4 October 2021 | 7 min read

What Is ICANN – The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers?

Let us introduce you to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. Learn about ICANN structure and its responsibilities.

what is icann

ICANN, or the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, is a non-profit organization designed as the postal system of the Internet. It’s the governing body that manages the central repository of IP addresses, the Domain Name System (DNS) and root servers. ICANN also coordinates the total supply of IP addresses. 

The organization emerged in 1998 to assist the US government and maintain the core infrastructure of the World Wide Web. However, today, it works to standardize and run the entire naming system used on the web across the world.

ICANN’s mandate is to manage around four billion IPv4 addresses and 180 million domain names in 240 countries. In other words, the entire world. 

In this piece, we are not only aiming to answer the main question – what is ICANN? We also want to explain what the organization is responsible for, how it affects the Domain Name System, IP addresses and, ultimately, your website. We have a lot to cover, so let’s get to it.

What does ICANN really do? 

ICANN initially manages the domain name system, root servers and the central repository of IP addresses. 

It focuses on managing identifiers, or the internet’s unique identifiers (names and addresses), that allow us to locate websites on the internet. Still, ICANN doesn’t control the content on those domains, so it cannot control people’s internet access, nor can it stop spam or malware. 

That said, ICANN organizes the domain name system and the allocation of addresses while keeping the internet secure and open.

Such a centralized authority is necessary as it enables us to locate websites and keep devices connected easily. To put it simply, ICANN coordinates the global internet.

This is, of course, the grand picture, but what does it mean for you and your website? Why do you need to understand what ICANN is? Well, ICANN plays an essential role in the existence of IP addresses, the DNS and domain names, three things essential when running a website.

ICANN and DNS

The Domain Name System manages domain names – names we use to access websites. That’s why the DNS is crucial in helping us remember an address and making the internet accessible to everyone. 

Domain names are used instead of IP addresses for the simple reason that it would be difficult for individual internet users to remember strings of numbers that could contain up to 32 digits.

The DNS converts IP addresses into letters, which is how we get the names. Once the conversion is complete, you can quickly locate a website using its domain name. But behind the scenes, computers keep using IP addresses to communicate with each other. 

Domain Name System
Domain Name System

The DNS also enables us to easily change domains and IP addresses, ensuring domains aren’t tied to a single device. It features a very flexible infrastructure, so that whenever a change occurs, the entire internet recognizes it in less than 48 hours.

So, what does ICANN do here? It manages domain name registrars – services that allow you to purchase a domain name. In other words, ICANN organizes the entire system and helps us easily find and access any website on the web.

ICANN and IP addresses

An IP address consists of simple strings of numbers used as an address on the web. Computers and other devices use IPs to:

  • Find each other
  • View and alter content and information

IPs are, effectively, like regular addresses in the physical world. They are essential because, without them, we wouldn’t be able to find anything online

ICANN’s role here is crucial. The organization keeps and manages the entire repository of IP addresses. It covers the entire globe that’s divided into five geographical regions, known as the Regional Internet Registries (RIRs):

  • The American Registry for Internet Numbers (ARIN) covers the US, Canada and some of the Caribbean Islands
  • The Latin America and Caribbean Network Information Centre (LACNIC) covers South America, Mexico and some of the Caribbean Islands
  • The Réseaux IP Européens Network Coordination Centre (RIPE NCC) covers Europe, Greenland, Central Asia and the Middle East
  • The African Network Information Centre (AFRINIC) covers the continent of Africa
  • The Asia Pacific Network Information Centre (APNIC) covers East Asia, the Indian subcontinent as well as the entire Pacific region

Each RIR is responsible for managing domain registrations and addresses for its region. ICANN uses IANA, or the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, to coordinate all IP addressing systems and Autonomous System Numbers. IANA functions as the system’s administrator that ensures every IP address is unique, but it doesn’t own the entire system.

Five Regional Internet Registries
Five Regional Internet Registries

ICANN and domain names

We pretty much covered what domain names are and how they allow us to locate particular websites more quickly than when using IP addresses. One more thing to note is that each domain name comprises two main elements:

  • Second-level domain (SLD)
  • Top-level domain (TLD

SLD is the part that comes before the dot in a specific URL or web address. This is the actual name of the website internet users recognize. For example, the SLD of google.com is google.

