US Gov't Extends Oversight of ICANN

In an opening statement of testimony delivered today to the Senate Commerce Committee, Dr. John Twomey, the president and CEO of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) stated (in prepared remarks submitted in writing) that it has entered into a five-year extension of its current agreement to let the U.S. Dept. of Commerce oversee its operations.

The move signals the completion of the U.S. government's about-face in its stance regarding whether the public or private sector should manage the system that assigns and maps the world's Internet domain names, delegating the authority for registering names to other firms.

ICANN is officially a private entity, but since 1998, has continued operation under an agreement with the federal government that they would work in tandem to develop and implement the Internet network identification system, applying principles of fairness and objectivity toward all parties, before the government bows out of the process.

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That bowing out was supposed to happen in September 2001, and at first, the Commerce Dept. appeared willing and ready to get out of the Internet's way. But with each September that passed until 2003, the two parties' "Memorandum of Understanding" was extended by another year.

In 2003, the two entered into a three-year extension, during which time ICANN was supposedly commissioned by the DOC to "develop a strategic plan that sets forth its goals for securing long-term sustainability of critical DNS management responsibilities, including the necessary corporate structure and financial and personnel resources necessary to meet such responsibilities," according to the extension agreement.

"The expectation of the Department," said Acting Assistant Secretary of Commerce John Kneuer, in his testimony before the Committee today, "was that the three-year time frame would allow ICANN sufficient opportunity to formalize appropriate relationships with the organizations that form the technical underpinnings of the Internet, secure the necessary resources to ensure its long-term independence, improve its mechanisms for broad participation by all Internet stakeholders, and continue to improve its decision-making processes."

But the fact that the Commerce Dept. wasn't directly involved in this planning process, Kneuer carefully implied, is the reason it wasn't done in time. Furthermore, a request for comments from the private sector regarding how best to effectuate the transition toward private autonomy for ICANN resulted in comments from 700 organizations, the details of which, Kneuer just as carefully implied, may actually require five more years to scrutinize.

Part of the problem, as some corporations have alleged over the years, may lie in the very fact that bestowing such critical authority over digital communications to any one private entity may by definition hinder the independence of that entity. Such has been the argument made by .COM and .NET registrar VeriSign, which in 2004 sued ICANN in an antitrust case that was dismissed by a federal judge.

In an extremely carefully worded statement before the Commerce Committee today, VeriSign Chief Security Officer Ken Silva stated ICANN has made some evolutionary progress toward the independence the government at least says it seeks.

"At the heart of the question is ICANN's independence and what that means for the core infrastructure of the Internet," Silva said. "ICANN has taken steps, through its registry agreements, to become more financially independent. Under the old model, one industry controlled ICANN's budget and that was an unhealthy system. ICANN has taken steps to get additional funding from the registries without conditions, which means it will have more independence."

Strangely, ICANN's Dr. Twomey concluded his opening remarks without exactly spelling out how it intends to make good on its pledge, or whether a pledge still exists. He did state ICANN continues ongoing negotiations with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, an agency of the executive branch, for extending its ongoing relationship there, but left open the question of whether it would continue for five more years or possibly longer.

"ICANN is committed to its continuing role as the private sector steward of a stable and globally interoperable Internet," Dr. Twomey stated, "and is committed to fostering competition in the domain name marketplace."

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