Why the U.S. Government Isn’t Really Relinquishing its Power over Internet Governance

Earlier this month, the U.S. government surprised the Internet community by announcing that it plans to back away from its longstanding oversight of the Internet domain name system. The move comes more than 15 years after it first announced plans to transfer management of the so-called IANA function, which includes the power to add new domain name extensions (such as dot-xxx) and to alter administrative control over an existing domain name extension (for example, approving the transfer of the dot-ca domain in 2000 from the University of British Columbia to the Canadian Internet Registration Authority).

My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes the change is rightly viewed as a major development in the ongoing battle over Internet governance. Yet a closer look at the why the U.S. is embarking on the change and what the system might look like once the transition is complete, suggests that it is not relinquishing much power anytime soon. Rather, the U.S. has ensured that it will dictate the terms of any transfer and retain a “super-jurisdiction” for the foreseeable future.

Day-to-day administration of the domain name system is currently managed by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a U.S.-based non-profit company that operates under a contract with the U.S. government. Critics argue that this means that the U.S. retains final authority over key Internet governance decisions. 

The United Nations and supporting governments have attempted to loosen U.S. control on several prior occasions without success. Despite those failures, the U.S. now voluntarily says it will walk away from its oversight power, tasking ICANN with developing a transition plan that must “support and enhance the multistakeholder model.” The U.S. adds that it will not accept a proposal based on a government-led or an inter-governmental organization solution, short-circuiting any hopes the U.N. might have had for assuming control.

Why is the U.S. proposing to walk away now? In recent months, there has been growing momentum to revisit the issue, triggered by the Edward Snowden revelations of widespread Internet surveillance. Although NSA surveillance has no real connection to Internet governance – the management of the domain name system is not typically a surveillance target – the issue has galvanized many countries and groups who sense an opportunity for change. By forcing the issue, the U.S. has successfully seized the agenda and set the conditions for a transfer of power.

While a transfer would be perceived by many to represent a change in control, the reality is that the U.S. will not be relinquishing much power even when (or if) the transition occurs. In the years since the U.S. first indicated that it would shift away from Internet governance, it has steadily erected jurisdictional authority over a considerable portion of the Internet infrastructure.  

For example, in 2009 the U.S. and ICANN entered into an agreement that institutionalized “the technical coordination of the Internet’s domain name and addressing system.” That document included a commitment for the U.S. to remain involved in the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC), the powerful body within ICANN that allows governments to provide their views on governance matters. It also contained an ICANN commitment to remain headquartered in the U.S., effectively ensuring ongoing U.S. jurisdiction over it.

Not only is the U.S. able to assert jurisdiction over ICANN, but it has also asserted jurisdiction over all dot-com, dot-net, and dot-org domain names. In 2012, a U.S. court ordered the seizure of a dot-com domain that was registered in Canada with no U.S. connection other than the location of the domain name registry. This effectively means the U.S. retains jurisdiction over half of all domain name registrations worldwide regardless of where they are registered or who manages the system.

The U.S. might transition away from the current model (though the initial 2015 date seems ambitious), but much of its jurisdictional power will remain largely unchanged. The latest announcement has the potential to fulfill a promise made nearly two decades ago, but skeptics can be forgiven for suspecting that power over Internet governance will remain firmly rooted in the U.S. no matter how the issue is resolved.


  1. Really informative post. I was hoping that it would become easier to avoid US control, but that’s not looking like the case. I’m not any kind of target myself, but I still want the system to offer some freedom for all. With US authorities being able to control a domain name and the ability to stop on-line payments, how are businesses to remain free of US control?

    Staying with the domain name problem for now, is a .ca domain better? What, outside of various country tlds are not under US control.

  2. But…Don’t Make It Easier for Gov’ts to Control What Their Citizens See
    The flip side: Putting more control in the hands of regimes that want to block/firewall/filter the net. I’m all for giving *less* control to those folks. We do not need to liberate oppressors.

  3. Don Duncan says:

    Better the US than the UN
    Given the propensity of international organizations to be hijacked for the benefit of dictators and detriment of freedom-loving democracies, retention of control by the US is certainly not the worst outcome – in fact, of all the governments in the world (including our own), its the most benign in terms of freedom of speech and communication.

  4. Re: Better the US than the UN
    Perhaps US is better than the UN, but the US has also been one of the worst for seizing control of domains. After asking my question in the first post (which nobody answered) I did some research. It seems that most domain holders who are concerned about domain stability are looking for non US controlled countries.

    Lichtenstein is favoured by many and is what Wikileaks uses. Spain is good if the fear is Hollywood control. Sweden has shown itself to be very robust as we’ve seen with The Pirate Bay. Switzerland has a good domain name reputation, and Netherlands requires paperwork for a transfer which bodes well. Canada is said by some to be rock solid, but I would worry about US control regarding some kinds of content.

    I’ve got a few .ca domains, but the bottom line is that it will likely never matter to me because I won’t be hosting politically or Hollywood sensitive material. It does effect us all indirectly because all governments are suspect regarding censorship in this day and age. Could Wikileaks be hosted on a .ca domain? You tell me.

    I like your articles guys keep it up.
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