Will the US Give up Control of the Internet? The DNS/ICANN Debate.

On March 14, 2014, the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) announced its intention to transition its stewardship role and procedural authority over key domain name functions to the global Internet multistakeholder community. Currently, the U.S. (through NTIA) holds this stewardship role over the domain name system (DNS) by virtue of a contractual relationship with a private sector international organization called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). If a satisfactory transition can be achieved, NTIA stated that it would let its contract with ICANN expire as early as September 30, 2015.

On March 6th, two reports were released by the Congressional Research Service discussing this transition and its policy implications.

(1) Internet Domain Names Background and Policy Issues

(2) Internet Governance and the Domain Name System Issues for Congress

I have provided an inside look on some of the topics covered in these reports below:

What is at Stake?

Decisions regarding the DNS can have significant impacts on Internet-related policy issues such as intellectual property, privacy, Internet freedom, e-commerce, and cybersecurity.  Let’s examine the impact DNS decisions can have on some of those issues:


One issue of recent concern is an intrinsic vulnerability in the DNS which allows malicious parties to distribute false DNS information, redirecting unaware parties to fraudulent and deceptive websites established to collect passwords and sensitive account information.  While certain protections have been developed to block this type of activity, the protections are not automatically applied throughout the DNS system.  Instead, these protections must be voluntarily adopted by registries, registrars, and the thousands of DNS server operators around the world in order to effectively deploy the protections at all levels.  Moreover, like all other aspects of cybersecurity, new threats are inevitable, so the regulatory aspect of DNS systems is vital.


Any person who registers a domain name is required to provide contact information (phone number, address, email) which is entered into a public online database (the “WHOIS” database).  The scope and accessibility of WHOIS database information has been an issue of contention, with privacy advocates pushing for limited access on the one hand, and businesses, intellectual property interests, law enforcement agencies, and the U.S. government arguing for complete public accessibility on the other hand.  This transition will remove the U.S. stewardship role over ICANN’s decisions effecting privacy.

Intellectual Property

The ownership and registration of domain names has raised intellectual property concerns since the domain name system was opened to commercial users. In fact, intellectual property is one of the key issues driving the debate over ICANN’s addition of new generic top level domain names, with many trademark holders, industry groups, and governments arguing that a proliferation of new gTLDs could compromise intellectual property and increase the costs of protecting trademarks.  A number of recommendations have been made to allow a process for complaints against copyright infringement followed by the ability for courts to order the forfeiture, cancellation, and/or transfer of name names registered in “bad faith.”  The management of the DNS system will clearly have implications in this area.

Critics and Supporters of the Transition

Critics are concerned about the risks of foreign governments gaining influence over the DNS through the transition to a new Internet governance mechanism that no longer is subject to U.S. government oversight.  Additionally, critics fear that foreign governments might gain more support internationally in their continuing attempts to exert intergovernmental control over the Internet, and that any added intergovernmental influence over the Internet and the DNS would be that much more detrimental to the interests of the United States if NTIA’s authority over ICANN and the DNS were to no longer exist.

On the other hand, supporters of the transition argue that this move will only bolster the U.S. government’s continuing support for the multistakeholder model of Internet governance, and that this will enable the United States  to more effectively argue and work against proposals for intergovernmental control over the Internet.  Supporters also point out that ICANN as an organization has matured and taken steps in recent years to improve its accountability and transparency and its technical competence, and after all, U.S. authority was originally envisioned as being temporary.

Congressional Enactments and Proposals

The 113th Congress enacted two legislative provisions that address NTIA’s proposed transition.  As a result of these provisions, NTIA may not use any appropriated funds to relinquish its responsibility with respect to Internet domain name system functions and Sense of Congress language was placed on the future of the Internet and the .mil top-level domain.

The 114th Congress suggested a prohibition on NTIA’s transition until the Government Accountability Office (GAO) submitted a report to Congress examining the implications of the proposed transfer.  The 114th Congress is likely to closely examine NTIA’s proposed transition of its authority.  The Senate, on the other hand, seeks to increase public awareness regarding NTIA’s proposed transition and emphasizes the importance of designing accountability and governance reforms to best prepare ICANN for executing the responsibilities that it may receive under the possible transition.


Some governments around the world are advocating increased intergovernmental influence over the way the Internet is governed, such as creating an Internet governance entity within the United Nations (U.N.).  The United States opposes this idea, and continues to support the multistakeholder model as the most appropriate way to govern the Internet.

Due to the significant impact on how areas such as intellectual property, privacy, cybersecurity, law enforcement, Internet free speech, and cybersecurity may be governed in the future, the institutional nature of Internet governance could have far-reaching implications on important policy decisions that will likely shape the future evolution of the Internet.


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One Response to “Will the US Give up Control of the Internet? The DNS/ICANN Debate.”

  1. […] Research Service usually provides exceptional reports in the area of cybersecurity (see here, and here), the recent report titled Cyberwarfare and Cyberterrorism: In Brief falls short of the […]

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