What Does ICANN Do?
What Does ICANN Do?
To reach another person on the Internet you have to type an address into your computer - a name or a number. That address has to be unique so computers know where to find each other. ICANN coordinates these unique identifiers across the world. Without that coordination we wouldn't have one global Internet.
ICANN was formed in 1998. It is a not-for-profit partnership of people from all over the world dedicated to keeping the Internet secure, stable and interoperable. It promotes competition and develops policy on the Internet’s unique identifiers.
ICANN doesn’t control content on the Internet. It cannot stop spam and it doesn’t deal with access to the Internet. But through its coordination role of the Internet’s naming system, it does have an important impact on the expansion and evolution of the Internet.
What is the domain name system?
The domain name system, or DNS, is a system designed to make the Internet accessible to human beings. The main way computers that make up the Internet find one another is through a series of numbers, with each number (called an “IP address”) correlating to a different device. However it is difficult for the human mind to remember long lists of numbers so the DNS uses letters rather than numbers, and then links a precise series of letters with a precise series of numbers.
The end result is that ICANN’s website can be found at “icann.org” rather than “184.108.40.206” – which is how computers on the network know it. One advantage to this system – apart from making the network much easier to use for people – is that a particular domain name does not have to be tied to one particular computer because the link between a particular domain and a particular IP address can be changed quickly and easily. This change will then be recognised by the entire Internet within 48 hours thanks to the constantly updating DNS infrastructure. The result is an extremely flexible system.
A domain name itself comprises two elements: before and after “the dot”. The part to the right of the dot, such as “com”, “net”, “org” and so on, is known as a “top-level domain” or TLD. One company in each case (called a registry), is in charge of all domains ending with that particular TLD and has access to a full list of domains directly under that name, as well as the IP addresses with which those names are associated. The part before the dot is the domain name that you register and which is then used to provide online systems such as websites, email and so on. These domains are sold by a large number of “registrars”, free to charge whatever they wish, although in each case they pay a set per-domain fee to the particular registry under whose name the domain is being registered.
ICANN draws up contracts with each registry*. It also runs an accreditation system for registrars. It is these contracts that provide a consistent and stable environment for the domain name system, and hence the Internet.
In summary then, the DNS provides an addressing system for the Internet so people can find particular websites. It is also the basis for email and many other online uses.
What does ICANN have to do with IP addresses?
ICANN plays a similar administrative role with the IP addresses used by computers as it does with the domain names used by humans. In the same way that you cannot have two domain names the same (otherwise you never know where you would end up), for the same reason it is also not possible for there to be two IP addresses the same.
Again, ICANN does not run the system, but it does help co-ordinate how IP addresses are supplied to avoid repetition or clashes. ICANN is also the central repository for IP addresses, from which ranges are supplied to regional registries who in turn distribute them to network providers.
What about root servers?
Root servers are a different case again. There are 13 root servers – or, more accurately, there are 13 IP addresses on the Internet where root servers can be found (the servers that have one of the 13 IP addresses can be in dozens of different physical locations). These servers all store a copy of the same file which acts as the main index to the Internet’s address books. It lists an address for each top-level domain (.com, .de, etc) where that registry’s own address book can be found.
In reality, the root servers are consulted fairly infrequently (considering the size of the Internet) because once computers on the network know the address of a particular top-level domain they retain it, checking back only occasionally to make sure the address hasn’t changed. Nonetheless, the root servers remain vital for the Internet’s smooth functioning.
The operators of the root servers remain largely autonomous, but at the same time work with one another and with ICANN to make sure the system stays up-to-date with the Internet’s advances and changes.