Is the U.S. handing over control of the internet?

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Some recent headlines might lead one to believe that the internet is about to undergo some giant change. People talk about the U.S. "giving away" the internet, and even the 2016 Republican Party platform objects to "surrendering U.S. control of the root zone of web names and addresses."

But the truth is that on the internet, nobody has control. The internet doesn't work that way. The U.S. cannot hand over controls that it does not already have.

Something is about to change -- that much is true. Since its founding in 1998, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) has held a contract with the U.S. Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). That contract was for "IANA functions," which are useful and important functions that allow parts of the internet to work the way they do.

IANA, which stands for Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, is like a land registry for the internet that prevents two different functions from laying claim to the same value at the same time.

For instance, when you visit a web page, you probably use the conventional port 443 for a secure connection. Everyone knows to use port 443 for this purpose (as opposed to, say, port 25, which is for mail) because it's written down in an IANA registry. It wouldn't matter which number we used as long as everyone used the same number. If everyone does not, then in order to make a connection you'd first have to negotiate what port to use, and that would be less convenient.

It really is a matter of convenience. We could negotiate the ports instead -- there's even a way already built to do that -- but it's more work. By and large, engineers prefer the easier path when it is available.

One of the IANA registries is the Domain Name System root zone. It holds the name servers for the top-level domains (such as .com and .org and country codes such as .us, .cn and .in). Ultimately, in the DNS, every response depends on the values in the root zone. This is why the job is a critical function.

But of course, we don't actually need to use DNS. We do it because that's what we've used since the 1980s, and it works. But other name systems have been invented and deployed, and they don't depend on a root zone. Also, even if we keep using DNS, nobody can force you to use the same root zone as everyone else. It's just much less convenient if you don't.

The current contract for the IANA functions between ICANN and NTIA is set to expire on Oct. 1. NTIA has announced that it plans to not renew the contract, which means ICANN's job will not be supervised by the U.S. government anymore.

That is the "giveaway" some people are complaining about.

But there is a difference between being critical and being in control. The land registry office is a critical function to make sure the ownership of property is recorded. That doesn't mean the land registry controls where people live.

The end of oversight by the U.S. government does not mean that ICANN gets to do whatever it wants. Instead, in the past two years, the internet community came together to invent new, community-based ways of ensuring that ICANN does a good job. If it doesn't, the community can, in effect, fire ICANN. That is the way everything already works on the internet. The idea is to take the existing successful model of the open internet, built by voluntary collaboration, and use it again for that purpose.

But even today, if people did not find the system useful, they would choose something else. This isn't some utopian dream of techno-libertarians. It's part of the nature of inter-networking. The internet is a network of networks. Each network voluntarily chooses to exchange packets with other networks. Each makes the rules for how it will work. That means that when the various networks all decide to use the IANA registries as they are operated today, it is because they find that system more useful than alternatives.

If the IANA system ceases to be useful (or starts to be too politically controversial), then people will choose something else. And there is no central point where people could be forced to use the IANA system because there is no center in a network of networks. That is also the reason why nobody -- not China, not Russia and not the bogeyman in the basement -- can "take over" the internet.

The United States is not "giving away" the internet. NTIA is wisely acknowledging that the internet has grown up and that the system works as designed and doesn't need governments to keep it going. On Oct. 1, nobody will be able to tell that anything has changed. We should all be thankful that NTIA recognizes that its job is complete and that it can step back confident that the same enlightened self-interest that keeps the internet delivering its magic will work for this part of the internet, too.

About the Author

Andrew Sullivan is a fellow at Dyn and chairman of the Internet Architecture Board. He has been active in the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) for about a decade and previously served as co-chair of the DNS Extensions working group and SPF Updates working group.

Cyber. Covered.

Government Cyber Insider tracks the technologies, policies, threats and emerging solutions that shape the cybersecurity landscape.


