The fact that you are able to browse your favorite websites or read this article is the result of decades of careful administration and allocation of resources.
Sometimes, we take IP addresses, domains, and everything Internet-related for granted. We should not forget that if these resources were to be given out too freely, the online infrastructure will be harmed. This is why authorities like ICANN exist in the first place. Even if the Internet is decentralized, order still has to be kept in order for things to run smoothly.
Knowing the responsibilities and history of such an organization is an important part of understanding the structure of the online world. Keep reading if you are interested in learning which organization manages the domain name system of the Internet and how it came to be.
- What is ICANN?
- ICANN’s timeline – Where did it all begin?
- The relationship between ICANN and IANA
- What does ICANN really do?
- ICANN’s main structure
- Transparency and reliability – ICANN’s accountability model
What is ICANN?
ICANN is short for Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. This is a non-profit, private organization that focuses primarily on managing the unique identifiers of the Internet, namely domain names and IP addresses.
ICANN was founded in 1998 with the purpose of helping the US government maintain the core infrastructure of the Web. ICANN manages billions of IP addresses and 180 million domain names all across the world, so it’s pretty safe to assume it oversees basically the entire World Wide Web.
Before moving on to discussing in detail its responsibilities, we must first understand how ICANN came to be and how the entity is related to other authorities.
ICANN’s timeline – Where did it all begin?
When an engineer named Jon Postel helped create IANA (Internet Assigned Numbers Authority) in 1988, the management of the Internet’s infrastructure seemed to be in good hands. And so it was. The US government that previously financed ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) – the basis for today’s Internet – endorsed IANA’s authority.
However, as the Internet grew larger and larger, more and more stability and management were needed. This need to globalize the governing of the Web was one of the main reasons why the US government proposed the creation of ICANN in 1998.
ICANN was to become a global, independent entity that would manage the Internet’s systems and protocols. Once it officially emerged, the US government handed over control of the Internet to ICANN.
ICANN used IANA to watch over the entire online world. That was until 2016 when the US government decided that IANA’s coordination and management of the domain name system should be moved to the private sector. IANA is still run by ICANN and maintains the registries of the Internet’s unique identifiers.
The core values ICANN must always adhere to
ICANN was shaped in 1998 based on the memorandum of understanding (MoU) between it and the US Department of Commerce. The MoU dictates a set of principles that ICANN must follow for ensuring integrity and transparency:
- Stability – Managing IP addresses, domain registries, and other identifiers to ensure the stability of the Internet;
- Competition – Managing DNS (Domain Name System) in a way that promotes customer choice and competition;
- Private, Bottom-Up Coordination – Using consensus-based methods to meet the needs of both the Internet and the individual Internet users;
- Representation – Representing all members of the Internet community and meeting the needs of each of them.
Key events in the development of ICANN
Many things have happened since the birth of the first iteration of the Internet. ICANN is not the only organization responsible for the well-being of the Internet. Let’s see how things evolved throughout the years.
1983: Jon Postel’s excellent work at managing IP addresses and port numbers contributed to the creation of IANA;
1996-1997: The Internet Society and IANA create the International Ad Hoc Committee. This was necessary for developing a new way of managing TLDs (Top-Level Domains);
1997: The US government privatizes DNS management;
1998: Following extensive discussions and proposed solutions, ICANN is appointed a non-profit, private, and public-benefit organization. ICANN would move on to take over management of IANA’s functions;
2000: ICANN is endorsed by the US Department of Commerce to perform IANA’s functions;
2000-2017: The online world embraces third rounds of generic TLDs (gTLD) expansions. This means over thousands of unique domain names make their way to the Internet;
2016: ICANN ends its contract with the US government and IANA would move on to manage and coordinate the domain name system in the private sector;
2017: ICANN starts operating based on a global multi-stakeholder model.
The relationship between ICANN and IANA
We already saw in a previous article that IANA changed hands several times over the years. IANA is mostly known for managing the Internet’s unique identifiers: IP addresses and AS numbers, DNS, and protocol parameters.
ICANN is also responsible for taking care of these resources and allocating them. While it might seem confusing, the two organizations do not actually do the same things.
IANA is pretty much an extension of ICANN. The former is the Internet’s administrator and allocates its resources. But IANA does not have full control over these resources. ICANN uses IANA to coordinate all IP addressing systems and AS numbers. ICANN is also the supreme authority when it comes to registering and owning domains.
What does ICANN really do?
In the simplest terms, ICANN manages the domain name system and the allocation of IP addresses. This ensures the Internet is open and functions securely and efficiently.
