The agreement is part of a three-year renewal of the partnership between the government and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the California-based nonprofit group that keeps technical tabs on the Internet. It replaces an agreement that expired Saturday.
In addition to providing for more autonomy, the accord calls for a midterm review in 18 months, the earliest point at which ICANN could become unleashed from government oversight. "The top line is that this is a major step forward for ICANN to become completely autonomous," said Paul Twomey, the Australian who is chief executive of ICANN.
Though much of the foundation of the Internet came out of American government and university research, over the last two decades the network has become a critical worldwide tool in commerce, communications and, for some countries, national security.
Countries in Asia and the Middle East in particular have strenuously objected to Washington?s effective veto power over ICANN and have lobbied to put Internet governance in international hands.
"Internationally, the world will see that the U.S. government is beginning to walk the talk," Twomey said. "The transition is now in the hands of the international community."
The "joint project agreement" signed Friday is meant to be the last of six that have given ICANN the authority to keep the Internet running since 1998.
John M. R. Kneuer, the Commerce Department acting assistant secretary for communications and information, said other countries "should draw some heart" from the latest agreement?s goal to allow ICANN to become a private-sector organization.
"Private-sector management of the Internet is demonstrably effective," he said in an interview. "The Internet has become a massive global source of innovation and commerce, and all of that is because the DNS system has been running uninterrupted."
DNS refers to the domain name system, which is managed by ICANN through 13 so-called root computer servers and provides an address system that lets any computer on the network find any other one and pass along data traffic like e-mail messages and Web pages nearly instantaneously.
Paul Kane, chairman of Centr, a group of Internet country domain registries like .uk, agreed that the marketplace was in a better position to serve the global interests of the Internet than any single government or group of governments.
"The Internet today is run by private networks interconnecting computers around the world," he said, and "it is not in the private sector?s interests to have an inefficient Internet."
Kneuer said he had had "broad support" from governments around the world for continuing to wean ICANN from American government oversight.
Vinton Cerf, chairman of ICANN, said in a conference call Friday that the accord was a "major step forward" that defines "a rather new and different relationship with the Commerce Department."
Although ICANN independence was also the goal of the agreement that expired Saturday, Kneuer, Cerf and others said that the organization was not ready to be totally self-sufficient.
ICANN has been criticized for not representing the Internet community at large and for not making decisions openly and publicly. No formal mechanisms to address these issues were announced Friday.
Twomey said the role of the Commerce Department would now be "to consult with ICANN on developing greater transparency and openness."
The U.S. government would also continue to take part in policy developments through ICANN?s government advisory committee, "which is the way every other government does it," Twomey said.
Under the agreement, ICANN no longer must report to the Commerce Department every six months; instead, it will file an annual report addressed to the whole Internet community.