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US government told to take its hands off internet

Request for comments produces stark results

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The United States government has been told to end its oversight role of the internet during its own consultation exercise over the future of net governance.

In a stark result, over 87 percent of those that commented on the US's continued control of the internet's hierachy said that it was time for it to transition toward a new, more international model. The company that the consultation was designed to review - not-for-profit overseeing organisation ICANN - fared little better, with nearly two-thirds of comments coming down against it.

The results will be a wake-up call to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) - the arm of the US government that carried out the consultation prior to the ending of its contract with ICANN on 30 September. The NTIA had quietly announced a notice of inquiry at the end of May in which it asked the public to respond to a number of questions it had over the future of ICANN's role as technical overseeing body for the internet.

In the end, the NTIA was swamped with emails and took a week after the deadline had ended to post all the comments received. Just over half of the 632 comments finally received (discounting multiple emails) were not relevant to the inquiry itself, with 153 concerning themselves with the hot political issue of net neutrality in the US at the moment, and a further 174 making broad and often unhelpful comments along the lines of "keep the net free!" and "let the internet the way it is".

However, of the remaining 305 comments, nearly two-thirds (197) explicitly stated that the US government should review its own position as ultimate head of the net (with a further nine saying so as a secondary point), compared to 26 that supported its role (and four supporting it as a secondary point). There were a variety of suggestions over how the USG could transition its role to a new body but a broad consensus was reached that it should not be a United Nations body but one outside of existing organisations, capable of moving faster with greater flexibility.

Academia

Half of the comments critical of the USG repeated the same message as devised by an organisation called the Internet Governance Project (IGP), run by noted net academic Milton Mueller. The IGP had produced a simple two-paragraph response to the inquiry which was then used by a large number of people within the US and outside to make a single point.

It read: "The Internet's value is created by the participation and cooperation of people all over the world. The Internet is global, not national. Therefore no single Government should have a pre-eminent role in Internet governance.

"As the US reviews its contract with ICANN, it should work cooperatively with all stakeholders to complete the transition to a Domain Name System independent of US governmental control."

Many of the comments went into great depth about the successes and failures of ICANN as an organisation since its inception in 1998 and while the vast majority accepted that the contract with ICANN will be renewed by the US government, there were still strong words of criticism.

There was almost unanimous agreement that the area where ICANN had failed most was in realising the "private, bottom-up coordination" aspect of its role. The organisation remains too secretive and does not take into sufficient account the views and wishes of everyday internet users and companies, a very large number of comments pointed out.

Controversy

The most controversial issues were the proposed .xxx domain (which elicited two comments solely about the saga) and the renewal of the dotcom contract. Difficulties with the domain name system itself formed the lead point of eight comments and a further four concentrated on the issue of Whois.

In total, forty-four comments were openly critical of ICANN, and a further eight criticised the organisation as a secondary point in their comments. On the other side, 24 comments supported ICANN, saying it had done a good job, with a further six comments providing support as a secondary point.

There was however a broad consensus that ICANN should remain in its position for the time being, and be held under the auspices of either the US government or an international organisation until such a time as it had solved its existing problems.

ICANN itself did not respond to the inquiry, having decided to run its own parallel consultation, but there are clear signs that CEO Paul Twomey is already aware of the feeling held against his organisation. Several new members of staff have been recruited to improve ICANN's communication with other stakeholders and encourage greater public participation.

It remains to be seen how the United States government will react to an overwhelming call for its to end its role as head of the internet. It will hold a public meeting in Washington on 26 July where the comments will be discussed. ®

For a more detailed rundown of the comments go here.

Related links

The full list of comments
NTIA's notice of inquiry

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