U.S. Still Controls ICANN — For Now

Steve Javors
WASHINGTON — In a landmark hearing on Wednesday that will go down as one of the most important in the Internet’s history, the U.S. has agreed to eventually cede control of ICANN, the Internet’s regulatory body. However, no timetable for the transition was announced.

The announcement was extremely significant because the U.S. has always considered itself the ultimate authority over the Internet. This is the first time it has publicly admitted that ICANN needs to have more international input, and that it was no longer feasible for one government to retain sole control of the global property.

Operating under a memorandum of understanding with the National Telecommunications and Information Agency (NTIA), a division of the Department of Commerce, ICANN was created in 1998 to operate the root DNS system. This system translates URLs into a string of numbers that computers can read.

Under the initial agreement, the U.S. was supposed to cede private control over ICANN in 2000, but the MOU has been been extended five times. The current MOU expires Sept. 30.

“It’s extremely likely there will be a renewal of the MOU,” David McGuire, of the Center for Democracy and Technology, told InternetNews.com. “All envision ICANN to be independent someday, so it’s not shocking that someday that will happen. It is clear now that the original timetable established for ICANN was overly ambitious.”

McGuire added that nine years later, questions remain about how well ICANN has met initial goals, and the U.S. government retains an increasingly controversial oversight role in the ICANN process.

Controversy about ICANN’s role as steward of the Internet reached fever pitch last summer when the United Nations’ Working Group on Internet Governance asserted that, no single government should have a pre-eminent role in relation to international Internet governance.

The boiling point came in May when the European Commission criticized U.S. officials for “political interference” in the death of .XXX, the failed top-level-domain for adult websites.

Many Internet analysts are hoping that ICANN stays under U.S. control until it can operate as its own entity. The MOU has been previously extended because ICANN did not meet certain performance standards.

McGuire pointed out during the hearing on Wednesday that ICANN has succeeded in two important issues, namely, stabilizing the DNS registry system and providing and promoting robust competition among domain name providers; but has failed in operating transparently and establishing direct public representation after a bid to hold global elections failed.

Steve DelBianco, director of Washington-based policy group The NetChoice Coalition also brings up the important point that ICANN should be strong enough and have mechanisms in place to stand on its own two feet, so when privatization does occur, it’s not taken over by a foreign government.