Sculpture: Google Yellow Pages by Michael Mandiberg / See-ming Lee

August 16, 2016,

The Obama administration intends to privatize Internet governance on October 1, 2016. The U.S. Department of Commerce contract with ICANN will be allowed to expire on September 30th. Few Internet users will notice anything has changed. Eventually, as the international community gains more say about how the Internet is governed, new policies may be enacted, but the U.S. government insists that the openness of the Internet will always be protected.

One reason why no one is likely to notice any immediate changes is because one of the largest and most important U.S. nonprofits you’ve never heard of, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), will still be running things through its newly formed (albeit with a more global governance model) nonprofit public benefit corporation called Public Technical Identifiers (PTI).

ICANN is a global “multi-stakeholder organization” created in 1998 through U.S. government contracts that ensures continuous connectivity between your and everyone else’s computer, smartphone, tablet, website, etc. ICANN manages the Internet’s IP addresses, domain names, and root servers—“the Internet’s phonebook.” You may have noticed the acronym in passing if you considered one of the new domain name extensions offered to nonprofits, like .charity or .foundation. ICANN “coordinates the Internet’s DNS, IP addresses and autonomous system numbers, which involves a continued management of these evolving systems and the protocols that underlay them.” Its Board of Directors has global representation.

The Internet was built to accommodate about 4.3 billion addresses. ICANN and its global partners are building Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6) to allow for 340,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 addresses. Other countries have long wanted to have a say in how all of that is managed and maintained. Some have called for the United Nations or some other intergovernmental organization to take the reins from ICANN. PTI is the compromise.

Some lawmakers and advocacy groups are resisting this “Internet giveaway.” They argue that the transition could lead to Internet censorship by authoritarian governments such as China, Turkey, Russia, and Iran. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) raised their concerns in a letter to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration that “the transition may violate the Constitution if it transfers government property to a private entity without congressional approval.” Other concerns include the weakening of intellectual property protections.

John Ribeiro reports in

The courts can still pause the transition in September or unwind it after the contract expires, said Berin Szóka, president of TechFreedom, in a statement. He raised the possibility that private parties could sue if Congress doesn’t. The groups, which are opposed to rushing the transition, have said that key issues about the transfer are “not expected to be fully resolved until summer 2017.”

As reported by the Wall Street Journal, the head of the NTIA (National Telecommunications & Information Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Commerce), Lawrence Strickling, wrote in a blog post that this transition “represents the final step in the U.S. government’s longstanding commitment, supported by three [presidential] administrations, to privatize the Internet’s domain-name system.” NTIA has had oversight of ICANN for the past 16 years.

NTIA said in an accompanying FAQ on Tuesday that both NTIA and ICANN have formally affirmed that the U.S. government is the administrator of .mil and .gov and any changes made to the top-level domains can only be made with the express written approval of the U.S. government. Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas, has introduced legislation that stated that the .gov and .mil top-level domains are U.S. property and asked the government to secure in the transition the exclusive ownership, control and use of the domains in perpetuity.

The Internet was invented and developed in the U.S. The U.S. government has held limited authority over the Internet’s domain name system, primarily through the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) functions contract between the NTIA and ICANN. This transition away from U.S. government oversight to the private management of ICANN reflects the broad diversity of today’s Internet community. ICANN’s transparent governance model is trusted and considered ready to manage this next step in the Internet’s evolution. U.S. government oversight was always meant to be temporary. This transition promises to ensure the continued security and stability of the Internet’s Domain Name System, although U.S. lawmakers and advocacy groups might still be able to thwart this plan.—James Schaffer