A new era in Internet governance has started, one which worried observers hope will put off pressures from autocratic countries from trying to close the doors on an open network.
At midnight Saturday the United States ceded control of the Internet’s address system when the management contract between the Department of Commerce and the non-profit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) expired. Since 1998 ICANN has run the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) function that approves domain names such as .com, .ca, .gov and others.
Now control of domain names is in the hands of ICANN alone, which can no longer be accused of being an arm of the U.S. government. It is one step in broadening governance over the Internet. Whether this and other steps will appease some countries that have lately been trying to have state control over Internet levers by putting it in the hands of the United Nations and the International Telecommunications Union is still an open question.
“This community validated the multistakeholder model of Internet governance,” ICANN board chair Stephen Crocker said in a statement. “It has shown that a governance model defined by the inclusion of all voices, including business, academics, technical experts, civil society, governments and many others is the best way to assure that the Internet of tomorrow remains as free, open and accessible as the Internet of today.”
While the move has been in the works since 2014, and control of the Internet protocols and standards is shared among many bodies including the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), it has not been without controversy by some in the U.S., who see it as a surrender of American control.
Republican and former presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz and several U.S. states tried to block the transfer. But on Friday a federal judge denied their request for an injunction.
ICANN has emphasized that it doesn’t control content on the Internet.
Even some Canadians had doubts about the details. When in 2014 ICANN proposed increasing the threshold its board needs to ignore recommendations from its international Government Advisory Committee, University of Ottawa Internet law professor Michael Geist worried it would give governments a veto over ICANN policy. However, the head of the Internet Society of Canada and vice-chair of ICANN’s public advisory committee, noted at the time that the GAC still had to be unanimous in any recommendations to ICANN.
The biggest threat to independent Internet governance came in 2012 at the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai when Canada, the U.S. and several other countries refused to sign the final regulations agreed to by other nations because they could lead to state control over the Internet.
To ensure ICANN’s independence, the Department of Commerce said the corporation had to meet a set of proposals created by a global group of stakeholders, including that it not be overseen by government-led or intergovernmental organization, and that the openness of the Internet be maintained. Those proposals, approved by the U.S. administration earlier this year, address both the technical performance of the IANA functions as well as enhancements to ICANN’s accountability. These will result in direct agreements between the operator of the IANA functions and customers specifying the terms for performance.
Among the key provisions to enhance ICANN’s accountability is a proposal to provide stakeholders — such as country code name and address organizations –with powers that can be enforced against the corporation’s board to ensure it remains focused on its limited technical mission. The proposals have been reflected in ICANN’s new bylaws.