Who owns and runs the Internet - the evolving role of ICANN

When the Internet Protocol was first developed, a crowd of networks evolved beginning with the US Government-funded ARPANET. Ultimately they were linked together to create what we know today as the Internet. From the outset, no-one owned the Internet. However, someone had to keep track of all the protocols, identifiers, networks and addresses, and the 'things' that suddenly existed, as well as make sense out of the innovations that cascaded through the Internet.

In the early days those tasks were shouldered by a giant of a man who became a legend in his own lifetime - Jon Postel. Such was the esteem in which he was held that in 1998 he was awarded the Silver Medal of the International Telecommunication Union, an award generally reserved for heads of state. Sadly Postel died in October 1998, a massive shock to the Internet community. By that time, he had already ensured that a successor to his service was incorporated - the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA).

In September 1998, a non-profit corporation was established to take over the work of IANA, as well as a number of other Internet-related tasks. That corporation is ICANN. IANA remains under its control through a contract with the US Department of Commerce (the US Government has claimed supervision authority over DNS and IP address allocation management since 1997). IANA is responsible for the global allocation of IP addresses, the root zone management of the DNS and the assignment of technical protocol parameters used in a range of Internet protocols.

ICANN also has a Memorandum of Understanding with the US Government that sets out a number of issues to be resolved as pre-condition for the privatization of the Internet names and numbers administration (although what form such privatization might take is still a matter of much debate).

We all know that the aero-domain is much more than a domain name - it's an Internet territory staked out by aviation for aviation. A .aero domain sets a qualified company - or individual - apart from today's crowded online environment and reinforces its identity as a key player in the global aviation community.

The complexity and political sensitivity of ICANN has been a central influence in its work since it was founded and it is not yet resolved - and this is not the place for detailed discussion! Those interested in the current position are referred to the report 'Global Information Society Watch 2007' published on 22 May, available at www.globaliswatch.org/en/download.

Suggestions that the UN (presumably through the ITU) should take over management of the Internet have been scotched by the head of the ITU, Dr Hamadoun Touré. In a speech at the start of this year, he said that "we must all work together, each agency has its role to play. We must come to a better cooperation ... and avoid setting up a superstructure which would be very controversial and very difficult to put into effect".

One thing is clear. Those participating in the further development of the Internet are committed and vocal. However the administration evolves over the years ahead, the enquiring spirit and community commitment that characterized the enthusiasm of the pioneers, including both Vint Cerf and Jon Postel, will remain at the heart of the Internet.

Postel's Law

Jon Postel was the first editor of the legendary "Request for Comments" series, still the core repository of technical and organizational documents about the Internet, as well as technical specifications and policy documents produced by the Internet Engineering Task Force.

The first RFC was written by Steve Crocker in April 1969. As this newsletter went to press, the community was studying RFC 4893. Such was the depth of respect for Jon Postel that a memorial recollection of his life is immortalized in RFC 2468, written by Vint Cerf, one of the founders of the Internet and current chairman of ICANN.

RFC 793, written by Jon Postel in September 1981, includes a Robustness Principle, often quoted as Postel's Law. It reads, "Be conservative in what you do, be liberal in what you accept from others".