If you’ve ever wondered who exactly controls the internet, then the chances are excellent that this past March found you wondering what the United States’ surrender of said control was really all about. The United States National Telecommunications and Information Administration made an official announcement in regards to its intentions to hand over the proverbial keys of the internet to the International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN for short) instead.
As far as what exactly was transitioned, it was certain “key functions” concerning internet domain names. ICANN itself has long been responsible for defining the standards that affect the global web at large. To some people, this may have seemed like news that was either boring or inconsequential. However, many speculate that this could potentially be one of the most important things to happen in regards to the global web in many decades.
Let’s take a closer look at what it all means, what’s next, and what the new state of affairs means for you.
Which “Key Functions” Were Affected and How?
Perhaps the largest and most important of the key functions signified by the change is control and maintenance of the top-level domains that we’re all familiar with. These include the common and well-known ones like .com and .net. However, they also include some of the newer possibilities such as .chat, .tv, and .bike. Should the smooth function of the domains on this list ever become compromised in any way, there are massive chunks of the internet that could become inaccessible.
Ever since the inception of the internet as we know it, this was something that was overseen by the United States Department of Commerce. However, there have always been a number of other nations – like China and Russia, to name just two examples – that haven’t exactly been happy with that. Before this change, outside governments may well have been able to prevent their citizens from accessing a particular type of website. However, they haven’t been able to actually stop anyone from creating a specific type of domain in the first place.
In theory, at least, this is something that could change now that the United States has relinquished its heavy influence over ICANN. Some people fear that the internet on the whole could become fractured as a result. Censorship could become a much bigger problem, especially if concerns over spamming and copyright arise in the future.
The actual surrender of this control on the part of the U.S. hasn’t come completely out of left field though. It’s been a known possibility for quite some years – since the 1990’s, in fact. How the reality of the situation will change the internet as we know it remains to be seen. Things may not change much at all, but it’s always possible that the web will fragment into smaller dedicated networks among other possibilities.
How Will Things Be Managed After the Handover?
At present, no one is really sure how all the root zones as we know them will be managed and maintained once the United States officially hands over control, which will occur around September of 2015 when the U.S. Commerce Department’s running contract with ICANN ends. However, ICANN has announced a plan to structure a global stewardship shortly.
ICANN will most certainly also feel a bit of pressure to shunt DNS root zone operation and other such functions away from Verisign, since it is an American entity that is, of course, governed by the American legal system. However, the U.S. has also made it abundantly clear that it wouldn’t like to see an outside government agency take over full control of root operations either.
It’s important to all involved that ICANN be an agency that is fully accountable as far as the function of the internet goes. It goes without saying that the web as we know it is vastly important when it comes to communications, business commerce, and more on a worldwide basis. Censorship is a very real concern and the control of the web’s root DNS zones is potentially a powerful thing indeed.
The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has outlined the following four key principles that have to be considered when it comes to any future proposals from ICANN.
• The multi-stakeholder model that is currently represented has to be supported.
• The stability of the DNS system needs to be preserved in every way.
• The expectations, quality standards, and needs of global internet users must all be met.
• The openness and structure of the internet needs to be maintained.
What Does the Change Mean for Us?
As touched on above, it’s still relatively early in the game to know for sure what the United States handover is really going to change as far as how people use the internet and what feels noticeably different about it to the average user. However, the largest concern is obviously going to be how far and in what ways the change will affect people’s freedom of speech.
Currently, we enjoy an internet that is completely based on transparency, expression, and empowerment. People have a platform that allows them to express themselves, do business, and share ideas in a self-defined way that would have been unheard of in previous eras. However, there are definitely governing bodies out there that have tried their best to control that phenomenon to their own ends as it suited them.
It remains to be seen who will ultimately have the final say over what is and isn’t allowed and acceptable as far as the internet goes. While it may seem that technical concerns surrounding names, numbers, and so forth are the main things being handed over here, it only stands to reason that people want to know how the new state of affairs will affect actual human behavior.
How will conflicts of belief and political values be handled going forward? How can the U.S. and other nations prevent their peoples from being negatively influenced by foreign government principles? How will the entities that have never supported the open internet we know and enjoy today react to and take advantage of the change? The answers to all of these questions and more still remain to be seen.