Updated 9 Sept 2017
Whoever controls the internet’s address book can also censor the internet: delete a domain name and the website can no longer be found. That is why, as the internet grew up, America decided not to hand control to the United Nations or another international body steered by governments. Instead, in 1998 it helped create ICANN, which is a global organization that gives a say to everybody with an interest in the smooth running of the network, whether they are officials, engineers, domain-name holders or internet users. Because few precedents existed, and because of a fear that ICANN, which is based in Los Angeles, would lack legitimacy, America kept it on a long leash.
ICANN is a non-profit corporation founded in the US in 1998 that stands for ‘Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers’. They manage the internet’s Domain Name System (DNS), including both generic (gTLD) and country code (ccTLD) Top-Level Domain names and the numeric address infrastructure.
From its founding to the present, ICANN has been formally organized as a nonprofit corporation “for charitable and public purposes” under the California Nonprofit Public Benefit Corporation Law. It is managed by a 16-member Board of Directors composed of eight members selected by a nominating committee on which all the constituencies of ICANN are represented; six representatives of its Supporting Organizations, sub-groups that deal with specific sections of the policies under ICANN’s purview; an At-Large seat filled by an At-Large Organization; and the President / CEO, appointed by the Board.
The main role of ICANN is to manage and oversee the domain name registration process and the assignment of Internet Protocol (IP) addresses to Internet Service Providers (ISPs) through its Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) group. You cannot directly register a domain name with ICANN. While all domain registrations have to eventually go through ICANN, the only way you can register a domain name is through an ICANN certified domain registrar.
There are seven original gTLDs (.com, .edu, .gov, .int, .mil, .net, .org) and in 2001 and 2002 more were added including four unsponsored (.biz, .info, .name, .pro) and three sponsored (.aero, .coop, .museum).
Sponsored sTLDs are limited to narrow communities for which the sponsor sets the rules generally. Since then several more were added (.asia, .cat, .jobs, .mobi, .travel). Each TLD has its own registry maintained by the registry operator.
As a user you will buy your domain name from a registrar who then send the information to the registry.
Capping a highly politicized debate, in September 2016 the US government let go of its remaining grip on the internet, handing control of the net’s address book to ICANN. The transfer involved the internet’s domain name system, or DNS, which translates the Web addresses you type into your browser, like “cnet.com,” into the numerical language that net-connected computers use to communicate. American approval is still required in some areas, including changes to the internet’s address system.
Critics had argued the transfer could lead to authoritarian countries taking control of the internet and eventually censoring content throughout the world. ICANN said such fears were uninformed.
“ICANN is a technical organization and does not have the remit or ability to regulate content on the internet,” the group said prior to the transfer. “That is true under the current contract with the US government and will remain true without the contract with the US government.”