In an unexpected development, the US government has announced that it will relinquish control over the root domain of the Internet. US control of the root zone is a legacy of the nation’s foundational role in developing the technology and networking infrastructure that later grew into the Internet. In the intervening years, the Internet has become a global phenomenon, with many developing concerns that one nation had such a strong influence over it.
Currently, the management of the root domain is fairly complex. It is under the ultimate control of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, part of the US Department of Commerce. The DNS root zone is managed by IANA (Internet Assigned Numbers Authority) and operated by ICANN ( International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) but maintained by Verisign Inc.
The root domain is the top point of the hierarchy from which all other domains are descended. It holds the information for the more familiar top-level domains, such as “.com” and “.net”. It is occasionally represented as a dot at the end of domain names, but is usually not included in web addresses.
The Department of Commerce intends to give up control of the root domain in 2015, handing its maintenance responsibilities to ICANN, which will be constituted of a mixture of governments and private organizations. Ceding responsibility to ICANN is not without controversy, as the institution relies on top-level domains for its income, creating a potential conflict of interest.
There’s also some doubt that ICANN has the technical expertise to manage this crucial piece of the Internet’s infrastructure, but it’s likely that the organization will undergo significant changes before 2015. There’s an ongoing debate as to how the Internet should be managed to best accommodate the needs of all stakeholders, and the ultimate shape of ICANN will reflect the outcome of that debate.
While there is some speculation as to the motivation underlying the decision to relinquish control over the root zone to an international organization in the light of recent revelations of intelligence activities many find incompatible with a free and open Internet, officials have stated that the plans have been in the works since 1997.
It’s unlikely that the changes are going to have much of an impact on the day-to-day running of the domain name system or the web hosting industry, but it’ll be interesting to see how potential changes to the institutional structure of the domain name system alters its management.
Photo credits: CocteauBoy