TLD is the part that comes after the dot in a URL. Some of the most popular TLDs are .com, .net and .org. There are also country-sponsored TLDs used by national governments, like .gov, and unique country code TLDs like .us for the United States or .fr for France. A single registry handles domains for every particular TLD.

SLD (google) and TLD (.com) of a domain name
SLD (google) and TLD (.com) of a domain name

ICANN manages SLDs and TLDs, which is why most domain name services or domain registrars that facilitate the domain name registration process seek to join the ICANN accreditation system. This puts them on the list of verified domain name registries, which you can find on the official ICANN website. 

You should always choose a domain registrar from this list when registering a domain, as these registrars meet ICANN’s standards. 

DNS is administered through a hierarchy of specific managed areas, also known as root zones. Root servers are the nameservers that operate in every root zone. They answer queries within the zone while also delegating requests to specific TLDs. 

There are 13 root servers, and they act as the base for all sites on the web. 

These servers are rarely consulted because computers within a network don’t need to check if addresses have changed in a specific TLD constantly. However, root servers are still vital if we want the internet to continue operating as well as it does. 

The authority behind this DNS root server system is the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). It has the responsibility to delegate the management of each root zone to ICANN. In turn, ICANN operates one of the 13 servers and assigns control over the rest to various organizations.

How is ICANN structured?

ICANN works along with several supporting organizations, and each represents a specific section of the web. There are three supporting organizations:

  • The Generic Names Supporting Organization (GNSO) deals with generic TLDs
  • The Country Code Names Supporting Organization (CCNSO) deals with country-code TLDs
  • The Address Supporting Organization (ASO) deals with IP addresses

ICANN also consists of four committee teams that advise the organization. These advisory committees represent:

  • Root server operators
  • Governments and international treaty organizations
  • Internet privacy and security-related entities
  • The internet community or, in other words, the individual users

The ICANN structure also includes the Technical Liaison Group that cooperates with organizations creating basic protocols for internet technologies. 

Despite this complicated structure, the Board of Directors makes the final decisions. The ICANN board has 21 members, but only 15 board members have voting rights, while the other six act as liaisons. An independent nominating committee chooses eight voting members, while the supporting organizations choose the other seven. 

ICANN also has a President and CEO who leads the numerous ICANN staff members located worldwide. The current president, Göran Marby, was appointed to the position in 2016.

The structure of ICANN
The structure of ICANN

ICANN’s decision making

ICANN organizes the internet, which is why the decision-making process is quite complicated. 

Supporting organizations can suggest changes to any of the advisory committees. The committees have to discuss these changes or complaints and release a report to the public. If the changes affect another group within the ICANN hierarchy, they have the opportunity to voice their opinions, which are also public. 

Once everything is ready, the Board of Directors reviews a single report from these reviews and recommendations. The Board can then approve or deny some or all of the changes. 

If the Board denies a change, the report goes back to the supporting organizations to make further changes. This can result in a little bit of back and forth until everyone agrees and the organization can make the changes. 

ICANN’s accountability

Since ICANN’s work is so important, the organization must be accountable both internally and externally. 

Internally, ICANN has to answer to its own bylaws, an independent review panel, dispute resolution procedures, an ombudsman, the global board, an independent nominating advisory committee, senior staff members and a board reconsideration committee. 

Externally, ICANN has to abide by the law of the State of California and, consequently, the judicial system of the United States. The organization also has to respect corporate law since it operates as a non-profit. 

ICANN, registries and registrars

ICANN cannot possibly supervise the constant registration and re-registration of domain names throughout the world. That’s why it accredits specific domain name registrars. These independent organizations and companies allow you to purchase and register a particular domain name. 

If you register a name with one of these accredited registrars, that name will automatically enter the domain name registry or the database of top-level domain names. This information then reaches the centralized registry database.

Another vital part of this system is the Network Information Center (NIC), also known as the registry operator. There are many operators, and each one is responsible for converting domain names into IP addresses for their specific TLDs. 

Conclusion

ICANN maintains and keeps the internet operating in the way we are all accustomed to. And, as you now know, its role is pivotal for the smooth operation of your own website and every other website online. 

Without ICANN’s contribution, the internet as a whole would be entirely different. If it stopped coordinating the supply of IP addresses or managing the domain name system and root servers today, the world as we know it would fall into chaos.