Late Friday, March 14, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) held a press conference announcing that the U.S government is looking to give up oversight of the organization's control of Web domains and the Domain Name System (DNS).
While ICANN's announcement is interesting, it's actually not a new direction for either ICANN or the U.S. government. It's also likely that due to existing contracts and technological constraints, control of the domain system and critical top-level domains will not move outside the U.S anytime soon, if ever.
Back in 2009, the U.S government first announced that it would be ceding control of ICANN and its functions to other stakeholders beyond the U.S government. ICANN operated from 1998 until 2009 under a Joint Project Agreement (JPA) with the U.S. Department of Commerce. The JPA gave the Department of Commerce direct control and oversight of ICANN and its operations.
In 2009, the JPA was replaced with the "Affirmation of Commitments" agreement that was intended to shift ICANN control from the Department of Commerce to broader global oversight. Now nearly five years later, ICANN is once again making similar kinds of statements about global stakeholders and a removal of U.S government oversight.
The 2009 Affirmation of Commitments agreement was specifically about the ongoing overall operations of ICANN. Prior to 2009, ICANN received yearly reviews from the Department of Commerce; since then, reviews have been the domain of a Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC) in which the U.S government participates.
After the Affirmation of Commitments, the Department of Commerce still held onto oversight of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA). IANA controls the DNS root zone and its associated root zone database of Top Level Domains (TLDs). The IANA piece is the key control point that ICANN is now saying will soon be liberated from the U.S. government's direct oversight.
The challenge and the complexity is that ICANN has already been managing IANA on behalf of the U.S. government. As such, though it might seem simplistic, the GAC already has some limited oversight into IANA as part of its views into ICANN operations.
Going a level deeper, from a technical perspective, root DNS operations are globally distributed today. From an operations perspective, ICANN doesn't actually directly perform the IANA functions; rather it contracts those functions out to VeriSign.
VeriSign is a U.S company that keeps Internet DNS up and running for all Internet users around the world. In 2010, VeriSign announced that it was investing $300 million into DNS infrastructure in an effort known as Project Apollo. The VeriSign Project Apollo initiative is all about enabling Internet DNS to scale for the next 10 years and builds on a prior $100 million investment in 2007 by VeriSign into DNS.
So the long story short is that many DNS functions are likely to remain the domain of VeriSign and likely to remain strongly rooted in the U.S, for purely technical reasons, for a long time to come. Whether IANA gets its direction directly from ICANN or via the Department of Commerce likely won't make much difference.
When it comes to actual domain name registry control, VeriSign is the key player there as well. In 2012, ICANN renewed its contract with VeriSign for control of the critical dot-com registry. Under the terms of the contract, VeriSign will control dot-com until at least 2017 (VeriSign has been operating the dot-com registry since 1999).
The 2012 dot-com renewal itself was a multi-stakeholder process with input from the Department of Commerce and ICANN as well.
So what does all of this mean?
The March 14 announcement that ICANN will be moving to a multi-stakeholder model for DNS and IANA operations won't make any immediate difference whatsoever.
The plan is for discussion on the change to occur during the upcoming ICANN meeting in Singapore starting on March 23, but the reality is that not much needs to change. ICANN already has the GAC, which is the place where it handles the multi-stakeholder government oversight needs. For the GAC to include IANA and DNS functions into its responsibilities seems plainly obvious and a logical extension of what it already is doing.
From an operations perspective, VeriSign will likely continue to do its job too without any real change as a result of the March 14 announcement.
The recent revelations from U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden have cast a shadow of suspicion over anything that touches the U.S. government and its Internet endeavors. The move by ICANN to appear to distance itself from the U.S. government should be seen in that light, though the reality is that from a practical day-to-day operations perspective, nothing is likely to change anytime soon.
Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and InternetNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.