A Blog by Jonathan Low


Nov 6, 2016

Does It Matter That the US Is 'Giving Up Control' Of the Internet?

Control? Who controls anything on the internet?

The new model is multi-stakeholder - which admittedly presents its own risks - but the specter of governmental interference by any nation has been lessened considerably. JL

Danielle Kehl reports in Slate:

The new oversight model clearly rejects any formal government role in ICANN oversight. More importantly, ICANN’s multi-stakeholder model is a more appealing alternative to the intergovernmental solution that countries like Russia and China have tried to replace ICANN with.While the internet community will continue to pay attention to important issues like keeping ICANN accountable, hardly anyone else noticed when the transition officially happened
Learning to navigate the World Wide Web in the ’90s was a little bit surreal. After suffering through those excruciating dial-up noises, you opened a popular browser like Netscape Navigator and typed a string of funny letters and symbols—a URL, they called it—into an “address bar” and voila! You would magically be transported to, say, a site dedicated to the instant classic Space Jam. And even if the site wasn’t actually on GeoCities, it usually had that restrained GeoCities aesthetic.
Today, surfing the web has become routine, but for most people the inner workings of the network remain just as mysterious as they were back in the 1990s, when the commercial internet was just starting to take off. For example, few know much about the internet’s Domain Name System, or DNS, which helps keep the internet working on a technical level. The DNS functions, in essence, as the internet’s “address book”—it’s how you can be confident that when you type a URL like www.spacejam.com into an address bar, you’ll actually get to the website you intended to visit. And, unless a major distributed denial-of-service attack happens to be underway, that process is usually so seamless that you don’t even have to think about it.

This apparently seamless operation is actually the product of a fairly complex system of naming and numbering that was developed by computer scientists in the early days of the Internet. Today, it’s managed by a number of technical organizations, including a little-known nonprofit organization based in California: the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN.
If ICANN sounds vaguely familiar to you, it could be because you heard Ted Cruz or Donald Trump’s fearmongering in September about how the United States was giving up “control of the Internet” to foreign powers like China and Russia. A Trump press release said that if President Obama’s “Plan to Surrender American Internet Control to Foreign Powers“ succeeded, “Internet freedom will be lost for good, since there will be no way to make it great again once it is lost.”
The Trump campaign was talking about the “IANA transition,” the long-overdue end of the U.S. government’s formal role in ICANN oversight, which officially happened Oct. 1. Trump’s rhetoric is largely nonsensical, but it is a good example of the widespread confusion about what ICANN is and its role in internet governance. That’s why it’s important for ordinary users to recognize that there’s no secret “giveaway” happening and ICANN doesn’t “control” the internet in any sense of the word—although it does play a key part in the global coordination system that keeps the network running. So here is a guide to what ICANN actually is and what all the recent fuss is really about—and I’ll keep it as jargon-free as possible.

ICANN’s origin story goes back to the 1980s. Before Cruz graduated from middle school or Trump “wrote” The Art of the Deal, the computers scientists who created the early internet realized that they needed a more efficient and scalable way to send messages over the network than having to know the numeric Internet Protocol, or IP, addresses assigned to every computer on the network.
Enter Jon Postel, a researcher at the University of Southern California’s Information Sciences Institute whose contributions to the early development of the network have earned him the nickname ”god of the Internet.” Postel initially created a simple, phonebook-style directory so that he could manually keep track of the name of every computer on the network and its corresponding IP address. But then he and his colleagues had a better idea, one that would accommodate the future growth of the network: They created the DNS, which organizes the names into hierarchically nested domains (like .com and .edu) and stores the information needed to resolve names into their corresponding numeric IP addresses on a decentralized group of servers located around the world.
For most of the 1990s, Postel coordinated the allocation of IP addresses as the head of a voluntary organization called the Internet Assigned Number Authority, or the IANA, which was supported by the U.S. government. But by 1998, two things had become clear: The internet was growing too large and important for such a critical resource to be managed almost entirely by a single individual, and the U.S. government’s close involvement in the day-to-day management of a now global resource was becoming increasingly uncomfortable.


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