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Who Really Runs the Internet?

A “multi-stakeholder model” governs the Internet, but what does that really mean?

In essence, it means that no one person or organization controls the Web. The network itself is decentralized, with private carriers owning much of the telecommunications infrastructure and nonprofit groups coordinating standards so the various networks can communicate with each other.

The Internet first emerged in the 1970s and ’80s as a Pentagon-funded research network known as ARPANET. The federal government’s initial funding and development of the project means much of the underlying infrastructure and administrative responsibility remains in the United States. The exceptions are the five regional Internet registries that manage Internet addresses for the various regions of the globe.

The relative youth of the Web also means that its founders are often still active. Until his death in 1998, Jon Postel, a computer scientist at the University of Southern California, managed a number of technical functions known collectively as Internet Assigned Numbers Authority. This included the IP and domain name systems, which essentially serve as signposts to help computers locate specific servers and websites.

Following Postel’s death, the Commerce Department issued a contract to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which took over the IANA functions including the management of the domain name system. That makes ICANN the primary policymaking body for Internet addresses, with over 100 countries contributing input as stakeholders, including the United States.

However, the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration still manages the contract with ICANN and in theory would have the authority to contract with another organization to oversee the technical administration of the DNS system. The NTIA’s reluctance to interfere with ICANN has preserved the arrangement for years, but it was tested by ICANN’s plan to expand top-level domains during the past decade.

Recent debates over online piracy legislation and other copyright issues have renewed foreign complaints about ICANN and its relationship to the U.S. government, which is unique among the entities that manage the Web. Other standards-making bodies — such as the Internet Engineering Task Force, the Internet Architecture Board and the Worldwide Web Consortium — operate more independently, with the U.S. government participating only as a stakeholder.

Any proposal to give international regulators greater authority over Internet governance would likely start with the domain name system, and meet with swift opposition from the United States. Considering that possession is nine-tenths of the law and U.S. policymakers are united in opposition to any changes, don’t expect ICANN to go anywhere any time soon.

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