U.S. relationship with ICANN may not end

A longtime agreement in which the U.S. Department of Commerce has maintained oversight of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is due to expire Wednesday, but that may not be the end of the relationship.

While ICANN isn't talking, some observers expect a new type of agreement to be announced as soon as Wednesday, with the U.S. government sharing oversight of the nonprofit organization that controls the Internet's domain name system with other countries. This new type of agreement would allow ICANN to become more independent while addressing concerns from several other countries that the U.S. has too much control over ICANN, said Michael Palage, a former ICANN board member.

The new agreement would create several oversight boards, with international representation, Palage said. The Economist magazine reported last week that a new agreement, called an affirmation of commitments, will replace the pact between the U.S. government and ICANN. The Commerce Department and ICANN have operated under a series of agreements laying out expectations for the nonprofit since November 1998.

The new agreement "will tell them what it should do, but it can't legally bind them," much like past agreements, said Palage, now a senior fellow at the Progress and Freedom Foundation, a conservative think tank. "It gives the appearance in the global community that the U.S. government has recognized that ICANN has done what it was supposed to do. What it's also doing is ... it's putting in some accountability mechanisms."

Palage hasn't heard all the details about the new agreement, including how people will be appointed to the new oversight panels. He's also concerned about whether private entities will have the same representation as governments. While not perfect, the new agreement being talked about would be an improvement over the existing agreement, he said.

"Now while the devil will be in the detail, the only concern I have is that the private sector be on equal footing with the public sector in being able to hold ICANN accountable," he said. "If ICANN is to remain a public-private partnership that is founded on the principles of openness, transparency, inclusiveness, accountability and bottom-up coordination, then both the private and public sectors should have equal confidence in the accountability mechanism available to them."

Under the latest agreement between the Commerce Department and ICANN, the nonprofit reaffirmed its commitment to maintaining the security and stability of the domain name system, or DNS. ICANN also promised to stick to the principles of competition, bottom-up coordination and representation.

Many critics of ICANN have complained in recent years that the organization has moved forward with plans to expand services without widespread agreement. In particular, ICANN's board in June 2008 voted to allow an unlimited number of new generic top-level domains, such as .food or .basketball, but trademark owners have complained that new gTLDs would force them to register many new Web sites to protect their brands.

Last week, several members of a U.S. Congress subcommittee urged ICANN to back off the gTLD plan until concerns could be resolved.

Asked this week about what happens after the current agreement expires, an ICANN spokeswoman said the Commerce Department has asked ICANN officials not to comment until Wednesday.

A representative of Viviane Reding, the European commissioner in charge of the information society and the telecom industry, also declined to comment until "the situation in the U.S. has been officially confirmed." Reding has called for more international oversight of ICANN.

But Steve DelBianco, executive director of NetChoice, an e-commerce trade group, said he expects a "new formal review process looking at security, consumer trust, and the interests of global Internet users."

DelBianco expects that government and private stakeholders will be represented in the new review process, he said.

"Prodded by public comments and encouragement from Congress, I’d expect to see a new arrangement that delivers what the global Internet community has wanted: an independent ICANN that preserves private-sector leadership with increased accountability to its core mission," he said. "The tricky part is how to give governments a well-defined role while preserving ICANN’s private-sector orientation."

An important part of the oversight going forward will likely be on cybersecurity, added DelBianco, a critic of ICANN's gTLD plan. "I'd expect to see explicit accountability for ICANN to make sure the DNS stays up 24-7 and around the world, even as we see increased cyber attacks and a significant expansion of top-level domains," he said.

Heather Greenfield, a spokeswoman for the Computer and Communications Industry Association (CCIA), said the trade group expects the U.S. government to stay involved in ICANN. CCIA has also heard that oversight panels, involving the international community, will provide ICANN oversight going forward, she said.

"We expect ICANN will retain some type of long-term relationship with the United States, while expanding the involvement of other countries," she added. "Ahead of this agreement ending, ICANN has been making a real effort to respond to past criticism about not being transparent enough."

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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