The Commerce Department issued a low-key bureaucratic announcement on March 14: The government will not renew its contract with the Internet Corporation for Names and Numbers (ICANN), under which ICANN has administered the Internet’s domain name system since the mid-1990s. U.S. government supervision will be superseded next year, according to the announcement, by new arrangements to “support and enhance the multistakeholder model of Internet policymaking.”
Critics on the right worry that the Obama administration is giving away the Internet to foreigners. It’s an understandable concern, given the administration’s general approach to foreign policy. It just happens to be a wildly exaggerated concern here, given the actual power of ICANN.
We often talk about the Internet as if it were a single system. That sort of talk suggests that it must have an ultimate control center. Then it’s easy to imagine ICANN is that center, with thousands of beady-eyed nerds monitoring computer screens showing traffic patterns throughout the World Wide Web. Aaron Sorkin might convey the drama of the setting, where ethnic upstarts design the control programs, but the better-dressed, preppie controllers still get the girls.
But that’s a screenwriter’s fantasy. The actual ICANN is more like the North American Numbering Plan Administration (NANPA). Never heard of it? It assigns telephone area codes. It is operated by a private company, Neustar Corporation. It is one of those happy services whose obscurity confirms its effectiveness.
Some people in Manhattan are upset that they can’t get their phone numbers assigned to the historic Manhattan area code, 212. Apart from such snobs, very few people notice NANPA’s work. It doesn’t matter what area code you have, so long as it directs long distance calls to your phone and not to a phone in Idaho.
Handing out area codes is pretty much what ICANN does. It assigns top-level domain names and numbers to direct Internet traffic—as with “.com” or “.org” or “.edu.” ICANN does not operate any infrastructure. The actual machinery that connects users to websites is owned and operated by Internet service providers, who are in no way subordinate to ICANN. ICANN does not even have responsibility for assigning web addresses to individuals and organizations. If you want to buy an address in .com, .net, or the like, the registration is handled by a private registrar. ICANN is not in any way involved in such transactions.
ICANN will continue to operate as a private corporation in Southern California—subject to U.S. law. But what if, like Edward Snowden, ICANN managers absconded to Moscow with all their secret files? It wouldn’t matter much. The companies that actually operate Internet infrastructure would pay no heed if ICANN suddenly started barking new orders in Russian. The operators (the “root server technical operators association”) could improvise new coordinating arrangements among themselves relatively quickly. The U.S. Internet industry is regulated by the FCC and overseen by the federal courts; there is no danger that the Internet will be totally divorced from domestic political or legal accountability.
Down the road, there is some risk that ICANN decisions might complicate international diplomacy. Each nation now has its own national domain name—“.uk” for Britain, “.ca” for Canada, “.ru” for Russia. There has been little controversy about the assignment of these domains. China has not objected to Taiwan’s “.tw.” Israel has not protested the Palestinian Authority’s “.ps.” One can imagine disputes about who should be assigned control of Ukraine’s domain name, if the country splits into pieces. But even such a dispute would remain a minor diplomatic incident, since Ukrainian users and websites are not limited to sites with the Ukraine suffix. Not many people would sign up for Internet service even there, if that’s all they got.
Hollywood fantasy aside, there remains cause for concern about what the Obama administration has done. First, the Commerce Department’s announcement speaks in very vague terms about making ICANN accountable to “the global multistakeholder community.” But it has left it to ICANN itself to arrange the “transition” to new accountability structures. The odds are that without a formal role for the U.S. government, ICANN won’t impose much new accountability on itself.