You Don’t Know ICANN, but You Should
This little-known non-profit in California has a big impact on the Internet and domain names.
Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), founded in 1998, runs the domain name system, manages IP address and accredits domain name registrars and registries.
ICANN was created to bring order to the wild west of the Domain Name System (DNS) and to take it out of the government’s hands. If you care about the Internet then you should care about ICANN. Let’s take a look at its history, how it operates, and how you can help shape the future of the Internet by getting involved with ICANN.
The History of ICANN
In 1983 Internet pioneer Jon Postel established the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) at The University of Southern California to administer the assignment of Internet addresses under a contract with the U.S. Department of Defense.
Over time, it became apparent that the Internet was becoming more important than anyone had imagined. There was a need for greater structure and oversight. There was also a desire to remove the U.S. government from its role in overseeing the domain name system (DNS).
Starting in 1997, the Clinton administration committed to privatizing DNS management. The next year the U.S. National Telecommunications Information Administration (NTIA) created a plan to transfer management of the DNS from the U.S. government to a new non-profit based in the US. Its goals for this non-profit were for it to:
- Be in charge of the stability of the DNS
- Foster competition
- Use bottom-up coordination
- Have diverse and global representation
ICANN was officially created to fulfill this role and these ideals in 1998. The University of Southern California entered into an agreement to transition the IANA contract to ICANN. ICANN entered into a formal contract with the US government to perform these IANA functions in 2000.
The next year ICANN adopted a registrar accreditation policy to open up competition among companies selling .com, .net and .org domain names. Although there was still only one registry for each top level domain, this opened the door to the competitive marketplace we have today. It may be hard to believe, but there was a time when you only had one choice for where to register a domain name. ICANN helped introduce competition, which is why there are companies like Namecheap serving you today.
The U.S. government slowly unwound its involvement with ICANN and the IANA functions over the years. It retained a special relationship with ICANN as it relates to these function until 2017.
ICANN has become a big and complex organization. It has over 300 employees in more than 30 countries and has an annual budget of over $100 million.
The organization doesn’t make policy; instead, it supports the policy-making process. Add in thousands of volunteers, advisory committees and supporting organizations and you’ll be forgiven for not knowing where to start getting involved with ICANN.
Also, because of the bottom-up, consensus-driven model, it can take time to get stuff done. People not used to working with government or academic institutions might be put off.
Yet the complexity is part of the model. The Internet and ICANN are not controlled by one single faction such as a government. Governments do play a role, but Internet users, registries and registrars and non-commercial interests also have important parts to play. Ultimately, ICANN’s board makes the decisions but only after careful consultation with the community.
One such example is the New Top Level Domain Program. After small rounds of new top level domain expansion in 2000 and 2003, an ICANN group started working on a bigger program in 2005. It was delayed for many years as different groups squabbled over how to run the program that introduced hundreds of new top level domains (e.g. .ninja and .hockey) to the web. Governments were concerned about domains that matched city and country names. Lawyers worried about cybersquatting. Internet users expressed concerns about confusion and how the domains would be operated.
Finally, the board approved the program’s details in 2011. It wasn’t until three years later that the first new domains started showing up on the web.
Despite the complexity of ICANN’s processes and how much time it takes to get stuff done, it’s simply too important to stand by idly. If you care about the DNS, you should care about ICANN.
How to Get Involved with ICANN
There are many ways to get involved with ICANN and let your voice be heard.
- Public comments – One simple way is to participate in public comment periods. This is your opportunity to directly and publicly comment on ideas and policies working their way through the ICANN process. A list of issues open for public comment and instructions for commenting are here.
- Meetings – Another way to get involved is to participate in ICANN’s public meetings. It holds three of these meetings per year. They are held all over the world in order to meet ICANN’s global mission. This year, ICANN will hold meetings in Japan, Morocco and Canada. A list of public meetings is updated on ICANN’s website.
The meetings are free but participants pay for their own travel and hotel.
ICANN has good remote participation tools for these meetings in case you can’t make it in person. You can watch sessions and participate in online chats during the meetings.
- Organizations and Committees – If you want to get more involved, consider participating on one of the Supporting Organizations or Advisory Committees. These groups work on issues pertaining to certain constituencies such as registries that operate two-letter country code domains and a committee working on security and stability of the DNS.
Dip Your Toe In
Registering a domain name these days is easy, but you’ll be amazed at how much is happening behind the scenes.