WEB STRATEGIES — Internet governance

New U.S.-ICANN pact takes step foward to Internet emancipation

The new agreement between the Commerce Department and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is being greeted as a major step away from U.S. stewardship of the Internet, but it does not eliminate this country’s “special role” in Internet governance.

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“The United States retains a steward’s role” in the Internet, but it also recognizes the importance of international cooperation in meeting the needs of all Internet users, said John Kneur, former administrator of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the architect for the previous agreement under which ICANN ran the Internet’s domain name and addressing system.

The new agreement, an Affirmation of Commitments between Commerce and ICANN signed Sept. 30, recognizes that ICANN will continue to “evolve and adapt to fulfill its limited, but important technical mission of coordinating the DNS.” The open-ended agreement itself is expected to evolve over time.

Experts made observations about the Affirmation of Commitments on Thursday during a briefing for congressional staffers held by the Advisory Committee to the Congressional Internet Caucus.

The five-page document that went into effect Thursday calls for ICANN to:

  • Ensure accountability and transparency and protect the interests of global Internet users;
  • Preserve the security, stability and resiliency of the Internet;
  • Promote competition, consumer trust, and consumer choice;
  • Keep the Internet transparent by maintaining existing policies of keeping WHOIS information available.

The agreement calls for review teams to regularly examine ICANN’s performance in these four areas in staggered reviews, making their findings and recommendations public. Although the recommendations are not binding, ICANN must respond to them within six months. The agreement also calls for ICANN to specifically assess the role and effectiveness of the Governmental Advisory Committee, the vehicle through which national governments provide input.

One of the quickest changes users might see under the new agreement could be the addition of new country code Top Level Domains, such as .US and .UK, in foreign alphabets or scripts. In the agreement, “DOC recognizes the importance of global Internet users being able to use the Internet in their local languages and character sets, and endorses the rapid introduction of internationalized country code Top Level Domains,” as long as the process does not undermine security.

Observers predicted that ccTLDs in foreign alphabets could appear in the DNS root as early as this year.

ICANN is a not-for-profit company based in California and formed in 1998 to assume some Internet governance tasks previously performed by the NTIA or other organizations such as the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority on behalf of the U.S. government. The government originally developed and ran the Internet, but as it grew and became an international utility the decision was made to gradually privatize its management. ICANN began its work under a Memorandum of Understanding with DOC in 1998, which was extended for three years in 2006 under a Joint Program Agreement that expired Sept. 30, 2009.

Although some observers felt the Joint Program Agreement should be extended to allow ICANN a chance to mature and grow into its role, International resentment over the continued special role of the United States threatened to splinter the Internet. The former agreement was allowed to expire and was replaced by the Affirmation. Although the agreement “is intended to be long-standing” and has no expiration date, it can be terminated by either party with 120 days' notice

Brenden Kuerbis, who heads Syracuse University’s Internet Governance project, called the affirmation a step in the right direction.

“It is a step away from the U.S. unilateral oversight role,” he said. “We are optimistic about it. But it is a set of guidelines that still need to be implemented.”

Despite optimism for the affirmation, questions remain about the accountability and transparency of ICANN decisions and the independence of the review boards that will evaluate them, the effectiveness of the Governmental Advisory Committee, and about the proper role of DOC and Congress in overseeing the Internet. Although the United States no longer has an exclusive role in Internet governance, it retains a pre-eminent position, and ICANN continues to hold its authority through its agreement with DOC and not independently.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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