We Stopped The Fragmentation Of The Internet: Celebrating the IANA Stewardship Transition

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Brought to you by i2Coalition

Last week we had the biggest technology policy win since the Internet community banded together to defeat PIPA/SOPA back in 2012. Completing the IANA stewardship transition was historic, and likely prevented the fragmentation of the global Internet. The i2Coalition played an instrumental role in stopping the Internet from devolving into a series of regional networks.

After two years of participating in accountability reform discussions, we took a leading role in explaining everything to the United States Congress, which decided not to stand in the way of letting this happen. Last week, we helped push it over the edge at the eleventh hour, when a misguided legal challenge by four State Attorneys General threatened to derail everything. We pulled together the technical community to pull an all-nighter, and within 24 hours of hearing about the lawsuit issue an amicus brief defending the transition. With the last hurdle out of the way, the IANA stewardship transition was complete.

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Today, “the government gave away the Internet” is still trending. Problem is, everybody on the right side of this debate has done a terrible job of explaining it in public. It’s complicated, and we’ve treated it that way. Because we never spun it down to a simple message, we let this incredible moment be co-opted by politicians in an election year who decided to message that the current US political administration “giving away” the Internet was good politics. They threatened an end to Internet freedom. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The first thing you should understand is that this has nothing to do with free speech or the first amendment. Nothing. The thing that changed hands, the IANA stewardship, doesn’t have anything to do with free speech issues at all, nor does it have anything to do with domain names in the sense that most people understand them.

All this comes down to the administration of a database – a document called the ‘root zone file’. It’s a 32 kb text file that lists all of the things that are allowed to be at the ‘right of the dot’ in a domain name (like .com, .info or .photography). A California based nonprofit called ICANN was created to administer this database, and serve as an accreditor for companies who sell domain names (registries and registrars). This nonprofit operates on the ‘multistakeholder model’, which means that whoever shows up to volunteer and participate can help make decisions about how it changes. Multistakeholder governance is slow by design, because all sorts of people need to agree before anything can change, and that takes time.

Next you should understand that governments absolutely DO want to usurp more control over the Internet, and have been fighting to do so for years, including at the UN’s ITU. The last time that governments held a vote to do that, at the WCIT conference in Dubai in December 2012, more governments voted for Internet protocol takeover at the UN level than opposed it. We barely walked away without a fractured Internet then.

The IANA stewardship basically made the US Commerce Department (NTIA Office) a middleman between ICANN, who approved new TLDs (the thing to the far right of the dot) and Verisign, who implemented them. You can call that oversight, and technically it is – but it wasn’t getting us anything and it was a role that we never leveraged to gain anything. Except, when certain governments at the ITU wanted to convince other governments that the way we administer the Internet was broken, they would point to that ‘extra power’ as an example of too much rampant US power. Even though that ‘power’ gained us nothing.

Thing is, ICANN did need better oversight, and the US knew that the best way to make that happen wasn’t to increase the heavy hand of the US, because that would just make more calls at places like the UN for alternatives to ICANN. ICANN’s multistakeholder model was the best way to manage the Internet’s address book, but it was far from perfect.

So the NTIA dusted off their plan, started at ICANN’s inception, to complete the IANA stewardship transition, but did so under conditions that certain ICANN reforms get met. The ICANN community demanded even more reforms. Over two years, people from around the globe debated a ‘grand bargain’ reform package, to build a better, more accountable ICANN in exchange for what was ultimately a fairly meaningless and ineffective power.

ICANN is not an unchecked power like FIFA, and now that we have these reforms in place it never will be. ICANN is not “UN-like” – ICANN is you. You can join, and help decide how the Internet grows. Anybody can. That’s the opposite of systems like the UN. Moreover, the transfer was done specifically to keep Internet powers out of the hands of the UN, and governments that want to control it. We gave up a little to get a lot.

If we had lost this fight, forces that push for Internet control at the ITU would have had everything they needed to make their case against ICANN. The UN would have voted to take over certain protocols, and some governments would have complied. We would have been left with a fractured, fragmented Internet made up of various countries and regions obeying different protocols. This would have affected commerce, communication and speech.

We stopped it. We won. This is a HUGE victory. I am so proud of i2Coalition and its members for playing a vital role in seeing this through.


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