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U.S. voices openness to private Net control

Despite assertions last year to the contrary, a Commerce Dept. official says U.S. is exploring privatization of the DNS.

WASHINGTON--The United States may be willing to cede at least some of its historic control of the Internet domain name system after all, a U.S. Commerce Department official said Wednesday.

Despite bold statements last year that seemed to indicate otherwise and ignited a worldwide debate, John Kneuer, the acting assistant secretary for communications and information, said the government "remains committed" to private management of the DNS.

"I think the fact that we're all gathered here today and we've undertaken this process is a clear indication that we are committed to this transition," Kneuer told an audience of about 80 people at an agency-sponsored public hearing in the Commerce Department auditorium here.

The hearing came as the agency contemplates whether to renew a memorandum of understanding, dating back to 1998, between the U.S. government and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, the nonprofit organization responsible for coordinating the allocation of domain names and Internet Protocol addresses. The agreement, which establishes guiding principles for management of the DNS, is set to expire on Sept. 30, but could be renewed, as has occurred in the past.

Kneuer said the government's continuing interest in privatization doesn't clash with a list of four principles issued last summer by the Commerce Department. That brief policy statement riled up some in the international community because it asserted the U.S. government's intention to retain control over the Internet's "root," the master file that lists which top-level domains are authorized. It also indicated plans to maintain its oversight over ICANN.

The Bush administration took that position all the way to a world Internet summit in Tunisia last November. It ultimately reported it had not relinquished its Net authority but instead forged a broad agreement with its international counterparts to create an "Internet Governance Forum" under the auspices of the United Nations, scheduled to meet this fall in Greece.

The focus in the Commerce Department principles is intended to be "extraordinarily technical in nature and tied to security and stability from a technological standpoint," Kneuer said. "It should not be read so expansively as to say we're going to retain all of our historic controls."

The public speaks
It remains unclear when or if the U.S. government will fully shift to private control of the Internet DNS. Meanwhile, nearly 700 written comments from the public have streamed in to the Commerce Department about how it should proceed.

A number of the responses consisted of a two-paragraph form letter that urged the United States to "work cooperatively with all stakeholders to complete the transition to a domain name system independent of U.S. governmental control."

"No single government should have a pre-eminent role in Internet governance," read the form letter, which came from commenters in about a dozen countries including Australia, Canada, Germany, Luxembourg, Morocco, Nigeria, Sweden, Trinidad and Tobago, and the United States.

A greater diversity of views emerged from about a dozen representatives selected to speak on panels at Wednesday afternoon's hearing. They came from a wide variety of sectors including Internet advocacy groups, domain registries, IP addressing organizations, root server operators, other businesses and the Canadian government.

Some panelists suggested the time has come to let the memorandum of understanding (MOU) lapse, effectively untethering ICANN from U.S. government control except in extraordinary circumstances.

"While we recognize and applaud the 'light hand' the U.S. government has always taken with respect to the Internet, we believe it is time to move to a minimal, transitional MOU where the U.S. government plays a 'backstop' role that would only come into play in the event of a serious organizational failure," said Lynn St. Amour of the Internet Society, a worldwide network of nonprofit public interest groups.

ICANN has room for improvement, but it has nonetheless "proven well-suited to the evolving structure of the global Internet community" and should be allowed to complete its transition to privatization, said Ray Plzak, CEO of the American Registry of Internet Numbers, one of the world's five regional IP addressing organizations.

Others said they didn't think ICANN is ready to function independently of governmental oversight. Tim Ruiz, a vice president of, which runs the world's largest domain name registrar, said it's "premature" for total privatization of ICANN because the organization hasn't yet proven it can be as transparent, open and accountable as outsiders would like.

The Center for Democracy and Technology's David McGuire suggested the current system is working reasonably well, so the U.S. government needs to be more certain of what would result from cutting its ties with ICANN before doing so. "We're very concerned that if ICANN becomes subsumed by some yet-to-be-named international body, that we'd see much more government involvement," as opposed to the "hands-off approach" the Commerce Department has taken, he said.

The event also featured an appearance from ICANN CEO Paul Twomey, who refrained in his 10-minute speech from suggesting what should happen next with the organization. "I do think the ICANN community has many reasons to be proud of the last eight years," he said, pointing to "introduction of competition in the top-level domain space" and the creation of country-code domain name organizations as examples of successes.

Borne from a secret meeting in Cambridge, Mass., in 1998, ICANN has been no stranger to controversy over the years. Critics in the past have dogged it for acting in secret and moving sluggishly to approve new top-level domain names. More recently, it has drawn fire on Capitol Hill and through court challenges for agreeing to what amounts to a perpetual contract with VeriSign to run the .com registry, which critics say would result in unnecessary price hikes and a veritable monopoly.

Kneuer emphasized that as the Commerce Department weighs its next steps, "we will take no actions that will call into question the stability and security of the Internet."

CNET's Declan McCullagh contributed to this report.