What exactly happened?
The US has surrendered control of the internet, sort of! Although we see the internet as a free and open network that is not owned by any one person or entity, some countries have been able to exert control over certain aspects of it.
The US government for example has long overseen the domain name system (DNS), which plays a vital role in managing how web addresses work. But last month, America relinquished control, placing DNS fully in the hands of the independent organization ICANN. This ends the US’s long standing role as the symbolic overseer of the World Wide Web.
Why is this so significant?
To understand the implications, it is worth looking at how the web works. When you type technotifier.com into a browser, your computer does not just pluck the website from the air and display it on the screen. As the request travels around the connected computers which make up the internet, the URL is translated into a series of numbers that is used to find the correct server for the site you want.
But in order to do this, there has to be a digital directory that matches the words of the URL to the numerical IP address. It’s this huge master file that the US has controlled for the past 20 years. As you can imagine, it’s a pretty crucial component of the internet.
How did the US come to control it?
The list – which includes all domain suffixes such as .com, .org and .net ended up in the hands of the US Department of Commerce purely because the internet was developed in the United States.
Their involvement dates back to the early days of the internet when an American computer scientist called Jon Postel began looking after the DNS in his role administering an organisation called the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA).
Postel died in 1998. The non-profit ICANN was set up with the job of overseeing any major changes to the internet and assigning domain names and IP address. The US made a decision to pass over control of the IANA to ICANN. It ensured that the NTIA would retain a final say over IANA’s role and actions.
What kind of power did this give to USA?
In principle, controlling what is effectively the web’s address book gave the US the power to censor the internet. With America having the final say on how the DNS was controlled, it could, if it wished, have used that power to remove an entire domain block from existence. All .org sites, for example.
USA could have looked to pull particular sites from the web or block the creation of some domains. In reality US rarely got involved in such matters. It tried to prevent ICANN from setting up an .xxx domain for pornography in 2005.
Crucially, it also ensures that no single country controls the DNS. Most of the world will hope it stays that way.
Will I see any difference online?
No, In having the IANA contract since 1998, ICANN was already running the DNS and it will continue to do just that. Your favourite websites will load just as before.
Could another government take it over?
Ever since the Department of Commerce announced its intention this has been a major concern in the US. In March 2014, to hand the IANA to ICANN.
It’s why the US said that it would hand over control only if ICANN implemented reforms to prevent the internet from falling into the hands of another government or a commercial
ICANN agreed to this and the move went ahead. Yet there has still been a lot of opposition to the decision, with some figures accusing President Obama of “surrendering” control of the internet. Republican senator Ted Cruz was among those looking to block the transfer.
He published a video on youtube titled ‘We must keep the internet Free’
What was Ted Cruz’s problem?
He was worried that America’s decision to step back leaves the door open for authoritarian countries to gain more control of the internet.
At a congressional hearing on 14 September, Cruz said: “Imagine an internet run like many Middle Eastern countries that punish what they deem to be blasphemy. Or imagine an internet run like China or Russia that punishes and incarcerates those who engage in political dissent.”
ICANN says these fears are entirely unfounded because it doesn’t have the remit or ability to regulate content on the internet.
Will China and Russia try to control internet?
Understandably, neither country was happy about the US controlling DNS, and it’s possible they will look to exert a greater influence.
Many other countries, including Turkey, Iran and North Korea, don’t allow full access to the web and they could seek to block the creation of domains in the future.
But, diplomatically, the US has been seen to do the right thing, ensuring such an important part of the web is now under no single government’s control.
Does everyone agree that ICANN should be in charge?
No. Countries including China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Egypt wanted control of the DNS to be handed to the United Nations’ International Telecommunications Union (www.itu.int).
The US, UK, Canada and Australia objected to this because it would mean governments having too much influence.
By backing a fully independent ICANN, the US can claim that countries wanting a different organisation put in control are against a free and open internet.
Let us know about your views on this. If you have any questions are suggestions then drop them in the comments down below.