The internet is a powerful tool, one that has helped shape a new landscape for humanity spanning an entire generation. There are now millions of people who have never known a day in their life without it, an technological creation that has advanced the species in immeasurable ways and has opened up our world to a new way of learning and understanding who we are as never before. So what happens when the internet, in all of its fantastic glory changes hands as it did earlier this month from the birthplace of its creative origins to an organization that is intent on leaving the world wide web up to the people who use it themselves? Did it send shockwaves that reverberate throughout the civilized world? Was it something that many were preparing for? Was it even worth getting excited over? Closer examination does provide a clearer picture on the perplexing issue of the ICANN transfer.
On October 1st, the United States Government took the final steps in letting go control of any and all information regarding internet addresses to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a non-profit organization that coordinates and maintains the databases that are associated with the namespaces that make up the internet. In other words when one types in “www.Ford.com” ICANN ensures what is intended by the owner of the domain and in this case what will be seen by the user are the latest entries for the auto maker’s car and truck lines and what will not bee seen is a biography of the 38th president (Gerald Ford) or even the author of this article. While the company has been assigned to manage this herculean task since 1998, the responsibility of the internet world as a whole now clearly rests on their shoulders.
On that day, when the contract expired between the United States Department of Commerce National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and ICANN and a new stewardship over the internet became in control as the world wide web transitioned itself from a publicly governed institution to one completely maintained without oversite by the private sector. With the completion of this transaction, one that ICANN Board Chair Stephen D. Crocker states it took 18 years in the making was “the tireless work of the global Internet community, which drafted the final proposal, that made this a reality.” So if this transition took almost two decades to complete, what prompted this to happen in the first place?
In the early days of the “information superhighway” as it was once appropriate named, the responsibility for distributing registries, domain names and protocol address from the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) database was dealt with differently. Instead of the multi organizational task force we have seen in recent times, that effort was taken up by Jon Postel, a computer scientist from UCLA whose noted work in creating and developing the basic standards and practices for the internet helped pave the way for many of the regulations we still follow when using the world wide web today. As a way of better regulating the internet explosion that engulfed the late 1990’s, Postel along with the help of entrepreneur and philanthropist Esther Dyson and other leading industry experts created ICANN to work with the NTIA and create a joint effort that would ensure the rapid growth would stay on a smooth and cohesive path.
Though the IANA database was still controlled by the United States government, even as early as 1997 with then President Bill Clinton the emphasis became clear that the internet was believed to be better off in different hands. He helped draft the Framework for Global Electronic Commerce, which supported involvement by entities within the private sector in the developing the world wide web, which included crafting a uniformed legal code for cyberspace and essentially making the internet a world wide free-trade zone. Clinton gave specific instruction to the Department of Commerce to radically overhaul the Domain Name System (DNS) as change policies and regulations in order to coincide with this new direction. After a decade of US governmental back and forth questioning the solvency of ICANN in taking full responsibility of IANA, in 2014 the Department of Commerce finally made its intentions clear that it would relinquish control and hand over all information and assets to the California based organization.
As the managing body that would oversee much of the development of the internet protocol numbers and ultimately the DNS itself, ICANN has become the major player in establishing the marketplace for domain name distribution and registrations and has been instrumental in keeping the majority of .edu, .gov, .com and others that are similar that it regulates from hitting unrealistic prices for consumers. They are also credited with solving disputes involving various domain ownerships and policies in regards to internet governance. Because of ICANN’s track record many outside the United States are hailing the transfer as a moment of triumphant freedom for the global internet community. So with this much experience with the responsibility and the autonomy to enforce the “lays of the land” for the world wide web, is there anyone who would oppose this transfer and is it really that much of a concern?
ICANN itself as an organization has world renown admiration and respect due to its support staff of leading industry specialists and experts but there’s a definite question that begs to be asked when giving one entity all autonomous rule over something so vast as the internet itself. When speaking to Imelda Malilay, 41, a registered nurse from Las Vegas, NV who like many of us utilizes the world wide web daily for both entertainment and work related intentions questioned the transfer due to the organization’s structure and how ICANN itself will be made responsible for any negative repercussions of the transfer itself long term.
