The internet’s ‘phone book’ is now fully in international hands

Illustration of hands holding open phone book with globe in middle (State Dept./Doug Thompson)
(State Dept./Doug Thompson)

As long planned, the U.S. government has transitioned its modest stewardship of ICANN, the Los Angeles–based nonprofit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, to a global, multi-stakeholder community.

ICANN assigns the top-level domain names and numerical addresses that allow computers to connect instantly to websites everywhere. When you type a URL into a browser’s address bar, the top-level domain consists of the letters after the period at the end such as .com, .gov or .biz, and also country-specific domains like .uk, .cn or .ru.

ICANN supplies international registries all over the world with blocks of the complete numerical addresses that internet service providers then assign to websites and internet connections.

For instance, point your browser to and you’re really visiting ICANN maintains the database, often called the internet’s phone book, that matches URLs with those numerical addresses.

Graphic on use of Internet domain names (State Dept./S. Gemeny Wilkinson)
(State Dept./S. Gemeny Wilkinson)

What’s changing?

Not much. If you’re among the world’s 3 billion internet users, you won’t even notice. Technically, the contract that the U.S. Department of Commerce had with ICANN to ensure an open internet and the stability of its technological backbone was allowed to lapse.

Commerce never formally regulated ICANN, nor did it have veto power over its decisions. In 2005, the government raised concerns about a planned .xxx domain name for pornographic websites, but ICANN created it anyway.

The U.S. role came about because the internet evolved from a rudimentary American system called Arpanet that allowed academic researchers’ computers to “talk” to each other over telephone lines. As the network of networks grew vastly bigger, federal agencies provided support for the civilian computer scientists and tech experts who created the first domain names.

But almost two decades ago Washington took the first steps to privatize control of the internet’s technical, back-end operations.

“From its origins as a U.S.-based research vehicle, the internet is rapidly becoming an international medium for commerce, education and communication,” a 1998 government report said. “An increasing percentage of internet users reside outside of the U.S. and those stakeholders want a larger voice in internet coordination.”

ICANN logo on lectern with hand above it pointing outward (© AP Images)
An ICANN executive fielded questions at a news conference in London in 2012. (© AP Images)

The governance of ICANN, launched that same year, always has been international. Over 100 countries are represented. ICANN says it’s always made decisions by consensus, relying on advice from computer experts, business interests, the registries and internet service providers, civil society groups, governments and others.

Some lawmakers opposed Commerce’s bowing out, arguing that would give oppressive countries opportunities to throttle the internet.

Supporters say the change actually leaves responsibility in the hands of academics, civil society, end users and others who represent “the rich diversity of the internet itself.”