When it comes to the Internet, there's never really been much question about who owns, operates, and influences it the most: The U.S. does.
But that will all change in 2015, when the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) cedes U.S. control to a global amalgam of Internet groups.
ICANN is the entity that controls assigning and administration of top level domain names--the .coms and .nets and .orgs with which Internet users are so familiar.
As a result of the changes, you and your business may face higher prices, less Web security, less consistent service, and, potentially, less freedom of speech.
"It is an international Internet and we can't own it forever," says Paul Rosenzweig, principal and founder of Red Branch Law and Consulting, and a specialist in cybersecurity and Internet law. The biggest questions to answer, Rosenzweig says, is what structures and processes ICANN will put in place for a smooth transition.
ICANN shares its responsibility with the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). NTIA in turn contracts with the private security network infrastructure company Verisign, which ensures proper administration and functioning of domain names and name changes at the "root" level--in essence the correct functioning and communication of the Internet itself.
“The timing is right to start the transition process,” Lawrence E. Strickling, assistant secretary of commerce for communications and information, said in a statement on NTIA's website earlier in March. “We look forward to ICANN convening stakeholders across the global Internet community to craft an appropriate transition plan.”
A Price Hike
While ICANN has operated like a monopoly for decades, it's been a fairly well-regulated one, Rosenzweig says. So when ICANN announced in 2012 that it would release 2,000 new domain extensions, prices to obtain them did not spin wildly out of control, Rosenzweig says. That could change with more members controlling ICANN.
That's particularly important to business owners, because when you buy your domain name, you usually have to buy all the others related to your brand, to prevent competitors from muscling in on your territory.
To illustrate how expensive it can be already for companies to purchase new domain extensions, when ICANN released the new domain extensions two years ago, Google submitted applications in four categories, such as trademarks (.google), core businesses (.docs), subsidiaries (.youtube), as well as domain names they thought had creative potential (.lol). It spent an estimated $18 million for those.
Similarly, Amazon reportedly spent $14 million acquiring new domain names two years ago.
Another concern is how well-managed the technology around naming will be going forward. The technical management provided by Verisign for the past 14 years has generally been efficient, without significant service outages, experts say. The new ICANN will have to decide who runs this function, and could possibly put it out to bid for another company, or companies, to handle. And the switch could cause service interruptions, or worse.
Additionally many countries have more restrictive attitudes toward freedom of speech, and that could cause some problems with certain domain names themselves under new management.
"The Internet is the forum for free speech today, so who will [ICANN] bind themselves to, to protect free speech, and openness, and not ban .gay or .islam?" Rosenzweig says.
Technology entrepreneurs like Tejune Kang, founder and chief executive of Six Dimensions, a small business that offers mobile and Web content management as well as cyber-security solutoins to other businesses, worries that security breaches could become more common as well, should Verisign's role be phased out, or handed over to multiple parties.
"A hacker could get in, figure who the domains and IP addresses belong to, and the hierarchy and blueprint for the whole Internet could be exposed," Kang says.