The organization is called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN for short. Its history traces back to a graduate student at UCLA named Jon Postel.
He started keeping track of the unique numbers assigned to particular computers using the Internet, during its early days. Jonathan Zittrain, an Internet law professor at Harvard, says Postel kept a clipboard to make sure no user had the same number — sort of like a phone book.
“It was just sort of an honor system that would stop Caltech from coming in, or Bulgaria, from saying, ‘You know what, we’re going to start using those numbers,’ ” Zittrain says. “It’s just something that would be a way of coordinating as people came online and needed to use numbers and, later, names.”
Today that function is done by ICANN, a nonprofit based in Los Angeles with a budget of more than $130 million and more than 350 employees. It keeps track of millions of websites all over the globe.
Since its founding in 1998, ICANN has been overseen by the U.S. Commerce Department. But the government contract ends on Sept. 30 and the Obama administration plans to let ICANN become fully independent.
Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas has waged a campaign against the transition that includes ominous sounding videos, in which he says that the phase-out of U.S. oversight will open the door to authoritarian governments taking control of the Internet.
“Russia, and China, and Iran don’t have a First Amendment,” Cruz says in one of the videos. “They don’t protect free speech, and they actively censor the Internet. ICANN could do the same thing, putting foreign countries in charge of what you can say online, prohibiting speech that they disagree with.”
Though ICANN oversees a fairly geeky administrative function, it does have an …