On October 1, 2016, it was widely speculated that the United States was to “hand over control” of the internet. And the day came and went with little fanfare. Did anyone notice a big change? No? Well, of course not, because the U.S. never owned the internet in the first place. The internet is a voluntary, distributed system. And this is precisely what makes the internet strong.
The back story is almost too boring to believe. There are certain functions on the Internet, called the “IANA functions”. “IANA” stands for “Internet Assigned Numbers Authority”, and what IANA functions do is write certain values down in a public place so that everyone on the Internet doesn’t have to keep a separate copy of all the data. For instance, when you connect to a website securely, you almost certainly do it on port 443. The reason you use port 443 is because that’s the number in the IANA port registry for secure web connections. It would be possible to negotiate this port every time you connected, but it is much more convenient if everyone just follows the same convention — sort of like everyone knowing to stand right and walk left on an escalator.
The IANA functions include the root zone of the DNS. If you follow the Dyn blog, you know that the DNS is a distributed database with many different operators, but that it all flows from a common source called the “root zone”. The root zone is how we know to ask Verisign when we want a domain underneath .com, to ask Afilias when we want a domain name underneath .info, and to ask CNNIC when we want a domain name underneath cn.
The IANA functions had been performed under a contract with the US Department of Commerce (through the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, or NTIA). That contract was set to expire at the end of September of 2016, and in August, after two years of effort by people all over the world to get ready, NTIA announced that they would let the contract expire. So today, the US Government is not directly involved in the operation of the Internet world wide.
Unfortunately, because domain names are widely misunderstood, some people somehow came to believe that the IANA functions controlled the “master directory” of the Internet. Four states even filed a lawsuit to try to prevent this change from taking effect. There were warnings by politicians that the US was “handing over” the Internet to other presumably-dastardly nations.
As it happened, of course, on 1 October nobody could tell anything had changed. And in there is the important lesson about the Internet: it is a network of networks. The Internet happens because of voluntary co-operation by network operators all over the world. The utility and value of the IANA functions were never really founded on the US Government’s involvement. The functions work because they’re useful to many people. If they were to be politicized, they wouldn’t be useful any more, and people would stop using them. That would be really inconvenient, however. So, we should all be grateful that cooler heads prevailed, that the possibility of political interference didn’t come to pass, and that nothing really happened on 1 October.
As a fellow at Dyn, Andrew Sullivan concentrates on the architecture of Internet systems, working on Internet standards, protocols and policy. In his more than 15 years in the business, he has focused on DNS, Internet standards and internationalization, systems architecture and databases, but not always that order.
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