U.S. Dept. of Commerce Cuts Loose ICANN


U.S. Dept. of Commerce Cuts ICANN Loose
| Published March 31, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

If physicist Peter Higgs’ boson—discovered in 1963 and confirmed at the CERN facility in Switzerland in 2012—is known as the “God particle,” a pop term he greatly disliked, then it should come as no surprise that the no less hyperbolic term “God pointer” be applied to Jonathan Postel’s Domain Name System, or DNS, developed at UCLA decades ago.

Simply put, the DNS is what tells your computer—any computer or browser anywhere in the world—to take you to a specific website, regardless of whether you are in a suburban office in Chicago, in an apartment in London, at home in Tokyo, at a hunting lodge in Russia, a high rise in Singapore, or on a beach in Brazil. It’s the internet God as traffic cop.

And because the internet was originally created as collaboration between U.S. government agencies and a patchwork of American universities and research facilities, it was a natural and convenient process perhaps that the U.S. Department of Commerce assumed the role of managing DNS when businesses and individuals began their migration to the web in the 1980s and early 1990s. Something called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) was forged, under the auspices of the Commerce Dept., to oversee an orderly process to how web addresses were chosen. So, God worked at Commerce, so to speak.

Back when 90% of all internet activity occurred in the United States, that arrangement seemed acceptable to some, and a practical if not imperfect way to manage the internet’s early, stupendous growth to many others.

But it was never fully endorsed by everyone in the world. Several countries, China and Russia in particular, have complained for years about the arrangement, basically accusing the U.S. (and its closest allies) of attempting to control the internet without regard to the rest of the globe’s billion or more users. There have been efforts by dozens of countries to transfer management of ICANN from official U.S. oversight to an international body such as the United Nations. But still, ICANN remained attached inextricably to the U.S. Commerce Department.

Then last year, during a time when the U.S. took a heavy beating on the world stage as a result of Edward Snowden’s eye-opening revelations—that of the NSA’s massive data collection program, which may have included the harvesting of phone calls and emails from foreign leaders, along with millions of other pieces of digital data from all over the world—the hue and cry over U.S. dominance of ICANN reached its fever pitch.

As a result, the U.S. Dept. of Commerce will (willingly and happily) cede control of the non-profit ICANN and the DNS process, handing over all aspects of its operations to an independent, non-governmental group. Internet experts and openness advocates are unsure if this handoff will, over time, result in a better, more freely-managed web, or if it will lead to problems—an increase in hacking, misuse, abuse, even lawlessness. The newly liberated ICANN is optimistic despite the weight and complexity of the task it now faces.

ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee met in late March, at a huge conference in Singapore, to discuss the changes and to map a process for the continuation of the (relatively) orderly business of domain names and internet openness. Its website contains copious information about that conference (videos, charts and graphs, articles), including a look at ICANN’s “Singapore Communique,” as well as numerous user-friendly explanations of its role in overseeing the traffic flow between the world’s 1.5 billion computers.

One of the things ICANN is proud of is its development of UDRP (Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy), which offers what it believes is about as fair a platform for resolving battles over the right to specific domain names as anything offered. (If you have a genuinely deep interest in how the web is managed, we recommend browsing ICANN’s website, which includes almost daily updates for the public and the press).

At the recent meeting, ICANN officials voted to approve the rollout of dozens of new domain extensions (like .com or .net) for an ever-crowded internet. Some of the new, specialized Top Level Domains include terms like .trade, .webcam, .vote and .supplies, indicating the growing demand for additional space on the internet for business and political activity. Other newly approved extensions have a boutique flavor to them: .villas; .condo; .london; .NYC. Regional extensions have also been developed for nearly every part of the world and many niche markets.

Companies like Go Daddy and Who Is sell those domains (usually on an annual basis) to customers who browse their websites in search of names appropriate for their business or non-profit. And business is booming worldwide as the amount of data being managed digitally now greatly outnumbers all paper and analog formats, and as web-based business and commerce continues to swell with each year.

ICANN seems optimistic but also realistic about the challenges it will face now that its cord has been cut to the U.S. government.

“ICANN 49 will be remembered,” said participant Fadi Chehade, who serves as current president of ICANN, “as a meeting that, in many ways, ended the early phase of ICANN and brought the organization into a new phase of maturity of responsibility.” As for the handover from Commerce to the newly independent group, Chehade’ described the responsibility as “ominous.”

For more information, please visit its website: