WOOF! Newsletter

May 01, 2014

ICANN Looking for a New Home – What Does This Mean for the Internet?

ICANN, the organization responsible for the "roots" of the Internet, is looking for a new oversight body. The U.S. has decided to transition ICANN to a more global governance. Does this move risk the Internet's safety? What sort of issues could result? We tackle those questions in this month's WOOF.
The U.S. would like to find the Internet’s “root” a new home.

The Announcement – In March, the NTIA suddenly asked ICANN to create a proposal for transitioning control of ICANN over to a more international body.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) advises the President on expanding and protecting the Internet. It operates within the U.S. Department of Commerce and oversees ICANN. ICANN stands for “Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers”. It’s responsible for maintaining the globally unique names for websites, and the DNS addresses which correspond to them.

Essentially, the “roots” of the technology which makes the Internet function.

What this means – Such a proposal would change oversight of ICANN, moving it from under the U.S. to a more global organization. The UN’S International Telecommunications Union (ITU) is one such organization. But the proposal request specifies that the Commerce Department won’t accept ICANN oversight coming from a government-led or intergovernmental body.

So the ITU is not acceptable. A larger, more diverse group of public & private entities is.

What’s the benefit – More organizations involved means more stakes in the Internet’s survival. It’s hard to corrupt something as world-reaching as the Internet if you have many voices speaking for its freedom & expansion.

By requiring that no government organization can have oversight, the Department of Commerce is making their final action concerning ICANN one of protection. In fact, by this move they can head off some growing risks to ICANN’s self-direction.

What’s the risk – Many believe this amounts to the U.S. “giving up control” of the Internet.
And that other countries like China and Russia will gain the power to control what their citizens see online.

The new oversight body may indeed have voices from China and Russia – they’ve wanted power over the Internet for years – but it will also include private organizations, pushing for more Internet freedoms. The U.S. will not walk away from involvement either.

ICANN is run by consensus – all stakeholders must agree to a change before it’s implemented. So even if authoritarian regimes manage to gain some influence, a counterbalance should arise as well. This may slow its decision-making capability. But it’ll also protect it.

What are the real issues – Copyright and Domain Control.

In terms of copyright, the ICANN move will require significant changes to Intellectual Property laws. As will the processes for extending private copyright across national borders.

There’s no real way to prepare for this until we know what the new oversight body looks like. And we won’t know that until next year. So copyright isn’t a big worry just yet.

However, the issue of domain control is a potential fire hazard. As mentioned above, ICANN oversees the unique domain names assigned to websites. The U.S. government regulates domain ownership using antitrust laws. So no one can buy up all the available domains and hold a monopoly.

But if ICANN moves to a global stage, it moves outside those antitrust laws. So it may become possible for some big entity – we’ll use Google as an example here – to buy up every available domain name out there. Creating a monopoly. Forcing everyone who wants to make a website to negotiate with them.

This is all speculation, of course, but it’s a potential issue…and one serious enough that ICANN needs to watch out.

Conclusion – Most Internet activities will not be affected by this change. ICANN’s new oversight body will have to tackle copyright changes and the potential of a domain monopoly. With global stakeholders in place, it should weather such problems and continue to protect a free & open Internet.

Because we’re all watching, aren’t we?