US government to hand over Internet domain name role

Recently the US National Telecommunications & Information Administration (Department of Commerce) (“NTIA”) issued a media release announcing that the US intends to step out of its current role relating to the domain name system (“DNS”) of the Internet, resulting in a fully privatised DNS.

Computers, mobile phones and other devices that connect to the Internet are identified using a string of numbers – an IP address. The DNS enables users to navigate the Internet using a string of letters – domain name – rather than having to type an IP address into a browser.

At the moment, the NTIA is officially responsible for looking after the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (“IANA”) function, which includes maintaining and updating the authoritative address book of the DNS to make sure that different parts of the Internet know how to contact each other, and allocating IP addresses. NTIA has contracted the operational role for the IANA function to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (“ICANN”) since 1998. The contract is due to end in September 2015. After that point, NTIA is planning to hand over its oversight role. ICANN will keep the operational responsibility for the IANA function.

It hasn’t been decided who the new overseer will be. One possibility is that there will no longer be external oversight of ICANN after the US bows out. Alternatively, a new multi-stakeholder organisation may be formed. One thing is clear – NTIA won’t hand over to another government or inter-governmental organisation. This comes as no

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staunch support in the US for Internet freedom and US opposition to proposals to expand the powers of the International Telecommunication Union (“ITU”) (a UN agency).

So, what does this mean for the everyday Internet user? ICANN, the Australian Minister for Communications Malcolm Turnbull, and the ITU have all publicly welcomed the announcement, but not everybody is happy. Some internet users are worried about whether the stability of the Internet will be jeopardised, because the DNS is so fundamental. Others are worried that China and Russia might obtain more influence over Internet administration. In the US there are also concerns of censorship, because other countries (including Australia) have a more limited view of protected free speech, placing relatively more emphasis on preventing defamation and offensive materials. At this stage, it is all speculation. Until there are some firm proposals on the table about who (if anyone) will pick up the supervisory role, it’s too early to tell whether any of these fears are well founded.

Meetings to discuss the transition process started on 23 March in Singapore.