The US government has been the ultimate authority on the way the internet locates its content since the network was created. Come Oct. 1, it’s giving up that control to a non-profit.
Finding stuff on the internet works like this: When you enter http://qz.com in a browser, you get our home page. In order for that to happen, the address qz.com has to be translated into a format that’s understood by the computers around the world that delivered our home page to you. That format is known as an IP address, and for qz.com it’s 126.96.36.199.
This process of resolving domain-names like qz.com to IP addresses is critical to the way the web, and the internet as a whole, works. One US government department or another has had the final say over this process since the internet was created. The role currently falls to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which is part of the department of commerce.
On Aug. 16, the NTIA signed off on the final step in handing over its responsibility for the domain-name system to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a non-profit based in California. Technically, this means the NTIA won’t renew its contract with ICANN in October. It’s had a contract in place with the domain-name authority at ICANN since 1998, and it’s this contract (which is a zero-cost one (pdf), meaning no money changes hands) that grants the US government authority over the system.
The handover won’t change anything for the 3.5 billion people connected to the internet. That’s because US control has been largely administrative: it doesn’t get involved on a day-to-day basis. It also triggered the handover voluntarily two years ago, so it’s not coming as a surprise to anyone. ICANN has set up various bodies to hammer out a transition plan, which was formally announced in March–after 33,000 emails and 600 meetings.
So why change a system that isn’t broken? The US insists it’s handing over control because it considers the private-sector internet sufficiently “mature.” There are rumblings that Edward Snowden’s disclosures about US government surveillance in 2013 raised uncomfortable questions about American dominance of key internet infrastructure. China and Russia have also supported calls for the system to be overseen by the United Nations’ International Telecommunication Union instead of ICANN.
When the handover is complete, the naming system will be in the hands of ICANN, a “multi-stakeholder” organization whose members include governments, tech giants, and other entities who might have a vested interest in controlling the system. The US government says it’s done a study that shows the chances of ICANN being steered by a government pursuing its own agenda to be “extremely remote.“