ICANN Seals 3-Year Deal with US Gov't

Putting the final touches on a deal announced last week, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers -- the company that delegates authority for the IP address scheme and namespace -- formally unveiled today a three-year extension of its current agreement with the US Dept. of Commerce.

Last week, ICANN CEO Dr. Paul Twomey announced during testimony before Congress that it had entered into a five-year extension with the government, with the terms to be announced later. Evidently, the terms of that agreement had since been modified.

The new agreement strikes much of the old language in the existing Memorandum of Understanding between the two entities, replacing it with language that appears to reduce the role of government in ICANN, without eliminating it altogether.

The end goal remains the eventual transition of ICANN into a fully private entity, which the government seemed eager to do just a few years ago. But with each new agreement since 1998, that day seems to get pushed forward.

"The Department reaffirms its policy goal of transitioning the technical coordination of the DNS to the private sector," reads the new language of the Memorandum, "in a manner that promotes stability and security, competition, bottom-up coordination, and representation." To that end, the DOC will now serve as more of a consultative and monitoring authority, that will "provide expertise and advice on methods and administrative procedures" with regard to how ICANN affairs can be more transparent, and how its staffers can be more accountable.

But gone is the language that stipulated to whom they're accountable. Under the original Memorandum, both parties were to jointly develop the methods for building the Internet's infrastructure. Language left standing in the Memorandum continues to state that the parties have mutual interest in seeing that future management of the domain name system (DNS) uphold certain principles.

However, the section that enumerated those principles has been stricken from the new Memorandum, replaced by a section that lists them ("security, competition, bottom-up coordination, and representation") without defining them.

Instead, the new section makes reference to an entirely new document called the "Affirmation of Responsibilities for ICANN's Private Sector Management," which looks more and more like the foundation for a set of private corporate bylaws.

Among the ten responsibilities listed by the Affirmation, "Accountability" is defined thus: "ICANN shall continue to develop, test, maintain, and improve on accountability mechanisms to be responsive to global Internet stakeholders in the consideration and adoption of policies related to the technical coordination of the Internet DNS..."

Specific mention of the US Government is absent from this new language, though under "Role of Governments," the Affirmation does say it will continue to work with members of the Government Advisory Committee - which may include the DOC - on matters of public policy. The Affirmation also says it will continue to work on the "multi-stakeholder model," which some say describes the notion that those entities with stakes in the Internet's physical foundation should have proportional stakes in its virtual foundation, such as its namespace.

"ICANN will no longer have its work prescribed for it," reads a press statement from ICANN this morning. "How it works and what it works on is up to ICANN and its community to devise."

The issue of ICANN oversight has been a difficult one to which demons could be easily attached, thus, its role as a political issue has become murkier over the years. Initial calls for ICANN's complete release into the wild unknown of private enterprise has been subsided in the wake of growing public opposition to the notion of consolidated private interests having a stake in the public Internet.

Yet the alternative -- continued government oversight -- is not something which attracts that many fans on its own. So today's agreement may just be the best middle ground that the Dept. of Commerce and ICANN could possibly devise.

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