A longtime agreement in which the U.S. Department of Commerce has oversight of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is due to expire Wednesday, but that may not be the end of the relationship.
While ICANN isn't talking, some observers expect a new type of agreement to be announced as soon as Wednesday, with the U.S. government sharing oversight of the nonprofit organization that controls the Internet's domain name system with other countries. This new type of agreement would allow ICANN to become more independent, while addressing concerns from several other countries that the United States has too much control over ICANN, said Michael Palage, a former ICANN board member.
[ Keep up on the latest networking news with our Technology: Networking newsletter. ]
The new agreement would create several oversight boards, with international representation, Palage said. The Economist reported last week that a new agreement, called an affirmation of commitments, will replace the existing pact between the U.S. government and ICANN. The Department of Commerce and ICANN have operated under a series of agreements laying out expectations for the nonprofit since November 1998.
The new agreement "will tell them what it should do, but it can't legally bind them," much like past agreements, said Palage, now a senior fellow at the Progress and Freedom Foundation, a conservative think tank. "It gives the appearance in the global community that the U.S. government has recognized that ICANN has done what is was supposed to do. What it's also doing is ... it's putting in some accountability mechanisms."
Palage hasn't heard all the details about the new agreement, including how people will be appointed to the new oversight panels. He's also concerned about whether private entities will have the same representation as governments. While not perfect, the new agreement being talked about would be an improvement over the existing agreement, he said.
"Now while the devil will be in the detail, the only concern I have is that the private sector be on equal footing with the public sector in being able to hold ICANN accountable," he said. "If ICANN is to remain a public-private partnership that is founded on the principles of openness, transparency, inclusiveness, accountability and bottom-up coordination, then both the private and public sectors should have equal confidence in the accountability mechanism available to them."
Under the latest agreement between the Department of Commerce and ICANN, the nonprofit reaffirmed its commitment to maintaining the security and stability of the domain name system, or DNS. ICANN also promised to stick to the principles of competition, bottom-up coordination and representation.
Many critics of ICANN have complained in recent years that the organization has moved forward with plans to expand services without widespread agreement. In particular, ICANN's board in June 2008 voted to allow an unlimited number of new generic top-level domains, such as ".food" or ".basketball," but trademark owners have complained that new gTLDs would force them to register many new Web sites to protect their brands.
Last week, several members of a U.S. Congress subcommittee urged ICANN to back off the gTLD plan until concerns could be resolved.
Asked this week about what happens after the current agreement expires, an ICANN spokeswoman said the Department of Commerce has asked ICANN officials not to comment until Wednesday.