Who Governs the Internet?

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The US government has officially ended its oversight of ICANN, the organization that coordinates the management of domain names and IP addresses for the entire internet, therefore renouncing a largely symbolic but important role in internet governance.

Founded in 1998 under California State Law, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, is a nonprofit company responsible for managing the domain name system and coordinating the assignment of IP addresses. Since its creation, ICANN has operated generally under the supervision of the US Department of Commerce, and specifically by a board of directors.

What Will Change?

Fundamentally, the expiration of the contract between the US Department of Commerce and ICANN means that internet oversight will transition from US governmental control to international private control. ICANN will, therefore, become an autonomous, self-regulated and international nonprofit entity, and will retain the same operational purview as it had while under US supervision.

It is important to note that both the US Department of Commerce’s previous role and ICANN’s current role are supervisory.

The core operational system of Internet Governance has grown to be a largely democratic consortium of experts and enthusiasts operating together under a multi-stakeholders model.

Governments, companies, and civil society organizations like the Internet Engineering Task Force (“IETF“)  will continue to collaborate to govern, manage and improve how the internet functions- but under ICANN international supervision as opposed to US government control.

On October 18th, ICANN is scheduled to release updates on how the organization has implemented community policies during its most recent operational quarter.

Why Now?

The change has been presented by both ICANN and the US government as a long-standing plan to privatize these functions with the process being drafted almost two decades ago.

However, the process to hand over supervision and indirect control over the internet was arguably expedited by the Obama administration partially in response to the 2013 Edward Snowden controversy and subsequent criticism from both the international community and parts of US Congress.

Furthermore, advocates and companies participating in the Net Neutrality movement in support of a Free and Open Internet played a significant role in realizing the transition.

In an open letter to Congress from US tech giants like the Intel Corporation, Amazon, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and HP states that “we have worked with representatives from civil society, government, and the technical community to craft a proposal that enables the U.S. Government to seamlessly transfer stewardship of the Internet’s addressing system to its global stakeholders.”

This transition may be considered mainly a symbolic move to limit the US government’s control over the internet and information in the wake of far-reaching surveillance claims and controversies. However, this change also has the potential to promote a more open, democratic and international process of internet governance and access to information in an increasingly globalized and interconnected age.

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