The Internet… It’s amazing, isn’t it? How one small innovation from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which led to the Internet Protocol (IP) system we use today, was taken by the private sector and thrown in to warp drive, and brought us into a whole new cyber world. There is no denying that the Internet today as we know it, is almost entirely a product of private sector innovation, as they built about 99% on top of the underlying IP model.
So, how exactly does the Internet naming system work? When you enter http://facebook.com in a browser, you get the Facebook homepage. In order for that to happen, the address facebook.com has to be translated into a format that’s understood by the computers around the world which delivered our home page to you. This format is known as an IP address, and for facebook.com, one of these addresses is 22.214.171.124. This is essential for how the Internet operates, and also why one US agency or another has been in charge of the Internet naming system pretty much since its founding, with the role currently falling to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which is part of the Department of Commerce.
It is amazing how most of the Internet today is controlled by standards bodies such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), XMPP Standards Foundation (XSF), and others which are made up of engineers and companies all voluntarily working together to set forth new industry standards so everything is compatible with one another. Slowly, we have been seeing since the creation of the Internet – aside from some bonehead moves by the FCC – that the government is releasing control of the Internet to the private sector. Now the government has finally decided it is time for the Internet naming system to be free from all direct US government control, with all of the control being delegated to a non-profit entity known as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), based in California. The deal was finalized on August 16th by the NTIA. making its final steps to basically choose not to renew it’s contract with ICANN, which it has had since 1998 (the contract between the US government and ICANN was a zero-cost one).
This new era is set to officially begin on October 1st. The most important thing is the handover will not affect the estimated 3.5 billion Internet users. This is because the US role was mostly administrative, rather than hands on, leaving ICANN to do all the actual day-to-day work on behalf of the government. This has not come as a surprise to anyone, as the NTIA voluntarily triggered this course of events back in March of 2014. ICANN has since set up their own various bodies and committees to finalize the transition plan following 33,000 emails and 600 meetings.
This has become a very important post due to Edward Snowden’s revelation of the scope of the US government’s invasion of privacy; which notes concerns with the US government having control over key Internet infrastructures and calls for the Internet to be more globalized for the sake of freedom on the Internet. China and Russia have both called for the system to be overseen by an even bigger government body that might have been worse for us all, the United Nations International Telecommunications Union, which would not be afraid to curb the rights of some to acquiesce to the desires of a few countries with oppressive regimes; such as when they allowed Saudi Arabia, a country with many human rights violations, to head the UN Human Rights Panel.
ICANN being selected is a much better outcome for us all, as private organizations have consistently shown themselves to be more nimble and flexible than a government body with bureaucrats. Once the handover is completed, ICANN, a “multi-stakeholder” non-profit organization whose roster of members includes the likes of tech giant companies and individuals, governments, and other such people or organizations with an interest in controlling the Internet naming system, will take over the reins. The US government itself has even performed a study showing the chances of ICANN being steered by a government with its own agenda to be “extremely remote”.
In conclusion, the beginning of October is when the new era of more freedom on the Internet will be here. We can rest easier knowing the Internet naming system is out of the hands of a single government, or even worse, being at the hands of the highly politicized and polarized United Nations, but rather in the hands of the private sector.
Update: To all the people who are saying this is the “death of the internet,” you do not understand that ICANN is not the only Domain Name System (DNS) service. I am looking at you Breitbart and Wall Street Journal, amongst other major news outlets. ICANN being privatized does not mean that other DNS services haven’t been that way for a long time. If ICANN doesn’t exist, there’s still OpenNIC, Open RSC, and even RealNames. ICANN being turned into a non-government-managed organization, might potentially make it easier to change the rules overall, but again, this is one of many DNS services. Heck, if you feel so inclined you can grow your own DNS Server farm if you have the money and resources, as there is nothing stopping you seeing as it is built of Free, Libre, and Open Source Software (FLOSS). For those who want an explanation of why Free Software is better you may read my article, Free(dom) Software: Why Your PC should have Liberty.