The Death of ICANN: Is This Blockchain’s Chance for Internet Freedom?

The context in which the Internet operates may dramatically change…or not.

Also read: This Conference Might Be the End of the Bitcoin Block Size Debate

The End of the ICANN Monopoly?

ICANNAt issue is who or what will control the “non-profit” Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which assigns and coordinates unique identifiers, such as IP addresses, on a global basis to create a single connected Internet. It is “responsible for the global coordination of the DNS Root, IP addressing, and other Internet protocol resources.” ICANN does not directly control content (except through denial of applications) but it does regulate access and traffic. It is currently overseen by the an obscure agency in the U.S. Department of Commerce: the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).

ICANN’s Internet monopoly comes from a contract with the U.S., through which it became an “instrumentality” of government and so is exempt from anti-trust laws.

The contract expires at midnight on September 30, and there appears to be no desire on the part of the Obama administration to extend it, meaning that ICANN could lose its prized anti-trust exemption unless it partners with another government or semi-governmental agency that offers a similar privilege.

No one is sure what will happen and ICANN is providing little guidance. There is no detailed blueprint for the stewardship transition. The two ICANN committees that will handle the shift were only just announced.  Predictions of what will happen range from “nothing at all” to the end of “the current era of free speech on the internet, as well as free enterprise.” The predictions hinge on who or what is expected to control ICANN in the future.

A Wall Street Journal article entitled An Internet Giveaway to the U.N.opens, When the Obama administration announced its plan to give up U.S. protection of the internet, it promised the United Nations would never take control. But…U.N. control is the likely result.” The WSJ‘s assumption is based on the administration apparent lack of a plan to continue ICANN’s anti-trust exemption. The article observes, “Authoritarian regimes have already proposed Icann become part of the U.N. to make it easier for them to censor the internet globally.”

An article in the Independent is subtitled, “Foreign governments, businesses and individual users will have a stake in how domain names and internet protocols (IPs) function in symbolic step towards decentralization.” The CEO of ICANN is quoted as saying, the change is actually minimal. It’s important symbolically because the US was really a steward for the internet, but for day-to-day accountability, it is minimal.” Former CEO Fadi Chehadé added, “The status quo was no longer sustainable….The prevalence of the internet…made it incredibly hard for ICANN to continue doing its critical role under the control of one party, whoever that party is, whether it is a government or a company.” 

USA Today claims the ICANN could be usurped “by the Chinese, the Russians or some combination of governments unfriendly to the United States…[and it] is a possibility that must be taken seriously.” The speculation is not new. An ominous 2014 headline in The Atlantic asked, “When U.S. Steps Back, Will Russia and China Control the Internet?” The CEO denies the possibility. But the WSJ article states, Icann already has been kowtowing to authoritarian regimes.Presumably, this is a reference to Chehadé‘s 2015 decision to assume a Co-Chair of the Advisory Committee to China’s World Internet Conference.

No one knows what will happen, or whether ICANN will even stay in California where it has been based since its inception. There are rumors it will move to Switzerland or Singapore.

Several factors complicate the transition from NTIA oversight.

The contract with the Department of Commerce could be extended as was the 2015 one. The purpose of the extension was to provide a blueprint for a smooth transition. Since no definitive blueprint exists, this could act as a precedent to extend the contract for another year.

Congress could block the transfer. Breitbart reports, “Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Rep. Sean Duffy (R-WI) have introduced the Protecting Internet Freedom Act, which would prevent the transfer of ICANN without Congressional approval.” The House and Senate bills are still in committee with the watchdog site GovTrack giving the House bill a 1% chance and the Senate one a 4% chance of being enacted.

Members of Congress could sue the Obama administration as a coalition of groups is urging; the coalition includes TechFreedom and Americans for Tax Reform. Two policy riders attached to spending bills in Congress prohibited the executive from using tax money to surrender control of the internet. Thus, a lawsuit could claim the Obama administration violated both the spending directive and federal law, and seek an injunction against the transition on those grounds

If ICANN retains its monopoly, even in the short term, it could use the Internet as a private bank…even more than it currently does. The quote marks around “non-profit” in the first sentence of this article arise because ICANN makes a killing from domain names. For example, Amazon acquired “.buy” for $4,588,888 at an ICANN public auction; Google paid $25,000,001 for “.app.” 

Without oversight, the plunder could soar.

protestingWith a de facto monopoly created by its immense presence, ICANN could easily increase the discrimination it has shown in the past. For example, it has denied applications from the LGBT community to establish a .gay namespace; the spurned applicants are now crowdfunding to launch a legal challenge The discrimination is more than political. Three times in row ICANN has failed independent reviews of its impartiality in accepting applications, especially for top level domains. 

What would keep it from denying traffic or other niceties to the likes of Tor or bitcoin sites, especially at the behest/bribery of governments hostile to them? A 2012 article in TechDirt lamented, “This just gets worse and worse. After pointing out that ICANN was missing a big (and important) opportunity by not speaking against governments seizing domain names, we were disappointed to see ICANN release a white paper that was more of a how to manual for governments on seizing domains.” Such practices give ICANN power over content as well.

On the other hand, “nothing at all” could change.

Using the Blockchain to Democratize the Internet

The best protection against a monopoly remains competition. The best protection against ICANN is the accelerated development of Alternate Root Servers. Happily, real thought has been given to dismantling ICANN’s power of monopoly. NamePros, for example, recommends the cryptocurrency Namecoin:

Namecoin is similar to Bitcoin–in fact, most of the algorithms and processes are identical. Like Bitcoin, Namecoin keeps a cryptographically secure log of transactions called a “blockchain”. bit domains are actually attached to pieces of Namecoin currency and stored in this blockchain. Like the currency itself, bit domains aren’t controlled by a single entity and can’t be seized by government officials. These domains can only be transferred or forfeited with explicit, deliberate action on the part of the owner. Transactions and domain registrations can’t be reversed; once they’re in the blockchain, they’re a piece of history.

Competitors will face the stiff difficulty of ICANN’s entrenched position, and there are bound to be false starts. But it is time for a monopoly to fall with a mighty CRASH.


Images courtesy of Shutterstock, Juan Aunion/Shutterstock.com. 

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