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What Got Us Here Won’t Get Us Out Of Here (What The USA Should Do Right Now To Recover From The ICANN Mess)

October 7, 2016

The barn door is wide open and the horse is long gone. So, is there still anything that the USA can do to attempt to mitigate some of the risk from the USA Department of Commerce (DOC) not renewing the contract with the Interent Corporation for Names and Numbers (ICANN)? 


Up until October 1, 2016 the DOC provided oversight and control for ICANN. The government could prevent ICANN from making changes. For example, back in 2011, ICANN wanted to introduce the .xxx top level domain. The governments of the world, including the USA objected. Lawrence Strickling, was assistant secretary at the DOC and headed up the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. The NTIA was the department tasked with governing ICANN. NTIA could have refused to allow .xxx to be injected in the DNS root system. 

NTIA and the Department of Commerce no longer have that power. But, they are not powerless. And they need to push for greater influence within ICANN. 

Insist On The Biggest Role at The Table

The new multi-stakeholder model for ICANN means that the US is no longer the final arbiter of any disputes. ICANN has insisted that the decisions will be made in consultation with the Government Advisory Committee, a collection of 111 countries around the world. It is not the United Nations. And currently has no plans to join with that body. However, the UN is made up of 193 countries. And may provide some insight into how to run a multi-national organization. 

The US needs to insist that safeguards be put in place to give preference to a few countries, much the way the UN Security Council is made up of a few powerful countries. The US has maintained a unique oversight role for twenty years. That role is changing, but we need to make sure we don’t become simply one member out of 111.

Stop Spying

The other thing the US has to do is stop spying on the interent. No, they don’t have to get rid of the NSA, FBI, CIA, etc. But, the whole reason we are in this mess is that the NSA was using the unique position that the US enjoyed to spy on internet traffic. Edward Snowden, a former NSA employee blew the whistle on that in 2013. That led to the Montevideo Statement on The Future of Interent Cooperation. It was the Montevideo Statement that forced the US to give up oversight of ICANN. 

We are never going to be able to convince the world that we are no longer spying. The louder we protest that we’ve stopped, the more the interent will be convinced we are trying to cover something up. The trust that was built up over decades will probably never be restored. But, that doesn’t change the fact that if we want the interent to remain strong and vital the US needs to stop trying to track every user and every transaction. The argument will be that without the intrusive spying we cannot as accurately track and respond to global threats. That is true. However, that logic would say that my local police department should track the movements of everyone in my town. After all, that is going to make it easier for them to respond to crimes. 

And that is the exact definition of a police state. The interent should not become a police state. The free flow of ideas and information is what made it what it is today. The US risks killing that by turning it into a great big electronic monitoring bracelet. 

To the US government: Stop it!

Why should the world, and especially the administrators of ICANN, agree to allow the US a bigger than usual role in the oversight and governance of ICANN? The US still has a couple of big sticks that they can use to influence their former partner.


Part of the arrangement of the contract between ICANN and the DOC was US government federal antitrust protections. In 1998, VeriSign attempted to set up a competing name resolution service. ICANN shut them down and VeriSign sued. The courts found that ICANN was a monopoly, but a legally protected one. Now that the agreement is no longer in force, the rules have changed. The US government can agree to continue providing ICANN antitrust protection, but they certainly do not have to. Without that legal protection, ICANN will have to compete with anyone else who wants to start routing domain names on the interent. 

Many companies would love to have a piece of that pie. Facebook already has taken a small set in that direction. If you place a link in a Facebook post, Facebook will display the contents, but keep you in the Facebook application. It would be a small step for them to start resolving addresses that were not explicitely in a post.

Google is also in a great position to take over name resolution duties. You go to to find a website. When you click the link, Google sends you out to that site. It would be a small thing for Google to index those names and IP addresses and bypass the established DNS service.

The money is not in routing the requests, although there is plenty of metadata to be mined. The real money would be in allowing you to register domains. Facebook already allows you to create names for your groups and personal account. It’s a small step to registering new domains.

Today, that’s not possible because ICANN would shut them down. The US can use the antitrust protection to continue to maintain influence over ICANN and it’s functions.


ICANN is a non-profit corporation. Not a no-profit corporation. ICANN makes millions of dollars every year through the sale and renewal of domain names. If ICANN begins to act too much like a for-profit company, the US could decide that it no longer fits the definition of a non-profit. The biggest threat here is that as a for-profit company, ICANN’s multimillion dollar budgets would become subject to US taxes.

In truth, were this to happen, the US stripping ICANN’s non-profit status, we would probably see the organization move to a low tax country like Ireland. The US tax system would have claim on sales in the US, but nothing outside. Still, it’s one more level that the US can work to try to provide oversight to ICANN.

Grey Web

There is a real possibility that freed from the yoke of US oversight, ICANN refuses to subject itself to them again. Like the 18 year old fleeing his family home, they may decide to test their freedom and refuse advice, good or bad, from “mom and dad.” What’s the US to do in that case?

The United States built the internet. From the early ARPANET, and Jon Postel, who maintained the names and numbers before ICANN was formed, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, eBay. The list of leading tech companies is decidely American.

The US, through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which created the original ARPANET, should investigate doing it again. If ICANN were to become controlled by an entity that was hostile to the United States, it would represent a threat to our economic, military and social interests. He who controls ICANN, or more accurately the Interent Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), controls the world.

We should investigate building a competing system. The original ARPANET was designed to withstand a nuclear war. That’s part of the reason that TCP, the protocol that the interent uses to send data back and forth, is a connection based protocol. In other words, every packet that gets sent has to be acknowledged. However, the route that packet takes can be different for multiple packets in a data stream.

The US should investigate building a Grey Web. The Grey Web would be a parallel system to the current interent. It would allow companies, and especially military and government traffic to operate outside of the established interent. Grey Web gets its name from the existing Deep Web and Dark Web.

Deep Web
Parts of the interent that are not searchable
Dark Web
Parts of the deep web that are devoted to illegal activities

The Deep Web is not searchable. Parts of it, like the Dark Web are only accessible with a special browser. The Dark Web is set up to allow untraceable activities. Frankly, most of these are illegal. You don’t want to go to the Dark Web and we certainly don’t want to try to use it for government and military traffic. However, what the Dark Web has done for illegal activities, the Grey Web can do for secure government, and commerce traffic. We don’t have to use the existing interent.

I say that, knowing full well that there is no Grey Web. It would have to be built. When the ARPANET was being built DARPA put out bids for technology companies to build it. The contract was given to a company called BBN, now part of Raytheon.

If we built it once, we could build it again. And given the number of technology companies in the US who are anxious to get a competitive advantage, I do not think we would have any trouble finding takers to accept the challenge.

I hope my vision for ICANN’s future is wrong. I hope the lapsing of the contract between the US Department of Commerce and ICANN results in a rebirth of global cooperation and innovation. However, the United States, and really free states everywhere have to face the possibility that it might not turn out as good as we hope. It would be foolish to not have a Plan B.

This is the fifth in a five-part series on the ICANN contract that expired on October 1, 2016

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and grandchildren. 

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(c) 2016 Rodney M Bliss, all rights reserved 

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