers, called IP addresses. In an effort to manage these systems, ICANN maintains relationships with two key types of companies that connect names to numbers: registries and registrars.
You’re probably familiar with what a domain name is, but you might not know what the different parts of a domain name are. For the purposes of the DNS, everything starts with the part to the far right of the last dot, called the TLD or Top Level Domain. In the case of, for example, www.fake.name, the TLD is ‘.name’.
A company called a registry runs one or more TLDs. In the case of our example, the registry that owns and operates ‘.name’ would operate a whole mass of Internet infrastructure — both hardware and software — to set up and maintain their part of the DNS ‘phone book.’ A registrar, on the other hand, sells second level domain names — in our example that would be word left of the first dot. A registrar enters into contracts with registries to sell these domains. The process of purchasing any domain no matter what ‘www.name.name’ variation, makes me the registrant.
ICANN has contracts with both registries and registrars, and makes large amounts of money off of the fees that it receives from both. These fees are collected from all those who own domain names — the registrants. Registrants are typically people just like you, and it’s just a fancy way of saying someone who owns a domain name.
What Is IANA?
There is something called the DNS Root Zone File that basically lists which TLDs get to be in the big DNS ‘phone book’ in the sky and it is key to ICANN doing its job. This is the key piece to that uniqueness we talked about earlier, and it’s the very top of a system that keeps every domain name pointing at a single IP address.
IANA stands for the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, and the IANA function is the process of updating that master list in the sky of, basically, the top level (.name from our example) in the DNS ‘phone book.’
Right now the IANA function is owned by the NTIA — the National Telecommunications and Information Administration — a division of the United States Department of Commerce. They have a contract with ICANN that runs out in September 2016 to determine how the Root Zone File should be allowed to change, and another contract with a company called Verisign to do the actual, physical updating of the file. The management and changing of this file is incredibly important, and it’s done extremely carefully.
Just under two years ago, the NTIA announced its intention to transition this process from the U.S. Government to the multistakeholder community, and asked the global community to deliver a plan to facilitate this change in ownership. NTIA put a lot of thought into making sure that the criteria the multistakeholder community would need to meet in order for the NTIA to approve the transition plan would be good and would make the Internet stronger. A dedicated group of volunteers has been working on delivering that plan ever since.
The IANA Transition
The best thing about ICANN is the amazing fact that for the past fifteen years it has been a functioning multistakeholder approach to Internet policy development and decision-making. The undue influence the U.S. Government arguably has – seeing as how ICANN is a California-based nonprofit corporation and the U.S., through the NTIA, has a continuing stewardship and administrative role in the DNS and contracts with ICANN to maintain the IANA functions – does not comport with this multistakeholder approach.
The NTIA’s long anticipated move to ensure a functional transition that removes the U.S. Government from direct control over the Internet demonstrably authenticates the argument that no government has a special relationship to the Internet and strengthens the multistakeholder model. The comprehensive package agreed to last week by the global Internet community to transition the IANA responsibilities to global stewardship from U.S. Government control remarkably enjoys the broadest possible support from this very diverse community. Moreover, it proposes ways to enhance ICANN’s accountability as a fully independent organization. This transition is the final step in the long-anticipated privatization of the Internet’s DNS, first outlined when ICANN was incorporated in 1998.
The U.S. Government will now review the package to ensure that it meets NTIA’s criteria, set out two years ago, to ensure that the package:
Maintains the security, stability, and resiliency of the DNS,
Meets the needs and expectations of the global customers and partners of the IANA services, and
Maintains the openness of the Internet.
If approved, implementation is expected to be completed prior to the expiration of the contract between NTIA and ICANN in September of this year.
The global Internet community has seen to it that the world can enjoy a stronger ICANN and a stronger Internet through the transition of IANA. Everybody who believes in freedom of expression and the power of the connected world owes this group of heroes a huge debt of gratitude. Through their hard work they have ensured that no one entity controls the Internet and have set the stage for this global resource to continue to be governed by the stakeholders it serves.