The Internet is free and open, controlled by no one, distributed everywhere so that it can't be damaged... right?
It's true that the Internet is distributed, so that bringing down one part of it doesn't disrupt the entire network, but it is definitely controlled by someone. The core system that makes the Internet function, in fact, is run by a U.S. entity known as ICANN , the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which basically holds the keys for any person or business hoping to turn up in search results on the Internet.
But wait -- doesn't Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) hold the keys to being found on the Internet? Well, yes and no. When it comes to search terms and keywords, Google is the tool you need. But when Google sends you to a specific Website, the thing that translates the IP address (a string of numbers like 118.53.09.346) into a Web address like internetevolution.com is the Domain Name System, or DNS.
The Internet DNS in turn is based on a system of “root servers," each of which carries a copy of all the IP addresses in a given section of the Internet and the Websites they point to.
The system of root servers and the administration of "top-level domains" (such as .com, .net, and .org) and the various country domains (such as .us, .ca, or .de) is overseen by ICANN. Another agency, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), is charged with technically handling and supporting the DNS and root servers. IANA is controlled by ICANN.
It may be hard to believe now, but in the early days of the Internet (which weren't really all that long ago), the assignment of domain names and IP addresses was largely handled by a single man: California-based computer researcher and Internet pioneer Jon Postel, who ran IANA. Shortly before his death in 1998, the U.S. government exerted its control over IANA, and after his death oversight of IANA was given to ICANN.
The arrangement was controversial, in part because ICANN was seen as a U.S. entity, which meant that control over the fundamental parts of the Internet -- parts without which nothing else could function -- were in U.S. hands and subject to the whims of the U.S. government.
At one point in 2005, a movement emerged that was aimed at transferring control over the DNS and the root servers to the United Nations. Critics were (and in many cases still are) upset by the fact that 10 of the 13 root servers are in the U.S., and that the one that is arguably most important, known as server A -- which administers the .com domain -- is controlled by a for-profit corporation called Verisign Inc. (Nasdaq: VRSN).
Several years ago, China was rumored to be setting up its own alternate domain system with root servers under its own control, because it was reportedly concerned about U.S. dominance over the Internet. But as it turned out, the country seems to have just added its own layer of addresses on top of the existing ICANN ones, forcing Chinese ISPs to translate the new top-level domains and map them to existing tables of U.S. names.
Whether it is actually controlled by the U.S. or not, the ICANN/IANA system has evolved to the point where everyone is used to it, and the system effectively can't function without these agencies.
So even countries like China have to play ball -- whether they like it or not.
— Mathew Ingram, technology writer for The Globe and Mail in Canada