It is much easier for Internet users to access websites by simply typing the domain name of the website (such as www.google.com), instead of the associated IP number (184.108.40.206 - try searching for it from your browser as if it were a URL!).
Simply put, the DNS is the system that converts domain names into Internet Protocol (IP) numbers, and vice versa. From an infrastrastructure point of view, the DNS consists of root servers, top-level domain (TLD) servers, and a large number of DNS servers located around the world.
Different types of top-level domains form part of the DNS, including generic top-level domains (gTLD) - such as .com, .net, .org, .pub, and .ngo - and country code top-level domains (ccTLD) - such as .uk for the United Kingdom, .cn for China, and .br for Brazil. Until a few years ago, only 22 gTLDs had existed. In 2012, after six years of consultations, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) launched the New gTLD Program, opening up the DNS beyond the 22 gTLDs. Internationalised domain names (IDNs) have also been introduced in recent years. For example, in China, 中国 has been introduced in addition to .cn, while in Russia, рф has been introduced in addition to .ru. IDNs are also part of ICANN’s new gTLD programme; for example, .сайт (website) and .онлайн (online).
How is the DNS managed? Since its creation in 1998 up until 1 October 2016, ICANN managed the DNS on a contract basis with the US government, through the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). Abiding by this contract, the US government acted as the steward of the DNS, as every major change made within the system (such as the approval of a new gTLD) required its formal validation.
In March 2014, NTIA announced its intention to transition this stewardship role to the global multistakeholder community. As requested by NTIA, ICANN launched a process for the development of a transition proposal. At the same time, work began on elaborating a set of recommendations to enhance ICANN’s accountability towards the Internet community (seen as a necessary step in the context of the transition). The work carried out by the ICANN community resulted in transition and accountability proposals, which were both accepted by the US government in June 2016.
On 1 October 2016, the IANA functions contract between the US government and ICANN expired, and the stewardship of the IANA functions was transitioned to the global multistakeholder community. In practical terms, the transition meant two major changes within ICANN: (1) the establishment of PTI as the IANA functions operator and, therefore, a more clear separation between ICANN’s technical and policymaking functions; (2) the creation of an ‘empowered community’ – mostly made up of ICANN’s advisory committees and supporting organisations – that is able to enforce a set of community powers, such as removing members of the ICANN Board and rejecting ICANN budgets or changes to ICANN bylaws.
How are domains managed? Each gTLD and ccTLD is managed by a registry, whose main responsibility is to maintain and administer a database with all registered domain names. For example, .com is managed by VeriSign, while .uk is managed by Nominet. The actual registration of domain names, by end users (called registrants) is performed though registrars. In the case of gTLDs, the registry and registrar functions are clearly separated. For some ccTLDs, the registry can also act as registrar.
Can anyone register a domain name? Yes, most gTLDs have an open registration policy, allowing the registration of domain names by any interested individual or entity. Yet, there are several gTLDs that are restricted to specific groups. For example, only authorised banking institutions can register domain names under .bank.
Regarding ccTLDs, IANA uses the principle of allocating domain names in accordance with the ISO 3166 standard for country codes. In many countries, the registry functions are then performed by public entities, private companies, or multistakeholder structures.
However, unlike the case of gTLDs, ICANN imposes no rules as to who could and how should a ccTLD be managed. ICANN goes only as far as delegating or re-delegating ccTLDs on the basis of high-level guidelines aimed at ensuring that the ccTLD registry is technically competent enough to manage it, and has support from the local community. In 2005, ICANN’s GAC adopted a set of Principles and Guidelines for the delegation and administration of country code top level domains, intended to serve as a guide to the relationship between governments, ccTLDs, and ICANN. Although some ccTLD registries (e.g. Brazil, Chile, Netherlands) have concluded some type of agreements with ICANN, and many registries are represented in ICANN’s Country Code Names Supporting Organization (ccNSO), there are several ccTLDs that have shown reluctance to become part of the ICANN system.