Should we Worry About ICANN?

Despite 4 states suing to block the internet transition was scheduled for October first, U.S oversight of the internet has ended and management of addressing and routing protocols has been handed over to ICANN (The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), the global non-profit, as a contract established 47 years ago which gave the US Commerce Department authority to regulate internet name servers has officially ended. With the Commerce Department granting autonomy to ICANN, the DNS zone root, which handles translating numerical IP addresses (8.8.8.8) to names (www.google.com), has been handed over to the international community of business, telecommunications and government.

Though some fear that relinquishing control of the Internet and giving it to an international community will lead to censorship from regressive regimes around the planet, we cannot forget that the U.S has also enacted it’s fair share of totalitarian influence over the cyber sphere. Such as the NSA’s massive domestic surveillance network which we learned about through the Snowden files, arresting citizens of other countries for running torrenting sites, seizing entire domains such as Megaupload due to harboring copyrighted material, etc.

However, despite the U. S’s deplorable track record of upholding privacy rights and free expression, some of the fears of relinquishing ICANN to the international community are certainly well founded. It is yet to be seen how relinquishing U.S control of DNS routing will be handled by other regimes who seem to be interested in enacting authoritarian systems and controls like the great firewall of China.

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For example, the International Telecommunications Union, an agency of the United Nations, could possibly take control of ICANN for the purpose of keeping ICANN under the global governing body of the U.N. Why we might not want that to happen was illustrated 4 years ago, when the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) was held in Dubai. Through the creation of WCITleaks.org, many of the worst proposals from the conference were released to the public. Many of these proposals were disguised as intended to fight malware and spam, but would also conveniently give desiring governments greater ability to censor and control the cyber sphere (who would have guessed?!). Some of those proposals may be found here.

Yet even though it is not conspiratorial to imagine global governing bodies desiring to push their agendas and exercise control through manipulating ICANN, most of the real dangers are unrealistically conflated. Senator Ted Cruz expressed these exact fears, and here was ICANN’s reply: “ICANN is a technical organization and does not have the remit or ability to regulate content on the internet,” the group said prior to the transfer. “That is true under the current contract with the US government and will remain true without the contract with the US government.”

And even if ICANN’s control of the DNS root zone was used to censor websites in the only way it feasibly could (by removing a sites DNS signature), it’s not as if there are simple workarounds. For example, TOR users have been using software which can circumvent far worse controls than simply changing or removing DNS names from the root zone for decades now. In fact, it seems as internet technology develops, the more it becomes distributed and less centralized. Think Bitcoin, peer-to-peer software, etc. DNS is an old technology, and even though it’s use has become deeply embedded in the internet, switching to other technologies is certainly still in the realm of possibilities. For example, projects such as namecoin and dotbit.me do just that: replace DNS technology with distributed blockchain alternatives. So even if the DNS protocol is used by authoritarian regimes to censor the internet, it might in fact be a good thing. Finally pushing us to bring decentralized and distributed technology that is inherently opposed to centralized control, and by extension the concept of censorship, to the mainstream.

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