The US government announced yesterday that it is transitioning to relinquish direct control over the administration of the internet by ending its contract with ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) which is the organization that exerts stewardship over the internet by establishing protocols, assigning domain names, and bringing some order behind the scenes to the seemingly anarchic nature of the internet. The move by the US government has been welcomed by ICANN.
ICANN is an organization made up largely of technical people and institutions and you can read what it does here. A key function of ICANN is the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) which so far has functioned under a contract with the US government’s Department of Commerce. The current contract expires on September 15, 2015.
While the idea was always to make this transition eventually, the process got speeded up by the recent revelations by Edward Snowden that have tarnished the US government so that it is no longer considered a good steward of the internet.
Pressure to let go of the final vestiges of U.S. authority over the system of Web addresses and domain names that organize the Internet has been building for more than a decade and was supercharged by the backlash last year to revelations about National Security Agency surveillance.
U.S. officials said their decision had nothing to do with the NSA spying revelations and the worldwide controversy they sparked, saying there had been plans since ICANN’s creation in 1998 to eventually migrate it to international control.
“The timing is now right to start this transition both because ICANN as an organization has matured, and international support continues to grow for the multistakeholder model of Internet governance,” Strickling said in a statement.
The United States has long maintained authority over elements of the Internet, which grew from a Defense Department program that started in the 1960s. The relationship between the United States and ICANN has drawn wider international criticism in recent years, in part because big American companies such as Google, Facebook and Microsoft play such a central role in the Internet’s worldwide functioning. The NSA revelations exacerbated those concerns.
But of course, not everyone is happy with this change, especially those who feel that the US must rule the world in every aspect and thus should exert disproportionate control over the internet, while others welcome it is a key step in making the internet truly global.
Internet security expert Bruce Schneier said back in September 2013 that Snowden revealed that the US government has “betrayed the internet” by subverting it for its own surveillance purposes and that it is time for the engineers to take it back and fix it. This could provide the opportunity to do just that.
However, we should not be too sanguine. The NSA and GCHQ will continue to try and subvert the internet in order to spy on everyone. This will just make their task a little harder.