What is ICANN?

By Kevin Quia  |  Mar 21, 2022

There are more than 50 billion internet web pages that are stored in 100 million web servers around the world. So, when you want to visit a website like 800.com, how does your browser know how to find the right page from the right server?

In this article, we’ll explore ICANN, the organization responsible for maintaining the phonebook of the internet.

What is ICANN?

ICANN is short for the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. Headquartered in Los Angeles, ICANN is a non-profit organization tasked with managing the domain names and IP addresses of the internet.

What Does ICANN Do?

ICANN and its affiliate organization, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), perform three distinct roles to help people navigate the internet:

  • Maintain a centralized list of IP addresses
  • Maintain the Domain Name System
  • Manage root servers

Maintain a Centralized List of IP Addresses

Every web page needs to be stored on a computer somewhere in the world, and every computer connected to the internet is assigned a unique address known as an IP address. ICANN coordinates how IP addresses are assigned across the world. The organization also maintains a master list of IP addresses on centralized servers.

Maintain the Domain Name System

While it’s possible to navigate the internet using only IP addresses, most users prefer to type in a name that’s easy to remember (like 800.com) instead of a long series of numbers. This system of using names instead of IP addresses is known as the Domain Name System (DNS).

ICANN manages the DNS to ensure that registered domains follow standard naming rules, such as using pre-approved top-level domains (TLDs). Common TLDs include .com and .org as well as country-specific TLDs like .us. ICANN also ensures that there aren’t any duplicate domain names.

[link bolded text TLDs to unpublished article: What is a Top-Level Domain (TLD)?]

Manage Root Servers

When you access a website, your computer and browser don’t work directly with the web address. Instead, your browser communicates with servers that look up the web address and return the IP address where the website content is stored. The servers at the highest level are known as root servers.

These root servers are the first step toward finding a website’s IP address based on its domain name. For instance, when you type the web address 800.com into your browser, your computer first communicates with one of the root servers to figure out where to find more information on .com addresses.

ICANN is responsible for 13 root servers around the world, though most of these are run by other organizations delegated by ICANN.

How Was ICANN Started?

Before ICANN was founded in 1998, domain names and IP addresses were managed by the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA). For almost 30 years, IANA was run by one person, Jon Postel, who helped create ARPANET (the predecessor to the modern internet).

As the internet quickly expanded, both Postel and the US government recognized the need to have a dedicated organization for managing a quickly growing list of IP addresses around the world. ICANN was soon founded, and the US Department of Commerce (USDOC) contracted the organization to perform the functions of IANA.

Who Runs ICANN?

As a non-profit organization, ICANN has always been managed and run by an independent board of directors. However, ICANN initially worked under the US government through an exclusive contract.

In 2016, the USDOC officially relinquished control of ICANN and IANA. Since then, ICANN has transformed into a truly international organization that’s independent of any one government. Today, ICANN works with government representatives from more than 200 countries and observer organizations.

What is Outside ICANN Control?

While ICANN plays a critical role in enabling people to quickly access the internet, there are some things that are outside of ICANN’s control. Here are some aspects of internet use that ICANN doesn’t control.

Domain Name Registration

ICANN isn’t involved with the actual process of registering domain names. This is done by registrars, which are independent companies that work closely with ICANN. However, registrars must comply with ICANN standards for assigning a domain name, especially if the TLD is restricted (for example, .biz). In the case of a sponsored TLD (for example, .gov or .edu), then the registrar must also ensure that the registrant meets the eligibility requirements set by the sponsoring organization.

Once a new domain name is registered and assigned, the role of ICANN is to accurately record registered domain names and associated IP addresses.

Internet Access

ICANN doesn’t control who can access the internet or who gets priority access. This is managed by internet service providers in accordance with national and local laws.

Content Moderation

ICANN doesn’t police the internet, control content, block pages, or eliminate spam. This is done by website owners, internet service providers, network administrators, and governments in accordance with national and local laws.

Individual IP Address Assignment

While ICANN does manage and allocate IP addresses, it only works with five Regional Internet Registries (RIRs). Each RIR then distributes and registers IP addresses within its region. The five RIR regions are:

  • Africa
  • Asia and Pacific
  • Canada, the US, and parts of the Caribbean
  • Latin America and parts of the Caribbean
  • Europe, the Middle East, and parts of Central Asia

Domain Ownership Disputes

ICANN is not involved in disputes about domain name ownership or registration. Rather, the organization sets policies that address disputes and ensures that registries comply with those policies.

Exclusive Accreditation of Registration Services

While ICANN does accredit many domain registrars, organizations don’t need ICANN accreditation to provide domain registration services. That said, ICANN accreditation does verify that a registrar is contractually committed to providing a minimum standard of service and guaranteeing certain rights for internet users.

In addition, ICANN does not control accreditation for certain country code TLDs such as .cn (China), .de (Germany), .uk (United Kingdom), and .jp (Japan).

ICANN Makes the Modern Internet Possible

Most of us don’t think much about what happens behind the scenes when we check our social media or click on an interesting link. But working behind every web page is a vast network of servers run by thousands of people, private companies, and governments. It’s only thanks to ICANN that we can navigate to any page we like by typing in just a few letters — all in a fraction of a second.