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US government steps back from internet control

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Analysis The US government has taken a step back from control of the internet with a new contract between it and overseeing organisation ICANN that came into effect yesterday.

The three-year contract, with an apparently significant halfway review point, has been heralded by both ICANN and the Department of Commerce as a sign that the US government has listened to worldwide criticism of its continued oversight role and has responded by providing ICANN with a new degree of autonomy.

However, experts disagree, with one calling it "old wine in a new bottle", and another barely concealing his frustration with an administration that promised eight years ago it would end its role but now has decided "we will have to wait another three years, at a minimum".

There are some significant changes in the new contract, reflected in a new name for it: it is no longer a "memorandum of understanding" but a "joint project agreement". The US government has pulled out its prescribed list of actions that ICANN has to meet before it is given autonomy - something that has been continually refreshed since 1998 and was universally criticised as a compliance merry-go-round.

Instead, the requirements that ICANN needs to achieve before being granted freedom come in the form of an "Affirmation of Responsibilities" that was approved by the ICANN board. This list was produced by the US government and handed to the ICANN board for approval.

Most controversially, it includes the blinkered approach to "whois" data that US organisations have lobbied so hard in Washington for, but which the wider internet community disagrees with. But the shift in emphasis is nonetheless significant. ICANN says: "ICANN will no longer have its work prescribed for it. How it works and what it works on is up to ICANN and its community to devise."

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Another important change is the fact that ICANN will no longer be required to report direct to the US government every six months. Instead, it will produce an annual report for the internet community as a whole. ICANN is also upbeat about the fact that "there is no requirement to report regularly to the DoC. The DoC will simply meet with senior ICANN staff from time to time."

But as commentators have been quick to point out, it is precisely this frequent interaction with ICANN staff that enabled the Bush Administration to interfere with approval of the .xxx domain - something that led to rare public condemnation by the EU of a "clear case of political interference".

The JTA's exact wording is that "the Department [DoC] will hold regular meetings with ICANN senior management and leadership to assess progress".

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