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The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is a non-profit corporation organised under Californian law in 1998, originally operating under a Memorandum of Understanding with the US Department of Commerce.1 ICANN has ‘responsibility for Internet Protocol (IP) address space allocation, protocol identifier assignment, generic (gTLD) and country code (ccTLD) Top-Level Domain name system management, and root server system management functions’.2 In other words, ICANN coordinates the Internet’s systems of unique identifiers by facilitating the process of associating website addresses with unique IP numbers.3 ICANN has been at the centre of many international discussions regarding Internet governance, as it is seen as one of the very few bodies that ‘controls’ a certain structure of the internet, which, by its nature, does not have a central coordination point.

Before ICANN was created, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA)4 and other entities performed the aforementioned services under a United States (US) Government contract. In 1998, the IANA function was taken over by ICANN, but links with the US – viewed as the birthplace of the Internet – remained. ICANN itself boasts a bottom-up, consensus-driven, multi-stakeholder governance model that includes all relevant actors, from states and intergovernmental organisations to civil society and the private sector.5 Nevertheless, ICANN’s complex structure and its relations with the US government have been criticised since its formation: on the one hand, there are governments such as Russia, China, or Brazil that have supported the prospect of an international/intergovernmental organisation (e.g., the ITU) taking over ICANN’s current mandate, and on the other, there are mostly Western governments which have advocated for more governmental influence within the current ICANN structure.6

In March 2014, building upon the criticism and perhaps amplified by the NSA surveillance scandal, the US announced a plan to relinquish federal control over the administration of the Internet and expressing the intent to move ICANN’s functions over to a global multi-stakeholder community by the end of September 2015.7 The transformation is also presented as the result of ICANN’s ‘organisational maturation’, already envisioned by the US Government in 1998.8 The announcement was made by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), an agency of the US Department of Commerce which currently has a verification and authorisation role over ICANN’s functions.9 Those opposing the decision view it as a detrimental mistake for the US, claiming that the change will have fundamental effects on Internet security and the free flow of information by giving ‘undemocratic’ states more power over the decentralised network.10 Conversely, there are experts11 who see the controversy as over-hyped and over-politicised. According to this view, looking at the technical aspects, ICANN plays a marginal role in the Internet governance system and effective governmental impact has been and would be difficult to establish.  

In its announcement, the NTIA communicated to ICANN that the process must strictly follow the principles that characterise the current system: (1) support and enhance the multi-stakeholder model; (2) maintain the security, stability, and resilience of the Internet Domain Name System (DNS); (3) meet the needs and expectation of the global customers and partners of the IANA services; and, (4) maintain the openness of the internet. Nonetheless, the political and technical implications of the future governance model are yet unclear12, as the current contracts ends in September 2015 and a proposal for the transformation is still being developed by a global group of stakeholders.13

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