US gov't, ICANN declare joint agreement concluded, international era begins

The US Dept. of Commerce will no longer have a direct oversight role over the independent corporation responsible for maintaining the Internet's domain name system (DNS) and top-level domain (TLD) registry. This announcement came from ICANN on the very day -- essentially, the last minute -- of the Commerce Dept.'s official oversight of the group.

Under the terms of an Affirmation of Commitments document released by ICANN today, the United States will maintain a seat on ICANN's Government Advisory Committee, an 109-member league of nations, not all of which actively participate. But that's it. The periodic review process for accountability that ICANN underwent since its establishment by the DOC in 1998, will now shift to what new ICANN CEO Rod Beckstrom describes as "an international committee of parties chosen by the chairman of our Governmental Advisory Committee."

As today's Affirmation of Commitments reads, "DOC affirms its commitment to a multi-stakeholder, private sector led, bottom-up policy development model for DNS technical coordination that acts for the benefit of global Internet users. A private coordinating process, the outcomes of which reflect the public interest, is best able to flexibly meet the changing needs of the Internet and of Internet users."

What exactly is a "stakeholder?" Since Beckstrom's appointment to the ICANN CEO post last June, that term has been used rather loosely, referring in general to any private institution that has invested resources in the Internet, plus any government whose citizens tend to use the Internet. But the new Affirmation now defines the term even more loosely than that: as anyone, even an individual, who tends to care more about the Internet than the average person, and who therefore makes some everyday contact with a product of ICANN -- such as the domain name system itself.

"ICANN and DOC recognize that there is a group of participants that engage in ICANN's processes to a greater extent than Internet users generally," reads the Affirmation.

From there, ICANN and the DOC agree to disagree on one very big issue: the creation of internationalized, generic top-level domains (gTLD). Beckstrom voiced his support for this concept from the very beginning, which led to members of Congress issuing a warning to the Commerce Secretary that such a plan could lead to a chaotic new regime for TLDs having nothing to do with deference to non-English languages. Paraphrasing congresspersons' illustrations, a refrigerator repairperson could register his domain under "FixMyFridge.refrigerator," while a completely separate service could register "FixMyFridge.repair." Or one service, in an effort to spread its name over as many slots as possible, could register both, along with "FixMyFridge.fridge," "FixMyFridge.please," and "FixMyFridge.JessicaBiel."

To avert such a situation, the House Energy and Commerce Committee, led by Henry Waxman (D - Calif.), suggested to Sec. Gary Locke that his department extend its existing joint project agreement, perhaps for another three-year period.

That did not happen, although both the Affirmation statement and Beckstrom's comments today made it apparent that he doesn't exactly want this kind of chaos either. The Affirmation promised only to begin pursuing the adoption of gTLDs once "security, stability and resiliency issues are first addressed."

"In addition to the Affirmation agreement, we're moving towards fully supporting different scripts and languages in domain names, and these two efforts will tie together very nicely," Beckstrom said in an ICANN video released today. "But the Internet's becoming more global because today you have to type dot com or a dot extension that has English-like or Latin characters, what we call ASCII. In the near future -- next year -- we'll be rolling out Chinese, Russian, and different languages."

ICANN's move was welcomed warmly by European Commissioner Viviane Reding, whose purview includes the Internet and the "digital society." "Since 2005, the European Commission has repeatedly called for reform of the governance of the internet's key global resources. This is necessary to ensure important public policy objectives such as freedom of expression and facilitating stable business transactions online," reads a statement from Comm. Reding this afternoon. "The European Commission is strongly committed to accompany and support the implementation of the reforms announced today, in close cooperation with the EU's 27 Member States."

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