For 16 years, ICANN has essentially run the Internet's entire DNS root server infrastructure, but it did so as a contractor for the US Department of Commerce. Now the department has said that, when the contract expires next year, it will officially
surrender responsibility and ownership of the job to ICANN.
This is less of an operational change and more of a symbolic gesture -- but it's an important gesture.
The fact that the US government has some oversight -- or de facto ownership -- of the Internet has been a source of great international tension for a long time. It isn't just that ICANN is an American government contractor (though that's the most significant point of contention). Of the 13 root server named authorities on Earth, 10 are managed by entities that are American or have strong American ties. One is managed by ICANN, three by American government agencies, two by American universities, two by Verisign (an American company), one by a nonprofit organization in Delaware, and one by Cogent Communications, a multi-national company headquartered in New York. So it is no surprise that the United States has been under pressure to relinquish some of the reins to a truly international body.
It's hard to say what immediate impacts, if any, this change will have. It's possible that more international oversight will sway ICANN's decisions about creating top-level domains -- more industry-specific TLDs like .xxx or more national ones like .us, for example. It's possible that the change will affect ICANN's official stance on issues like Internet censorship and the Great Firewall of China.
Or not. But it doesn't really matter right now. The important thing is that the US government is behaving as if the Internet is truly an international, borderless, ownerless global resource, not a very large outpost of the US government.
This certainly isn't enough to satisfy other countries' rage about snooping by US intelligence agencies, nor will it solve America's other (many) foreign relations woes, but it certainly can't hurt.
What do you think? Does it matter who owns the Internet, officially or unofficially? Is the Commerce Department's decision a game changer or just a formality? Let us know in the comments below.