Who Will Control the Internet, DOC or ICANN?
Quick, what does URL stand for? Uniform Resource Locator or, for most of us, a web address. We all think of web addresses as names, descriptions and words like mygreatwebsite.com but really, each domain name resolves to an IP address that is a group of unique numbers.
There are (at least) 13 root servers around the globe (that we know about) operated by a number of private and public entities that underpin the Internet. These root servers allow each and every URL to resolve to a website, quite reliably for the most part.
The root servers are under the jurisdiction of ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. ICANN selects registrars to manage top level domains (TLDs) like dot-COM (e.g., Verisign manages dot-COM), dot-INFO, dot-BIZ, dot-ORG, dot-NAME and so forth and they also work with national bodies that manage country codes, like CIRA (Canadian Internet Registry Authority, which manages the dot-CA) and AuDA (Australia Domain Authority that manages the dot-AU).
Ultimately, control of the Internet rests with a powerful U.S.-cabinet level post, the DOC (Department of Communications). ICANN, many European countries and other nations have been trying to wrest control of the Internet away from the DOC for years but chances of DOC actually relinquishing ultimate control over an incredibly valuable resource (i.e., the Internet) are essentially zero, in my view.
From the time Bill Clinton was president, the U.S. periodically announces transition plans, which so far have amounted to… nothing. The Washington Post ran this headline yesterday (March 14, 2014):
How exciting. How daring. How unlikely to be true.
DOC directly or indirectly controls almost all root servers while ICANN operates the DNS (Domain Name System) under contract to DOC. ICANN is thus a designated authority and its access to root servers is at the discretion of DOC, and access is everything. Without it, ICANN’s designated authority is a bunch of meaningless paper (or worse a digital file somewhere that can be deleted with a single click).
Maybe that is just as well since ICANN has never really found a way to make its own governance both transparent and equitable. Governance of international corporations or organizations is very difficult anyway–which law applies in case of disputes? How do you elect a Board of Directors? What type of accountability does the organization have to its stakeholder group? Who does ICANN report to–the UN?
U.S. views of UN control and governance are pretty dim, perhaps justifiably so.
Who will elect ICANN’s board of directors? In some nations, each domain name holder has a vote but what if a crazed dictator decided to purchase millions of domains to try to put in his/her own slate of directors? How would the DOC react to that? Not well, one would imagine.
Maybe some nominees could be selected by the UN’s General Assembly or its Security Council. Or possibly national domain registries would appoint directors. But it is unlikely ICANN’s existing board members want to kowtow to national authorities whom they have always viewed as subservient.
It is an intractable problem; it’s probably just as difficult to write a constitution for ICANN as, say, the Constitution of the United States was, and maybe even more difficult because of its international dimension. At least, in the U.S., SCOTUS* is unquestionably the final legal arbiter.
* Supreme Court of the United States.