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The US government will no longer control the internet. And that's huge

Sahil Bhalla | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:47 IST

The internet, as you know it, is about to fundamentally change. Nothing will change visually or in the way you've been using it all these years, but a significant change, perhaps the most significant ever, will happen at 12:01 AM Eastern Standard Time on Saturday, 1 October.

The US government will now be walking away from their Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) contract. The United States have had partial control of the internet for more than 20 years (they've been the primary manager of the address books since1988) but their time is finally up. This contract meant that the US government has "defined how the internet has grown and been structured for nearly 20 years".

This, however, doesn't mean that the US owns the internet. Nobody does, at least not so far. It's a decentralised network. Bits and pieces of the internet are controlled by different governments.

Owning the internet

But that's going to change as non-profit organisation and global community of stakeholders, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) will be taking over the reins now. As Fortune describes it, "ICANN, a California-based nonprofit, manages the database for top-level domain names such as .com and .net and their corresponding numeric addresses that allow computers to connect."

National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA), part of the US Department of Commerce, officially had the authority over the naming of domains. Since 1998 though, ICANN has mostly been running the show, and the decision to give them full control, has been in the works for a long time.

In 1998, NTIA said it was committed to the transition. In 2014, the Department of Commerce officially announced its intent to work with ICANN and to create a plan for the transition. The long planned transfer has now cleared its last hurdle. AS NBC News writes, "Over 33,000 emails have been exchanged and more than 800 hours have been spent in meetings discussing the transition, according to ICANN".

The US Department of Commerce will be ceding control after a lawsuit which sought a halt in the transition, which was denied by a federal judge in Texas. The lawsuit argued that .mil and .gov (used for military and government domains) could be messed with.

The implications

Critics have argued that the transition will stifle free speech. The lawsuit has argued that the handover is unconstitutional and requires congressional approval before going through. Some critics like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz say that handing over the power amounts to handing it over to the likes of China and Russia. In fact, Cruz even asked if ICANN was bound by the First Amendment to the US constitution (freedom of speech) and the reply was a clear no.

This transition is significant because it shifts control over to internet users. It's now in the hands of a 'multi-stakeholder' non-profit. This non-profit will be taking on the views of academics, technical experts, companies, public interest advocates, individuals and nation states in the naming system of the web.

While the transition is a good step, there is one key point to be remembered. ICANN does not control the internet and neither does the US Department of Commerce.

Understanding DNS

DNS stands for Domain Name System and has been just what the internet required to take it to the next level. Essentially, DNS gives easy to remember names to complicated strings of numbers. Jon Postel, named as 'god of internet' was the original bearer of the DNS. When the internet started blowing up, Pastel couldn't handle it all on its own. The IANA was formed subsequently.

The control of IANA was given to ICANN in 1998. ICANN was seen as a free and fair organisation but one thing prevented it from being completely free of any interference - the government's interference.

The fact that the US's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), part of the Department of Commerce had the final say over whatever the IANA did was a major bone of contention. Even though this power was used sparingly, it was still significant.

Perhaps, the transition is for the better. Perhaps it needs to be viewed with some skepticism. In any case, this is a momentous occasion in the short life of the internet.

First published: 1 October 2016, 7:29 IST