Reader comments

Tue, Aug 30, 2016 John Klensin Cambridge, MA, USA

"John USA": As someone who has been involved with IANA since long before there was an ICANN, let me try to clarify one or two things. First, I think there are ample reasons for the Internet Community (including the community in the US, but not limited to it) to be concerned about ICANN and how it does business in some areas. As I read Andrew as suggesting, there are good reasons for the community to keep a careful eye on things and for governments, particularly the US Government, to pay careful attention to quasi-regulatory behavior and behavior that has the potential to raise antitrust issues. Virtually none of that has anything to do with the IANA transition. As Andrew suggests, the best (and just about the only, with or without the NTIA contract) protection the community has against ICANN doing a bad (or irresponsible if you think that is different) job with the IANA registries is to make other arrangements. That said, some of the misconceptions that are floating around are rather simple and mostly technical, ones. The only part of the DNS that IANA actually controls is the so-called root zone. Even that control is fragile, as Andrew points out. To oversimplify only a bit, the only information that is in the root zone is the location of the servers for the various TLDs. Using your example, information in the root zone points to the servers for, among other things, the servers for .mil and .gov. Those servers, and their contents, are solidly under US Government control. They were before ICANN came into existence, they are now, and they will be after the transition. As long as that control continues, there is nothing that ICANN (or IANA) can do that would affect the contents (e.g., the second-level names) in those two domains. The exception is that, in theory, the records in the root zone could be changed to point somewhere else instead, for example making the authority for .mil and responsibility for its contents the government of Lower Slobbovia instead or the USA. I don't think they are going to do that either before or after October 1. If they would even consider it (which would surprise me), the international response would be predictable and certain: a rapid and general conclusion that, if IANA could use its administration of the root zone to arbitrarily take control of those zones away from the administrators against the will of those administrators, almost anyone, especially any country-code domain, could be next. The response would be exactly what Andrew suggests: the community would make other arrangements for administration of the root zone. For better or worse, such an "alternate root" with broad international support would be a far more serious threat to ICANN's survival than any action NTIA could take under the current contract (and, given the speed with which things can happen on the Internet, almost certainly far faster).. That is, for better or worse, the guarantee you are asking about.

Tue, Aug 30, 2016 marksv

@John - It's fair to mention that ICANN is insufficiently transparent and doesn't always follow its own bylaws. But since the pressure to improve ICANN has always been driven out of the community, rather than the US Department of Commerce, I'd say it's orthogonal to the IANA transition.

Wed, Aug 24, 2016 John Laprise Des Plaines, IL

Having been a part of the process through which this transition has come to fruition, I heartily agree with Andrew Sullivan. This transition has been planned for many years by the US government. Internet users interested in Internet governance have been working for quite some time to find a way to reliably build a way to replicate the oversight of the NTIA without it and the community is satisfied that we've come up with a workable solution. This is not to say there won't be issues that arise but such things happen in any complex organization and ICANN is no different. We are all working to make it a more accountable and transparent organization. The bottom line is that the Internet keeps running as it has been. Generic Top Level Domains (gTLDs) like .gov and .mil continue to be administered by their owners, an issue that was taken up at the recent Congressional hearings on this subject.

Wed, Aug 24, 2016 John USA

Well the way you write about it here I must say you make it sound like a cool smooth cup of Kool-Aid I'd go for myself as long as it's made with real sugar and no high fructose corn syrup. This guy writes a compelling article too, but I guess he doesn't know what he's talking about or what he's so concerned about: "Recent Actions Cast Doubt on Whether ICANN Is Ready for Transition" (August 16, 2016) And I suppose Craig Parshall who wrote "The President's ICANN Internet Problem" on the website doesn't know what he's talking about either, ay? People can easily search and find that one themselves. I would link to that one too, but it already took days for my post to appear over here - - so I imagine actually linking to an article at a site like that is pretty much guaranteed to send this comment into reader post oblivion these days, at least here. It already happened somewhere else when I linked to that hot potato one. And while we're at it, is there any guarantee .mil and .gov for instance would remain exclusively part of the US after this "transition" just to name a few concerns? None that I'm aware of. And I guess all the other smart people out there who have concerns, objections and don't merely use rhetoric are off base too? I certainly won't be buying it or the wisdom, propriety and readiness of this "transition" any time soon. The people in We the People are simply being bypassed in such a bad way for something like this, as has become so commonplace this century.

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