January 16, 2022

CRS — Internet Domain Names: Background and Policy Issues

Internet Domain Names: Background and Policy Issues (PDF)

Navigating the Internet requires using addresses and corresponding names that identify the location of individual computers. The Domain Name System (DNS) is the distributed set of databases residing in computers around the world that contain address numbers mapped to corresponding domain names, making it possible to send and receive messages and to access information from computers anywhere on the Internet.

The DNS is managed and operated by a not-for-profit public benefit corporation called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). Because the Internet evolved from a network infrastructure created by the Department of Defense, the U.S. government originally owned and operated (primarily through private contractors) the key components of network architecture that enable the domain name system to function. A 1998 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between ICANN and the Department of Commerce (DOC) initiated a process intended to transition technical DNS coordination and management functions to a private- sector not-for-profit entity. While the DOC has played no role in the internal governance or day- to-day operations of the DNS, ICANN remained accountable to the U.S. government through the MOU, which was superseded in 2006 by a Joint Project Agreement (JPA). On September 30, 2009, the JPA between ICANN and DOC expired and was replaced by an Affirmation of Commitments (AoC), which provides for review panels to periodically assess ICANN processes and activities.

Many of the technical, operational, and management decisions regarding the DNS can have significant impacts on Internet-related policy issues such as intellectual property, privacy, e- commerce, and cybersecurity. With the expiration of the ICANN-DOC Joint Project Agreement on September 30, 2009, and the announcement of the new AoC, the 112th Congress and the Administration may continue to assess the appropriate federal role with respect to ICANN and the DNS, and examine to what extent ICANN is positioned to ensure Internet stability and security, competition, private and bottom-up policymaking and coordination, and fair representation of the global Internet community. A related issue is whether the U.S. government’s unique authority over the DNS root zone should continue indefinitely. Foreign governments have argued that it is inappropriate for the U.S. government to have exclusive authority over the worldwide DNS, and that technical coordination and management of the DNS should be accountable to international governmental entities. On the other hand, many U.S. officials argue that it is critical for the U.S. government to maintain authority over the DNS in order to guarantee the stability and security of the Internet.

The expiration of the JPA, the implementation of the Affirmation of Commitments, and the continuing U.S. authority over the DNS root zone remain issues of interest to the 112th Congress, the Administration, foreign governments, and other Internet stakeholders worldwide. Other specific issues include the possible addition of new generic top-level domain names (gTLDs), .xxx and the protection of children on the Internet, the security and stability of the DNS, and the status of the WHOIS database. How all of these issues are ultimately addressed could have profound impacts on the continuing evolution of ICANN, the DNS, and the Internet.

Source: Congressional Research Service (via OpenCRS)