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What does ICANN transfer really mean

On the first of October 2016, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the organisation that controls Domain Name System (DNS) of the internet, has been released from the US control. Instead, it will now be governed by multiple stakeholders, ranging from UN member countries to major tech corporations, such as Google and Facebook.

Some people have welcomed the news. After all, Edward Snowden's revelations about mass surveillance didn't make US government to be perceived as a trustworthy guardian of the internet. To others, however, the transfer was one of the worst decisions that was made by the US government in the recent history. They argue that, as US government no longer controls the internet, countries with a poor track record on human rights and liberties, such as Russia, China and Iran, can now influence what we, the web users, will be able to see online, therefore mass censorship of the web is imminent worldwide .

With the opinions as diverse as these, many people are confused. Therefore, in this article, we will do our best to eliminate the confusion and describe what the transfer actually means.

In the nutshell, the notion that US government had a control over the internet, which it has now given up, is misleading. ICANN never was an organisation that had capabilities to control the internet and especially censor it. It does play small, but significant role in maintaining the technical part of internet ecosystem along with other independent bodies such as World Wide Web Consortium, Internet Engineering Task Force. It's main responsibility is to maintain DNS. All the other duties that ICANN performs are closely related to this.

DNS acts as an address book of the internet. Essentially, it is a globally available database that matches human readable website names with corresponding IP addresses. Computers will not understand website addresses like, so DNS is necessary to find out what IP address this corresponds to. Modern browsers, however, give you an option of typing the IP address into the address bar directly. Therefore, even if the DNS goes down or certain entries are removed from it, you would still be able to access anything that is connected to internet, as long as you know the actual numeric IP address of it.

ICANN doesn't even allocate IP addresses to individual domains. That's the job of private independent companies known as registrars, of which there are thousands worldwide. GoDaddy is probably the best-known example of a registrar. Once someone creates a domain name that wasn't registered before, registrar notified its local regional registry (of which there are 5 worldwide), which, in turn, notified ICANN to update the DNS.

Any other tasks, such as controlling what is available online in your country, are performed by internet service providers, all of which are country-specific. These are the only entities that have the capabilities of censoring the web and they are completely independent from ICANN.

As well as having no technical capabilities of shutting down the internet, the multiple stakeholder ownership model of ICANN will make it less likely for political reasons as well. Just like UN members can voice their opinion, they have no actual control of what other member states do. So it will be with the DNS. If any one country objects to what should be available online, it cannot force all other stakeholders to comply, unless they all agree with it. After all, the other major organisations that standardise web protocols have been successfully ran by multiple stakeholders since their inception with no single country controlling the process.

In reality, very little has changed. ICANN was founded in 1998 and this transfer was in the planning since then. ICANN was always under the governance of multiple stakeholders. The only difference was that the US government played a supervisory role and had the ability to veto its decisions, which it did very rarely.

So if we had nothing to worry about, why do we hear so many bloggers and youtubers telling horror stories about ICANN transfer? Why was there a last-ditch attempt by some US politicians to stop the transfer? It is possible that these people are misinformed. However, it is also likely that a significant number of them are using this story to dramatically increase their click rate or political points. Therefore, it is always important to do your own research on current affairs, especially if the story sounds scary.

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Posted on 4 Oct 2016

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