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US government steps back from internet control

But very slowly

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As one expert, EC civil servant Patrick Vande Walle, has noted: "The DoC will be meeting ICANN staff, not the ICANN board. It is quite obvious it is easier for an American administration to put pressure on mostly American staff, rather than on a board made of mostly non-Americans."

US academic and internet governance expert Milton Mueller is equally damning: "The basic relationship between the US government and ICANN is fundamentally unchanged. ICANN still gets general policy guidance from the DoC, and still regularly reports to it."

Despite these words, however, there is a real sense within ICANN itself that the new contract represents a big chance and opportunity to finally become what its originators had envisaged.

ICANN CEO Paul Twomey said the deal was "a great achievement for the ICANN community. Our community is made up of very committed, highly skilled individuals most of whom are volunteers and take their responsibilities very seriously. This result is a tribute to their efforts".

More succinctly, he has argued that the DoC is now "walking the talk".

Likewise, ICANN corporate affairs head Paul Levins pointed out that commerce secretary John Kneuer said that the agreement was "putting ICANN on the path to autonomy". Levins sees the 18 month review as a real opportunity - if the ICANN community can come to agreement. That, he points out, is "the last hurdle".

The reality

Amid all the detail, claims, and small-print, however, it can be easy to lose the bigger picture. And that is: the US government has purposefully failed to offer anything but the wooliest assurance that it will step away from control of the internet.

Despite constant (and successful) efforts to paint the situation differently within its own borders, the reality is that the US government has faced a barrage of criticism from all sectors across the world for its continued control and occasional interference in the working of the internet's technical functions. Its response has been to give back the bare minimum it can get away with, with weak assurances that can be swiftly recalled at any point in the future with a simple speech by the commerce secretary.

Despite this, there are real signs that ICANN is making the most of its opportunity. The organisation recently published an independent report into one of its main decision-making constituents that was highly critical of the cliché that exists within it. It has also allowed its Ombudsman to start making public his reports to the board. It has embarked on a redesign of its website to make information more accessible. And board members themselves assure anyone that asks that they're are working toward a more open system.

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