At midnight last Saturday morning, Washington DC time, oversight over the performance of ICANN's IANA functions—notably its maintenance of the root zone database of the Internet's domain name system (DNS)—passed from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to ICANN's global multi-stakeholder community.
Despite several weeks of heated discussion within the United States, we haven't commented much on this transition. That's because there has not been much to say: the talking points over ICANN have been mostly a product of American party politics (and the election season) rather than a debate on a substantive technical or policy issue. The outcome was unlikely to affect Internet users much one way or the other. Now that the transfer of oversight has gone through, life will go on pretty much as it did before, with the exception that a broader group of people will have the formal responsibility of ensuring that the DNS root zone is being administered according to community-developed policies. New accountability measures have been put in place by ICANN as a condition of the transition, which will give this community some extra teeth to make sure that it stays on the straight and narrow.
If the transfer of authority hadn't gone through, the main effect would simply have been to make other countries annoyed. These countries have considered it unfair that oversight over a small but uniquely centralized element of the global Internet should be the responsibility of one government—especially a government that has betrayed the world's trust by engaging in indiscriminate mass surveillance of millions of innocent users. Their annoyance that the United States had gone back on a 20 year old promise that it would give up oversight of the DNS root, could have potentially led to renewed pressure for a global body such as the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) to take over that function, or—as is historically offered as a last resort bulwark against ICANN despotism—to the creation of competing, alternate roots. It's not clear that this would ever amount to more than opportunistic rumbles of complaint by other countries, but it would certainly have added to the continuing atmosphere of distrust the rest of the world has for the United States' Internet stewardship.
Some critics of the transition have said that it doesn't matter whether other countries are annoyed, because it's America's Internet, and by giving up oversight over DNS root maintenance, the United States is giving the Internet away. But the Internet has never been America's property; nor is IANA an effective chain tying that property to the United States.. The Internet's roots have always been global, and it is the Net's planet-wide, distributed nature (and lack of centralized control) that gives it its unique resilience and power. Certainly, it would not exist today without American engineers Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn who worked on its predecessor, the ARPANET, beginning in 1969. But important building blocks of today's Internet were also contributed from around the world. The first packet-switching network was developed by Donald Davies in the United Kingdom in the late 1960s, and Vint and Bob also drew significantly upon the work of Louis Pouzin from France on the CYCLADES network of the early 1970s. The World Wide Web was later developed in Switzerland by Tim Berners-Lee, an Englishman.
Critics charge that the root is the Internet's one major point of central control. The transfer, they say, of administrative responsibility could allow repressive regimes to strengthen their influence within ICANN and thereby somehow cause it to engage in acts of censorship. These suggestions were always rather fanciful. The multi-stakeholder structure of ICANN allots governments, repressive and otherwise, only a very limited advisory function. While ICANN's structure is far from perfect, non-governmental stakeholders have always had considerably more power within ICANN, and will continue to do so. Moreover, the only censorship that ICANN could even conceivably exercise by means of control of the root zone file would be very course-grained one—deleting entire top-level domains such as the whole of .com.
That isn't to say that the misuse of the domain name system for censorship isn't a real concern. But that danger existed last week under the NTIA's oversight, just as much as it continues to exist today. While EFF stayed out of the IANA transition debate, we do keep a watchful eye on ICANN where it comes to the misuse of its policies and processes to censor Internet content. By exercising pressure on domain name registrars and registries, it's possible for law enforcement agencies and rightsholders (both within and without the United States) to exact finer-grained censorship, picking off individual domains that are alleged to host unlawful or undesirable content. This is a far greater and more present danger that continues to receive far less public attention than the IANA transition.
EFF has proposed and will be leading a session at the next ICANN meeting in Hyderabad in November to discuss this problem, and to introduce the ICANN community to two of our projects that we believe could be helpful in understanding and addressing it—Shadow Regulation and the Manila Principles. Not much has changed this weekend, and that includes the continuing threats to free expression and privacy that sometimes emerge within the domain name system. Long after the headlines and the clamor over this transition have died down, we'll be keeping the same vigilant watch.