ICANN becomes Independent!

Yesterday’s announcement from ICANN ends a lingering point of controversy surrounding the governance of the Internet: the United States’ continued control of the Internet’s Domain Name System (DNS). ICANN’s announcement of 30 September 2009 ends that controversy. A relevant snippet from the forthcoming book gives the background to ICANN, the controversy, and the importance of the new announcement.

Since the early period of the ARPANET and until his death in 1998, Jon Postel, one of the members of the original Network Working Group and the editor of the group’s RFCs, had volunteered to keep track of the numeric address codes of the machines on the network. From 1983, he established the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) at the University of South California to regulate the assignment of Internet addresses as the number of connections started to increase. The same year the Domain Name System was introduced to act as a phone directory for the increasing number of IP addresses and names of machines connected to the Internet.

Anticipating the commercialization of the Internet, the NSF issued a solicitation in 1992 for bidders to perform ‘network information service management’, which would include issuing URLs of websites (i.e. the name rather numeric IP of a website: http://www.yahoo.com rather than its IP address 209.131.36.158). A company called Network Solutions was selected to provide the domain name registration service contract from 1 January 1993 to 30 September 1998. It would work with the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), and Jon Postel remained in charge of issuing new top level domain names (i.e. .COM and .BIZ). A review of Network Solutions’ operations in December 1994, immediately before the commercialization of the Internet in January 1995, recommended to the NSF that fees be charged to registrants for the service. Nine months later in September 1995 when Network Solutions then made their charging proposal. Network Solutions would have a monopoly on domain name registration, and moreover would report to no overseeing authority from 1998 onward when its agreement with NSF elapsed. This was an untenable situation. From October 1996 a network community organized effort developed a new body called the International Ad Hoc Committee (IAHC) to consider a new approach to top level domain names (like .com, .uk etc). In February 1997 the IAHC reported with a range of proposals on top level domain governance, including on the choice of registrars and measures to resolve disputes over domain names. The IAHC plan was endorsed by IANA, the Internet Society, the World Intellectual Property Organization, the International Telecommunication Union, and the International Trademark Association. Yet it faced considerable opposition. ICANN chair, Vint Cerf, recalls that the international aspect of the IAHC plan ‘ignited a firestorm among some members of Congress (who somehow thought that the US still “controlled” the Internet) and led to Ira Magaziner’s involvement’.

Magaziner was a senior adviser to President Clinton. In 1997 he prompted the Clinton administration to commit to privatization in its ‘Framework for Global Electronic Commerce’. The following year, in January 1998, the US Department of Commerce proposed a new non-profit corporation that would take over control of the Domain Name System. The following June, it published a statement of policy that outlined the rationale for privatization:

A private coordinating process is likely to be more flexible than government and to move rapidly enough to meet the changing needs of the Internet and of Internet users. The private process should, as far as possible, reflect the bottom-up governance that has characterized development of the Internet to date.

The following November, the new corporation, called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), was established with the stipulation in its articles of incorporation that it ‘shall operate for the benefit of the Internet community as a whole’. The US Government had been specific about its wish to have the new corporation physically based in the US, but acknowledged the need for international consensus. ICANN signed a memorandum of understanding with the US Department of Commerce to study future options for DNS management. The next month, in December 1998, ICANN signed an agreement with the University of Southern California in which it assumed the functions that had been fulfilled until the death of Jon Postel, only two months before, by Postel and the IANA.

Controversy, however, began to surround ICANN from mid 2005. In late 2003, the US Department of Commerce agreed an extension of the memorandum of understanding with ICANN until September 2006. However, on 30 June 2005, the Department signaled a new direction:

The United States Government intends to preserve the security and stability of the Internet’s Domain Name and Addressing System. … and will therefore maintain its historical role in authorizing changes or modifications to the authoritative root zone file.

The US intended to maintain nominal authority over ICANN. Two years previously, in December 2003, the UN held a World Summit on the Information Society in Geneva where a working group on internet governance (WGIG) was established. The WGIG reported in July 2005 that Internet governance should be the preserve of no single government and mooted various mechanisms whereby ICANN would come under the authority of an intergovernmental body. This was to be discussed at the second World Summit on the Information Society, at Tunis in November 2005. After a shift in the EU’s position on the question, the US is isolated in opposition to intergovernmental body’s control. As the New York Times reported ‘a figurative ocean separates the American position – that the Internet works fine as it is – from most of the rest of the world’. The establishment of a five-year Internet Governance Forum was agreed at the meeting to debate the issue. ICANN’s announcement ends the issue, and severs the remaining bonds of ownership between the US Government and the Internet domain name system.

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