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ICANN free in two years

Government oversight? What government oversight!

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Internet overseeing organisation ICANN will become an autonomous body, free from any form of government control, on 1 October 2008, if plans drawn up between it and the US government go according to plan.

The current agreement between ICANN and the US Department of Commerce (DoC) is due to expire next week, but speculation has been mounting for months over what will happen to management of the internet's vital domain name system (DNS).

The US government official in charge of the agreement, Assistant Secretary John Kneuer made clear in a Senate hearing on Wednesday that the "memorandum of understanding" (MoU) between it and ICANN would be extended on 30 September, but refused to give any more details.

A second Senate meeting in Washington yesterday saw more details leak out, although both Kneuer and ICANN CEO Paul Twomey remain tight-lipped. It is now expected that the new MoU will last two years, although both parties stressed that discussions were still ongoing and the decision was not finalised.

More signficantly however, at the end of that agreement, the expectation is that ICANN will finally become an autonomous body, 10 years after it was first created and eight since it was supposed to break free from government control. The issue of control over ICANN has become a topic of international controversy because of the US government's failure to stick to a promise to remove itself from ICANN's structure.

International anger

With the internet now a global resource, opposition to US control has gradually built up, culminating in weeks of intense diplomatic discussion just prior to a World Summit on the Information Society in November. The outcome of those talks was the retention of the ICANN/DoC model but since then, tension has never been far from the surface. Evidence that the Bush Administration had interfered with ICANN's processes to prevent the creation of a new .xxx top-level domain was the final straw for many. Also, the unresolved issue of control risked destabilising vital international discussions over other, wider internet issues such as spam, access and security.

Domestic US feeling is hard-set against suggestions that ICANN be pulled into the United Nations. A compromise solution proposed by the EU that would see a flexible and lightweight governmental body take over the US government's role was rejected in Geneva a year ago. Nonetheless, that EU model has taken root in most people's minds as the end game if the singular internet system or "root" isn't to fracture across national borders. Such a split would effectively destroying the internet's greatest asset - interconnection.

The DoC and ICANN will try to avoid handing over any oversight power to governments by giving a larger role to the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC) within ICANN and then allow the organisation to become autonomous at the expiration of the new MoU.

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