Reining in ICANN

by Henry Farrell on June 30, 2005

A _very_ interesting development for Internet policy geeks. ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, runs key aspects of the Internet domain name system, mixing together the highly technical with the highly political. It has many opponents, running the gamut from Internet activists through commercial operators like Verisign, to the International Telecommunications Union, which has been ginning up a series of UN conferences to try to grab authority away from ICANN (the ITU is seeing its policy domain disappear from beneath its feet as telcos move _en masse_ to the Internet). One of the key uncertainties surrounding ICANN has been its relationship with the US government. Formally, ICANN runs the Domain Name System under the terms of a Memorandum of Understanding with the US Department of Commerce. While ICANN was supposed in theory to be more-or-less self regulatory, its exact relationship with the US government was both unclear and controversial, leading the US government to suggest that it would renounce control over ICANN when the Memorandum lapses “next year”: . Now the US government seems to have backtracked on that commitment.

The US National Telecommunications and Information Administration has just published a bland sounding “Statement of Principles”:, which announces that “Governments have legitimate interest in the management of their country code top level domains,” that “ICANN is the appropriate technical manager of the Internet DNS,” and that “The United States will continue to provide oversight so that ICANN maintains its focus and meets its core technical mission.” I’m looking forward to seeing what the real ICANN experts like Michael Froomkin and Milton Mueller have to say on this (we may have to wait; unfortunately, “ICANNWatch”: seems to be down for technical reasons). In my (entirely personal and perhaps flawed) interpretation, the US government is saying three things. First, that it intends to maintain oversight of ICANN, and thus indirect control over the domain name system, contrary to what it was saying a few weeks ago. Second, that the multilateral elements of DNS management (which were being touted in this “speech”: two weeks ago by the President of ICANN) will be more or less limited to a right for governments to decide how their country-level domain names (.uk for Britain, .ie for Ireland etc) is managed. This is very small beer; country level domain names aren’t that important. Finally, that international debates are all very well and good, but that the US doesn’t intend to let go of the domain name system to the UN or to any other multilateral body.

It’ll be interesting to see what the various people involved in the ICANN debates make of this – there are a lot of different interests ranging from lunatic fringers like Declan McCullagh through civil liberties types, to governments and big commercial actors. One thing which seems clear is that this outcome conforms quite well with the predictions made by IR types such as “Dan Drezner”: (and indeed “myself”: ), who argue that big states still call the shots in Internet governance, and that private actors generally play a governance role only when powerful states want them to. The US doesn’t seem to have any intention of relinquishing its power or influence in the forseeable future (what is perhaps surprising is that the US suggested at one point that it would).

Update: “Michael Froomkin”: has more.

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cinematic::rain » i-control
06.30.05 at 4:45 pm



John Quiggin 06.30.05 at 7:32 pm

I’m unclear as to how the US power is derived/maintained. That is, if ICANN simply declared that the conditions for a handover of control had been met, and that it would in future regard the views of the US Administration as advisory only, how could the US Administration act to stop them?

Is there a good link on this?


Henry 06.30.05 at 7:45 pm

John – there’s no link, but there is some history and legal issues. ICANN is a non-profit body incorporated under Californian law. It administers the relevant bits of the DNS under both the memorandum of understanding, and a contractual agreement (the IANA contract). It would be in a pretty weak legal position were it to try to do this – certainly, I don’t think that any commitment that the US government has given would be binding. In practical terms too, ICANN would be in a very tough position. Several of the root servers, including the ‘A’ server, are under the direct control of the US government. An ICANN secession would effectively involve splitting the root, with resultant chaos. Jon Postel tried to pull (or at least road-test) a quasi-secession back in the day, and rapidly found himself keelhauled for his troubles.


jim 06.30.05 at 8:01 pm

I took a look at some of the links that Michael Froomkin provided and saw there had been a meeting of the ITU Working Group on Internet Governance scheduled for June 14-17. I wonder if something happened at that meeting to prompt the DoC to put out this memo. At this level the US Government is usually more reactive than proactive. I could find no minutes of the WGIG meeting. Their website said that they met in closed session 15-17 June and their report will be submitted “shortly” to the Secretary General and to all stakeholders on 18 July.

Does anyone know what, if anything, happened at that meeting that might have alarmed the US Government?


Vittorio Bertola 07.01.05 at 1:30 am

Jim, I am a member of the WGIG (which, by the way, is a working group of the UN, not of the ITU) and our last meeting was devoted to finalizing our report, which should become public in the second week of July.

I am sure that the US Government had some way to read our draft final report before it gets out, but (as there’s nothing really groundbreaking in it) I think it mostly is a pre-emption of the discussion, or, in diplomatic terms, a way to strengthen the initial bargaining position in view of the subsequent negotiations.

On the other hand, if the US Government really thinks that it can keep unilateral control of the root zone forever, I think that a likely consequence would be the deployment of alternate root server systems, controlled by coalitions of other governments, in the next few years. In other words, the Internet would break.


John Quiggin 07.01.05 at 4:40 am

An interesting potential parallel is Galileo vs GPS.


James Wimberley 07.01.05 at 5:34 am

Interesting, but I wonder just how important is control of the top level of the addressing system, where all users have a clear interest in maintaining central and depoliticised management, as with the development of the TCP/IP protocol. Aren’t the big current issues in Internet governance ones of free speech, privacy, surveillance, and security, where we expect governments to maintain the ruke of law but can’t trust them to protect civil liberties? Is this one really worth worrying about by non-geeks compared to paedophilia, Chinese censorship, US snooping, spam, identity theft, and viruses?


jim 07.01.05 at 2:50 pm

It is, of course, open to any group or individual, whether a coalition of governments or not, to deploy an alternate set of root servers. But will anyone point to them if you set them up? To deploy an alternate set of root servers doesn’t break the internet. It only breaks the customers of those DNS servers that point to them. And that only if those customers don’t find another DNS server that points to the “real” root servers. It would be very difficult for a nation to force its citizens to only use its approved root. Deciding which port 53 packets to filter at the frontier would be a challenging task.

In a sense, we had this argument already, twenty years ago. Maybe we need to have it every twenty years or so, as all us old farts retire.

The internet works because nothing is imposed as authoritative. Karl Auerbach is often quoted saying the DNS is only authoritative because everyone voluntarily adheres to it. But that’s true of everything in the internet. IPv4 is only authoritative because everyone voluntarily adheres to it. The engineers have been trying to get the net moved to IPv6 for years now and failing, because they can’t get enough people to voluntarily adhere to it. I doubt you could pull an NCP/TCP switch today. There’s simply no way to coordinate with the administrators of every host on the network, which is what brought off the NCP/TCP switch. Getting people to switch to a rival root would be worse.

“I can call spirits from the vasty deep.”
“Why, so can I, or so can any man. But will they come when you do call for them?”

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