I am writing this article because many media outlets are dumbing this current situation down. What exactly does “handing over the internet” mean?
The internet links many machines together. When you visit a website, you are visiting a machine. How do you know how to get to this machine? IP addresses. We don’t memorize IP addresses, but we do memorize domain names. For instance, we know 1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW as the White House. This system works very well. Except, how do we know which IP address(es) correlate to which domain names? And if they control this, how much control do they have over the assigning of domain names and IP addresses?
It turns out that the organization that controls the “address book” of the internet is called IANA, which is owned by ICANN. IANA operated the DNS root (“address book of the internet”) under the supervision of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration of the US Department of Commerce. On October 1, 2016, the NTIA’s contract to let ICANN control the DNS root expired and control of the DNS root was ceded to ICANN.
One major bit of information that media outlets and Ted Cruz have failed to mention is that this DNS root is only the most popular one out of many. It turns out that there are also many alternative DNS roots. They can also choose to add their own top-level domains (TLDs; e.g. .com, .net, .org, etc.), and they have. Ever heard of “.free” or “.geek”? IANA’s DNS root does not have either of these TLDs in their DNS root, but OpenNIC does have these two TLDs. OpenNIC has been around longer than Ted Cruz has had his concern that the internet will be hijacked by other countries. His argument is fallacious, simply because other countries could hijack only one predominant DNS root, out of many DNS roots. If the predominant DNS root were hijacked, it would be very easy for the US to simply route major ISPs to start using a non-hijacked DNS root. Don’t forget that Russia and China, instead of whining about the US’s control over the internet, instead created their own DNS roots and methods of censorship. Regardless of whether their actions were good or bad, they found a solution to the problem.
A prudent solution would be for the United States government (and I even suggest other organizations like the EFF) to maintain a backup of the DNS root to its liking. That way, if a foreign country truly does begin “censoring” in the predominant DNS root, we can simply switch DNS servers on our machines to begin using our preferred DNS root. Better yet, just begin using OpenNIC, if you’re truly paranoid about internet censorship à la DNS.
As someone who owns domain names, I obviously have dealt with ICANN. I do believe they do a pretty good job. They won’t suddenly be swayed by foreign countries, and if they do, we’ll simply switch to another DNS root. Think of ICANN as the United Nations. If a country truly did not like the UN, they can simply leave. In fact, Switzerland didn’t even join the UN until 2002, and Indonesia left the UN in 1964 (only to rejoin in 1965). The internet is decentralized and this is simply an administrative change that has been waiting to happen for a long time. There’s nothing to worry about.