U.S. to retain control of Internet domain names

The Bush administration announced Thursday that the U.S. government will not hand over control of the Internet to any other organization, a surprise move that could presage an international flap.

At the moment, the U.S. government maintains control of the Internet’s “root”–the master file that lists what top-level domains are authorized–but has indicated in the past that it would transfer that responsibility to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN.

The new principles, outlined by Assistant Commerce Secretary Michael Gallagher, say the U.S. government will “maintain its historic role in authorizing changes or modifications to the authoritative root zone file.” In addition, the principles say, the U.S. government will continue to maintain “oversight” of ICANN and prevent its “focus” from straying from technical coordination. Gallagher’s blunt announcement to a wireless conference in Washington, D.C.–just a few days before ICANN’s next meeting in Luxembourg–hints that the Bush administration would like to keep the Marina del Ray, Calif.-based nonprofit group on a short leash. ICANN has become the target of criticism as its budget has zoomed upward from $7 million in 2003 to around $16 million today.

Thursday’s announcement also represents an effective snub to a United Nations process that is set to culminate in a summit in Tunisia in November. One gripe of the summit participants has been that poorer nations should have more say in the way the Internet is operated.

At one level, the Bush administration’s announcement is largely symbolic: While in theory the United States can influence what country codes are permitted and who will run each, it’s unlikely to make any procedural changes. But the more assertive tack promises to vex nations like Pakistan and Brazil that have been outspoken critics of the United States’ influence online.

About five years ago, the Commerce Department told the European Commission that “these remaining powers retained by the United States DoC regarding ICANN should be effectively divested,” according to a European government report.


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