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US Government relinquishes stewardship of the internet domain names system

ICANN set free

18 July 2019

The internet is a decentralized network of networks that has operated with the cooperation and through the consensus of a wide array of stakeholders. Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) functions are key to the operation of the internet such as matching domain names to IP addresses.

Until 1 October, 2016 these functions were under the stewardship of the United States Department of Commerce National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), although they were actually carried out by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).  ICANN is a not for profit organisation responsible for coordinating the huge and complex interconnected network of unique identifiers that allow computers on the Internet to find one another.

The end of NTIA's stewardship should have no discernible impact on internet users, but is an important milestone in cementing the principle that the internet is open to all and should be free from political influence. 

ICANN and the IANA functions 

Since 1998 ICANN has been responsible for the IANA functions.  IANA functions include coordinating the Domain Name System (DNS), a hierarchical decentralised naming system which allows for more memorable domain names to work with the numerical IP addresses used for each internet-connected device.  The DNS is fundamental to the functioning of the internet (including websites and email communications).

Prior to 1 October 2016, NTIA had stewardship of the DNS and the other IANA functions carried out by ICANN.   ICANN is an independent body – describing itself as a "global multistakeholder community" - but the contract with the NTIA meant that the US Government had a certain degree of control over ICANN's actions.  The US Government could theoretically block any action of ICANN in respect of DNS of which it did not approve (although this power was used sparingly). 

Why the change? 

The ability for a Government to exert influence over ICANN has always caused some unease amongst the various internet stakeholders and policy makers.  It has been argued that if one government (or for that matter a corporation or private individual) has control of the DNS, then it could be abused, for example to censor or block content.  An attempt to bring the IANA functions under the control of the International Telecommunications Union, an agency of the United Nations, was blocked in 2012 for the same reason.  The concern was that one or more governments could compromise the DNS for political purposes. 

ICANN was established in part to deal with this concern, but until now NTIA maintained a final say over the actions of ICANN in respect of the IANA functions.  On 14 March 2014 NTIA invited ICANN to prepare a proposal to end NTIA's stewardship.  A key requirement for NTIA was that ICANN's proposal could not result in a government-led or intergovernmental solution. 

Open internet

For ICANN's proposal to be acceptable to the NTIA, it was required to support and enhance ICANN's multistakeholder model, and maintain the openness of the internet.  ICANN established a working group to prepare the proposal and manage the transition.  It identified various areas of governance and accountability which needed to be addressed.  Each of these workstreams was completed by the end of September 2016.  

The changes replace NTIA's historic stewardship under the IANA functions contract with direct agreements between ICANN and its customers and partners.  They also give ICANN greater accountability to its stakeholders.  An expert panel commissioned by NTIA concluded that the accountability recommendations are consistent with sound principles of good governance appropriate for the role of ICANN within the Internet ecosystem.  The experts also found that the proposal renders the prospects for takeover by a single government, group of governments, or one or more economic actors to be extremely remote.

There was a last minute legal challenge to the NTIA relinquishing its responsibility by four US States, including an attempt to argue that the DNS was "property" of the US government which could not be disposed of without the permission of Congress. This was rejected at the end of September, allowing for the transition on 1 October 2016.  The move has received significant support from the business world, trade associations and other internet stakeholders.