Internet Governance & Politics: The Transition to ICANN

September 28, 2016

During this campaign season fraught with major policy and political discussions, a historic Internet transition is flying under the radar, despite the attempts of Senator Ted Cruz and others to stop it.
If you stopped someone on the street and asked who governs the internet or how your computer can find any website in the world, they wouldn’t have a clue. But, on October 1, the US Department of Commerce will let a contract lapse that would allow the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a California-based non-profit that sets standards for the internet, to directly manage the DNS root zone file. The root zone file serves as the “address book” for all websites, allowing your computer to find the website you’re looking for without knowing the IP address. This transition has been in the works for several years, but the upcoming implementation date has galvanized opposition.
On August 31, Sen. Cruz created a website counting down the seconds “until Obama gives away the Internet” and raised concerns that giving control to ICANN would facilitate censorship of the Internet by state-actors such as Russia, China, and Iran.  As explain by a Cruz spokesman, controlling the root zone file allows control over what appears websites can be accessed on the internet; even if state-actors could not control content on pages, they could exercise influence to make a website inaccessible altogether.
Ironically, protecting the independence of the Internet is exactly what proponents of the internet transition claim they are trying to achieve. By allowing ICANN, and independent organization, manage the internet, there is less risk of a multi-national organization, namely the UN’s International Telecommunication Union, from taking over, at which point countries like Russia and China, who have strong influence in the UN, would have more control.

Aside from the policy issues, several interesting legal issues were also raised by opponents of the transition.

Article IV Section 3 invests Congress with the power to “dispose of . . . property belonging to the United States.” On September 22, 2015, several congressmen, including Sen. Cruz, sent a letter to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) asking for an opinion regarding whether the root zone file was US property that could only be relinquished by act of congress. On September 8, 2016, having never received an answer from the GAO, several congressmen again raised the constitutional issue in a letter to the Departments of Commerce and of Justice. On September 12, 2016, the GAO responded and found that the root zone file was not US property and the Department of Commerce had the authority to implement the transition.
Throughout this process, much ink was spilled in blogs and op-eds supporting the transition and opposing it. Sir Tim Berners-Lee himself, the patron saint of the Internet, weighed in, as well as Donald Trump, who announced his opposition to the transition.
At this point, it appears that the transition will move forward, and only time will tell what affects it will have on the Internet.