Internet Management Nears Independence

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BRUSSELS -- The European Commission today welcomed moves in the U.S. to free ICANN, the Internet domain name manager, from its historic ties to the U.S. government.

The Commerce Department will retain its oversight of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) for three more years under a new agreement that took effect at the beginning of October. The previous agreement expired over the weekend.

The new agreement grants ICANN more freedom from U.S. government involvement, but stops short of full privatization, which many in the Internet industry want.

Moving Toward Autonomy

European Commission spokesperson Martin Selmayr said the Commerce Department had given "clear indications that this three-year agreement between ICANN and the U.S. government would be the last."

"This is good news. Last year there were doubts about whether the U.S. would privatize ICANN," Selmayr said.

The new agreement, which runs until 2009, is subject to a review in 18 months. If in the review the Commerce Department concludes that ICANN is sufficiently stable, transparent, and accountable, it could decide to grant the nonprofit organization full autonomy immediately, the Commerce Department said in a statement Friday.

In addition to promising full autonomy, the U.S. government has shaped the new three-year agreement to help pave the way toward independence. From now on ICANN will determine how it works and what it works on, according to a statement from ICANN.

It will no longer have to submit half-yearly progress reports to the Commerce Department. Instead it will publish an annual progress report on the Internet for everyone to see.

Stifling the Net?

Many observers argue that U.S. government involvement in ICANN is slowing the international development of the Internet, and should be ended without delay. Others warn that ICANN isn't ready to fend for itself.

They believe the organization hasn't yet proven that it can handle the entire task of domain name management alone, and if the government withdraws now this could compromise security and stability of the Internet.

The management change occurred by modifying the memorandum of understanding that has been in place between ICANN and the Commerce Department since 1998. An IAANN statement called it a "dramatic step" toward full autonomy.

"We do have a new agreement, but it's a much lighter one and it does show there's clearly light at the end of this tunnel" toward full autonomy, said Paul Twomey, ICANN's president and CEO, during a press conference.

Accountability Urged

The Commerce Department will still help ICANN achieve greater transparency and accountability in how it evaluates and adopts policies, the government agency said. In addition, the Commerce Department said it will continue its oversight of the security and operation of root name servers.

"I'm very comfortable with where we are at this point, yet eager to get on with the remaining steps that will allow us to function without any additional assistance," said Vint Cerf, who chairs ICANN's board.

The Commerce Department remains committed toward eventually giving ICANN full autonomy, a department statement said.

ICANN is a private, nonprofit organization based in California.

When the Commerce Department held a July hearing on the matter and called for written comments, it received about 700 of them. On Friday, the agency said that consultation process revealed broad support for continuing the transition towards a fully autonomous ICANN but with the Commerce Department's continued involvement.

ICANN's role was also the topic of heated discussion at the World Summit on the Information Society last fall.

Juan Carlos Perez of the IDG News Service contributed to this report.

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