Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is a nonprofit corporation that is located in the United States of America. ICANN was founded on the 18th of September, 1998; and currently has it's head quarters in Playa Vista, Los Angeles, California. ICANN is responsible for managing two crucial namespaces of the Internet: 1) Internet protocol namespace 2) Domain Name System namespace. The most important department within ICANN is IANA: IANA is the department that administers many of the technical responsibilities of ICANN.
ICANN plays a critical role in maintaining the stability of the Internet: every computer on the Internet has an address which is either a number of a name (IP or DNS) and it is ICANN who manages this address / namespace system. ICANN's role is referred to as a 'backbone' service, ensuring that the Internet maintains it's "smooth" functioning; without ICANN, or another organisations performing the same role, the Internet would struggle to operate in a stable and functional fashion.
ICANN was previously under contract to the United States Department of Commerce, but on the 1st of October, 2016, ICANN was freed from U.S. government oversight - ICANN will remain based in California. The U.S. government has used its remaining influence upon the Internet to move full control of it's namespace to ICANN, rather than to the UN or another International intergovernmental organisation body. The Internet's namespace has therefore transitioned to multi-stakeholder governance; rather than one governed by a single nation state (U.S.).
ICANN was founded on the 13th of September, 1998, and it was founded, in-part, due to a controversial incident involving Jon Postel - one of the pioneering individuals involved in the development of the Internet. IANA had largely been the sole fiefdom of Jon Postel from the 1970's to 1998, Postel yielded immense authority upon the Internet - sometimes referred to as the "Internet God" - due to his management of the Internet's underlying address book. This sphere of operation being controlled by one person was not viewed as a serious issue when the Internet was largely a research and educational network project in the 1980's, but it would not continue to be viewed so.
Due to widespread dissatisfaction with Network Solutions monopolising the registration process for domain names, on the 28th of January, 1998, Jon Postel was involved in a 'test' which involved changing the root server that eight root nameserver "pulled" addresses from; this involved changing the root server from Network Solutions to IANA. Some critics have likened this 'act' to a hijacking of the Internet. Postel was condemned by political advisors to the U.S. president; there were alleged threats made to Postel that he "would never work on the Internet again".
The result of Postel's independent action, aka "infrastructure test": was that it led to the NTIA agency of the United States Department of Commerce releasing a green paper that would lead to the creation of ICANN. The paper was titled "Technical Management of Internet Names and Addresses" and it's content was concerned with "improving technical management of the Internet Domain Name System, as a proposed rule of the Department of Commerce." The paper was published on the 20th of February, 1998.
The result of NTIA's green paper was that IANA became a department of ICANN, and oversight for ICANN would be provided by NTIA; an agency of the United States Department of Commerce. In effect, a muzzle was placed on Jon Postel by the U.S. government, who would ensure that no single individual would ever possess such an authoritarian role upon the Internet's infrastructure. That said, while Jon Postel's act was controversial, his knowledge and contribution to IANA was recognised, and he was set to become the first chief technology officer of ICANN, but, he died in 1998 of heart complications, and Esther Dyson took the job instead.
In 2006, the U.S. government renewed it's contract with ICANN and signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU): a bilateral agreement further outlining ICANN's role. While ICANN was responsible for assigning DNS registries and registrars, it's memorandum with the U.S. DOC never resulted in it supplanting IANA as the manager of the DNS root zone file. The United States Department of Commerce (DOC) authority over ICANN and IANA was never a popular arrangement internationally: with many 'calls' made by national governments and international intergovernmental bodies issuing demands for ICANN's to be placed in 'the hands' of an international organisation.
The Montevideo Statement on the Future of Internet Cooperation was released in 2013 - in response to the NSA surveillance scandal (PRISM surveillance program) - and the statement was signed by the heads of ICANN. This added further pressure on the United States Department of Commerce (DOC) to find a solution to their controversial oversight of ICANN. On the 1st of October, 2016, ICANN's contract with the United States Department of Commerce (DOC) was ended, freeing ICANN to enter into a global multi-stakeholder arrangement.
Responsibilities and Structure
While some commentators have likened ICANN to a government of the Internet, in fact, ICANN's role is very limited (they say so themselves) in relation to the Internet and it's role was outlined in it's Memorandum of Understanding with the U.S. government. This memorandum is titled "MEMORANDUM OF UNDERSTANDING BETWEEN THE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE AND INTERNET CORPORATION FOR ASSIGNED NAMES AND NUMBERS" and was signed by Joe Sims (Counsel to ICANN) and J. Beckwith Burr (Associate Administrator, NTIA).
This memorandum outlined: background, purpose, principles, and prohibitions. Purposes included: allocation of IP number blocks; oversight of authoritative root server system; oversight of new top level domains added to root zone; coordinate technical parameters to maintain universal Internet connectivity; and additional DNS management functions. ICANN principles include: stability, competition, private bottom-up coordination, and representation. Prohibitions included: ICANN will not act as a DNS registry and ICANN will not act as a DNS registrar.
It should be clear that the memorandum highlights that ICANN is a corporation whose purpose is only related to the IP and DNS namespace of the Internet. ICANN has no responsibility in relation to the following Internet issues: content control (web or otherwise), financial transactions, data protection, spam (email, web or otherwise), gambling, or privacy.
ICANN is a non-profit corporation that has sixteen members on it's board of directors. ICANN is comprised of advisory committees which help it set policy; it's governmental committee is probably it's most important and is respresented by over 105 nations. The current ICANN committes are:
ICANN has also created a number of additional organisations to help set policy and manage it's administrative responsibilities:
The Internet is comprised of computer networks that use the Internet protocol suite. The core protocol within this suite is the Internet Protocol (IP). The Internet Protocol (IP) routes packets of data across the Internet through the use of IP addresses inserted into the packet headers. IP addresses (numerical label) are assigned to every device that connects to a computer network that uses the Internet protocol suite for communication. The Domain Name System (DNS) is a naming system which uses alphanumeric strings to more easily locate IP addresses. ICANN's technical responsibility is managing how unique IP addresses are distributed and managing the Domain Name System (DNS).
Most of these technical responsibilities are administrated by the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) - a department within ICANN - with ICANN coordinating IANA's activities. In their own words, ICANN's technical responsibilities are:
ICANN has also implemented some technical services: 1) Domain Name System Security Extensions (DNSSEC): provides fraud protection 2) Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy (UDRP): a policy that resolves domain name disputes, such as trademark based domain name disputes.
ICANN manages the Top Level Domain zone of the Domain Name System (DNS), it does so by: setting policy, setting rules, creating new domains, assigning domain registries and accrediting registrars to manage the registration of domain names. Individuals can submit registrar complaints to ICANN, but ICANN does not resolve individual disputes. ICANN also manages the InterNIC website, which provides services like: WHOIS: search domain records and Accredited Registrar Directory: search ICANN accredited registrars.