More specifically, ICANN’s main responsibilities reside in the:
- IPv4 & IPv6 space allocation;
- DNS management and allocation;
- Domain names management;
- Root server management.
IPv4 & IPv6 allocation
ICANN is responsible for the entire pool of IP addresses. They are the backbone of the Internet, so the organization’s role is crucial. ICANN manages all the world’s addresses through five RIRs (Regional Internet Registries):
- RIPE for Europe;
- APNIC for the Asia-Pacific;
- ARIN for the North-America;
- LACNIC for Latin America;
- AFRINIC for Africa.
ICANN uses IANA to distribute the resources to each of the five RIRs. In turn, each RIR handles managing domain registrations and IP address allocation for its region,
Here, IANA acts as an administrator, but it does not own the system. As we saw earlier, IANA is an extension of ICANN.
The Domain Name System is the reason why we type names like Google or Facebook in the search bar instead of their corresponding IP addresses.
DNS exists to spare us the hassle of having to remember the unique IP address for each website we visit. It acts as a translator that maps a domain to its specific IP address. We published a great introduction to the inner workings of DNS right here if you are interested in learning more.
Here, ICANN manages domain name registrars. These are services that allow companies and individuals to purchase and register domain names.
From allocating the domains to the final step of individuals registering and owning them, ICANN organizes the entire system. The process is complex and requires multiple parties to work together closely. It has a strong connection to WHOIS records.
Moreover, ICANN needs to monitor and properly update every single change in any domain name. ICANN’s vigilance and flexible infrastructure help the Internet see any such change and update it in less than 48 hours. Still, everything needs to be done according to strict policies while meeting strict requirements.
Domain names management
Every domain name is made of two elements, namely the TLD (Top Level Domain) and the SLD (Second Level Domain). While the TLD comes after the dot in a URL (web address), like .com, .org, and .net, the SLD is the actual name of the website and precedes the TLD.
So, if we were to access Facebook, the website’s address being www.facebook.com, the SLD would be facebook, and the TLD would be .com.
ICANN manages SLDs and TLDs. In addition, the organization also manages country-based TLDs and unique country-code TLDs.
A country-based TLD (like .gov) is used by national governments, and country-unique TLDs are specifically tied to certain regions, like .us, .uk, or .de.
Root servers management
Root name servers are the core of DNS, making the entire domain system a complex hierarchy. They contain important information on root zones, which help in the DNS lookup process.
There are 13 root servers, each handled by a different organization. They all make up the pillars of all websites. As for ICANN, the entity is supervised by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). NTIA is the supreme authority in this case and has ICANN manage each root zone. In turn, ICANN operates one of the 13 root servers.
ICANN’s main structure
With so many things to deal with simultaneously, and with such a huge infrastructure to oversee, ICANN has to have some help. The entity works closely with other supporting organizations, each representing a specific Web section.
- Generic Names Supporting Organization (GNSO) – generic TLDs;
- Country Code Names Supporting Organization (CCNSO) – country-code TLDs;
- Address Supporting Organization (ASO) – IP address allocation.
ICANN is also helped by different committees, as follows:
- Root server operators;
- Governments and international treaty organizations;
- Internet privacy and security-related entities;
- The internet community, meaning the users themselves.
ICANN cooperates with all these parties to ensure the well-being of the Internet. The decisions are based on a voting system and lots of discussions, as the purpose of ICANN is to remain non-profit, public-benefit, and cover the needs of all users.
Transparency and reliability – ICANN’s accountability model
With great power comes great responsibility. Because ICANN is such a powerful and ever-needed entity, it has to be accountable both internally, to its own mechanisms and committees, and externally, to Internet users and government laws.
To make sure it respects its own principles, the organization uses the ICANN Accountability and Transparency Review. It is an accountability model enforced through various assessments and improving processes.
This is based on three types of accountability;
- Public Sphere Accountability – ICANN has to prove it behaves responsibly;
- Corporate and Legal Accountability – ICANN must fulfill all its obligations (both contractual and legal);
- Community Accountability – ICANN should act by the expectation of the community.
For the organization to be truly transparent, all documents relating to ICANN’s activities and operations are openly published. Only serious confidential reasons may allow ICANN to withhold or classify certain documents.
Without authorities like ICANN, companies wouldn’t be able to register and own their domains, not to mention use IP addresses.
Such organizations are instrumental in the proper functioning of the World Wide Web. ICANN is vital for the coordination of the global IP address pool and for the management of the domain name system and its root servers.
Decades of hard work, open discussions, and impeccable coordination led the Internet to become what it is today. Without ICANN and its likes, the online world would surely fall into chaos. In ICANN’s own words, the mission is to help ensure a stable, secure, and unified global Internet.