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Internet handover is go-go-go! ICANN to take IANA from US govt

Judge refuses injunction, handover of global DNS etc at midnight

Crowd watches fireworks at night in the field. Photo by Shutterstock

The most significant change in the internet's functioning for a generation happened on 30 September at midnight.

At 12.01am Washington DC time, the US government walked away from the IANA contract, which has defined how the internet has grown and been structured for nearly 20 years, and hand it over to non-profit organization ICANN.

Nothing will change for ordinary internet users – ICANN will keep doing what it has done since its inception in 1999 – but the shift represents something much bigger: the first time that a new communications technology has been released from, rather than pulled under, government control.

With the transition to ICANN, it will be the internet's users and not their countries' representatives who will ultimately decide how the global network develops from here on in.

Having initially promised to release control of the internet's names, numbers and protocols to ICANN within a few months of it signing the first IANA contract, it wasn't until March of 2014 that the US government decided to move ahead with the plan.

Several times previously ICANN had asked to be given the contract, but the US government refused: its position was a useful point of leverage that meant officials always had a hotline to the organization's leaders and which, on occasion, they used to force ICANN to reconsider bad decisions.

When in 2002 the United Nations came knocking and looked at redrawing the entire way the internet was governed, the US government made control of the IANA contract and a defense of ICANN as its contractor the cornerstone of its negotiations.

After years of negotiations that ended literally just hours before heads of state opened a World Summit, the status quo held.

Nope

Despite that, when ICANN made it clear in 2006 that it was going to seek control of the contract as part of a redrawing of its agreement with the US Department of Commerce, government officials made it equally clear that the contract was not on the table.

Then in 2012, a majority of governments decided to sign an agreement that gave the UN's International Telecommunications Union (ITU) greater say over the internet's evolution. The United States literally walked out of the meeting, followed by its Western allies.

The internet had become critical infrastructure for most governments, and tolerance for the United States' pre-eminent role was growing thin. But it wasn't until Edward Snowden revealed the depth of US government surveillance online that the ground finally shifted.

Within just a few months, US government officials announced that they were willing to let go of the contract and asked ICANN to run a consultation process to decide what to do with it. That process took over two years and resulted in a series of messy compromises.

ICANN, unsurprisingly, decided it should take over the contract. A process was put in place to pull it out of the organization should anything go drastically wrong in future – but was so weighed down that it will almost certainly never happen.

ICANN also fought and largely succeeded in preventing the internet community from introducing far-reaching changes to the organization that would make it more accountable, settling instead for a series of last-resort measures that could see the board fired or the budget halted.

But even after that whole process, the transition then faced determined efforts by some members of Congress – notably Texas senator Ted Cruz – who claimed the shift represented a handing over of the internet to the influence of foreign governments and a step away from the First Amendment.

When those efforts failed, four states' attorneys general made a last ditch effort to delay it, filing a lawsuit and asking for a temporary restraining order. Finally, just hours before the switch was due to happen, a judge in Galveston, Texas denied the motion and removed the final obstacle to what is an historic moment in the history of the internet. ®

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