Type the domain name Businessweek.com into a browser, and you reach servers run by Bloomberg Businessweek. This happens whether you’re sitting in Chennai, India, or Kittery, Maine—your computer has consulted a nearby copy of a single, universal list of which names get you to which servers. This largely invisible process is called the Internet’s domain name system, or DNS. It is so important that the guy who first controlled it, Jon Postel of the University of California at Los Angeles, earned the nickname “God.”
God died in 1998, and now the Internet Corp. for Assigned Names and Numbers manages the domain name system. Icann is a nonprofit with a complex, international governance structure of what it calls “stakeholders,” a group that includes governments, corporations, and civil society activists. But it has operated, ultimately, under a contract from the U.S. Department of Commerce. Although it never exercised this right or even threatened to do so, the U.S. could always still render a website nameless, making it hard to find—essentially kicking it off the Internet.
On Friday, the Department of Commerce announced that next year it would relinquish its last bit of control over domain names. The system will be replaced by a model of global Internet governance as yet to be determined by Icann. All those stakeholders are on their own now. “The Internet technical community is strong enough to continue its role,” said Icann, “while assuming the stewardship function as it transitions from the US Government.” In protesting that it is strong enough, Icann is revealing that it may not be.