Handing over the virtual keys of the Internet

Stuart Fuller

For those of us who work within the technology industry, our definition of the Internet has always been based on a virtual network of devices that allow information to flow seamlessly around the world. It is widely acknowledged that nobody can lay claim to owning it in totality, as nobody could define where it started and where it stopped. So claims this week that the US had given away the ownership of the Internet are pretty far wide of the mark; yet that's what many people believe.

The Internet has never had any centralized governance in either technological implementation or terms and conditions for use. Organizations that themselves run networks that form the Internet may have their own sets of rules and policies, however the general uniformity and open source nature of the Internet has been the defining reason why it has been the greatest technological advancement in the last one hundred years. 

Whilst it is true that the Internet protocol space and the DNS infrastructure have been overseen by ICANN - itself a community-based multi-stakeholder organization - there has also been some overseeing by an organization called IANA - the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority. Back in 1998, they gave the authority to develop the DNS infrastructure and consequently the management of domain names to ICANN. IANA kept a watching brief in the background but were ultimately happy with how things worked - indeed the growth of domain names (now nearing 340 million) and websites (well over a billion at the last count) suggests that things have gone swimmingly. IANA themselves fell under the auspices of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), part of the US Department of Commerce.

To summarize: the organization that oversaw the development of the infrastructure that allows content to be made available digitally worldwide was owned by an oversight organisation, who were overseen by a government agency, who in turn were part of the US government. So if you believe stories about being the friend of someone famous because you know their cousin’s best friend’s brother's paper boy's dog then yes, the Internet was owned by the US Government. And their action of handing full responsibility for it to ICANN (who had been doing the oversight and development pretty well for 18 years) means, I suppose, they have ‘given it away’.

The ICANN community is open to anyone, and consequently has some of the greatest experts on the development of the invisible infrastructure. No company or individual owns a controlling share and anyone is free to attend their meetings, held globally three times a year. It makes perfect sense that they were given total responsibility for the custody of the Internet, having essentially done the role as an intern for nearly two decades.

Whilst some may have pushed an agenda for a private organization to gain control, the prospects of a James Bond villain-esque company controlling all of what we see and do online is simply too frightening to contemplate. Whilst some may feel there are already organizations that have access to too much of our personal and private data on our online habits, we still have choices as to how we use the Internet. Under a commercial organization it would be hard to see how those freedoms could still exist.

The process to hand over control has been beset with obstacles, none more so than in recent months where the decision has become a political football, kicked vehemently by Republicans Ted Cruz and Donald Trump who have played the patriotic claim of, essentially, ‘handling the Digital Crown Jewels’ to anyone who wanted to damage the US. A last-minute bid by four US States to file a legal challenge over the transition of power was filed with the Supreme Court of Texas but failed.  The keys to the Internet were passed to ICANN on Friday.

This is no revolution - this is the start of the evolution of the next phase of the Internet. We've already seen the shift in thinking from ICANN when they announced the new gTLD programme in 2011 and, nearly 25 million more domains down the road, we can expect a second wave in the next few months. The growth in Internet users has delivered huge economic benefits to individuals, companies and countries, and will continue to do so as technology continues to drive up innovation and drive down costs. Of course there are threats and risks that need to be mitigated and ultimately, more could be done by all stakeholders, not just ICANN, to make the Internet a safer place. That's for all of us to acknowledge, and be part of a solution rather than part of the problem.

So for the average Internet user, the transition of power will mean very little indeed but we should all be safe in the knowledge that we now all have a say in how the Internet could and should be run - surely that in itself demonstrates the ultimate freedom of speech?