“There was some information in regards to the ICANN transfer when it popped up on my news feed. But after reading it I still don’t fully understand how they (the US government) can give up control like that. It could possibly leave (the United States) open to further internet attacks.” She questioned further about the validity of the company itself. “Who is ICANN and does the average person even know who ICANN is?” That seems to be the echoing sentiment from across the internet itself, questioning an organization that although has been in practice for nearly two decades, the consumers they serve to protect know very little about. Her final comment introduced an even more poignant question about ICANN itself, “If ICANN has all this control, who will be keeping an eye on them?”
The company itself upon further investigation has an advisory committee that is represented by over 100 different countries and multi-national commissions. They also have over 30 different organizations such as the International Red Cross, World Bank and United Nations that oversee and monitor ICANN to ensure the solvency and competency of the company going forward. However this type of backing still hasn’t stopped others from questioning the future of the internet itself. While many have targeted the United Nations itself as the most likely entity to take over control of ICANN, James Cole, Global Media Coordinator of ICANN deferred to the company’s line that its “multistakeholder model is designed to ensure that no single entity, whether country, business or interest group, can capture ICANN or exclude other parties from decision-making processes.”
The change itself has been widely hailed internationally as a giant step toward a joint global international structure, for some in the United States however the decision has caused some eyebrows to be raised. “To me it’s dangerous” said Josh Pederson, 28, from Cypress, CA who is the author of the book “Vendetta Dark” and host of the “Pop Culture Cosmos” podcast that can be heard weekly on the Podcast Radio Network. “You already have this big massive shadow with the media and free speech. Is it going to be affected? The government has had a lot of hands in the cookie jar and now they wanted this to happen. It scares me. It really does.”
As much as ICANN has tried to reassure those that free speech will not be affected, there are still those that outwardly question the validity that ICANN will not impose it’s will in a different fashion. Four states (Nevada, Oklahoma, Arizona and Texas) attempted to sue the federal government in late September to prevent the transfer from taking place to no avail. Noteworthy politicians such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas and even his long time rival Presidential hopeful Donald trump voicing concern over the transfer itself. At a Senate hearing on September 14th, Cruz expressed concern by stating that “Once the government’s out of the picture, First Amendment protections go away,” and that countries that are not are direct allies such as Russia, China and others might have greater mobility to access free speech. Trump, in a rare show of support for his political rival had his national policy director Steven Miller issue a statement reiterating that “Congress needs to act or internet freedom will be lost for good, since there will be no way to make it great again once it is lost.”
When approached about the growing concerns by some over the issue of free speech and control of the internet, ICANN’s Cole again deferred to the official company rhetoric that attempts to reassure those that are still unsure. “Will countries be able to censor speech on the Internet after the transition? No more so than they can today. Right now, there is nothing about ICANN or its contract with the U.S. Government that prevents a country from censoring or blocking content within its own borders.”
The efforts to reach out to special organizations devoted to the continual promotion of free speech who would most likely have some of the greatest interest in the ICANN transfer were met with surprising results. Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Advox (Global Voices Advocacy) when contacted did not answer while Bill Olson with the Free Speech Coalition replied to our inquiry that “(the ICANN transfer) is not an issue on which we have been involved.”
While the issue of the ICANN transfer and whether or not the US government relinquishing ties can be debated as a good or bad thing will continue for quite some time, the most alarming aspect of this story is the apparent lack of information made widely available through our most popular news outlets. Indeed the coverage of the transfer itself was expounded upon in dozens of articles and opinions columns over the past two years, but the lack of mainstream attention this news has garnered over larger traditional news media outlets on either public or cable television has left many others with an attitude of indifference due to a lack of general information being widely promoted.
Byron Junio, 26, a graduate student also from Las Vegas who uses the internet on a constant basis for research with his studies in dental medicine acknowledged that his indifference on the subject was due to not being made aware of the change before hand. “I didn’t even know it was happening” he said “I am usually very good on keeping up with things in the news because I am on the internet all the time but this definitely comes as news to me. I will however now that I know make an effort to look into it and find out if this is best way to go for our future.” Now that the ICANN transfer has been completed internet users here in the United States are becoming more aware and are now asking those very same questions and determining for themselves if the future of the internet is truly in the best of hands.