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U.S. to hand over Net administration

The U.S. government is expected to hand off administration of the Net's infrastructure to a nonprofit corporation.

The U.S. government today is expected to hand off oversight of the Internet's infrastructure to a nonprofit corporation, in a move that exemplifies the changing nature of the Net.

The Commerce Department is planning this afternoon to post on its Web site an agreement with the The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), to let the group set up a governance plan for the administration of the Net's anatomy--from the domain name system to technical protocols.

"We reached an agreement on the wording of this document yesterday, and it should be executed and posted today," said Michael Roberts, who was named interim president of ICANN four weeks ago.

White House senior adviser Ira Magaziner and Becky Burr, acting associate administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration in the Commerce Department, are satisfied that ICANN meets the requirements set forth in the Clinton administration's white paper, the government's blue print for relinquishing control of the Net's addressing system, Roberts said.

"Burr and Magaziner are both saying it's a done deal. The next step is for the government to post it," Roberts said. "This documents recognizes us as the chosen private entity to take charge of these functions."

But the agreement apparently makes little mention of ICANN's bylaws, which were the focus of a heated public debate on November 14 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

People from the Internet community who attended ICANN's first public meeting expressed a wide range of concerns about the nonprofit's decision-making process, and worried that the new group would be closed off and unresponsive to the public.

ICANN announced changes Monday aimed at allaying these fears. For example, ICANN "will form a volunteer advisory committee on membership to propose approaches to membership criteria, rights, and responsibilities."

The group also will hold a public meeting in conjunction with each meeting of its board of directors. The board is wrapping its second public meeting in Brussels today.

Still, to the disappointment of many in the online community, ICANN did not model itself after U.S. legislative bodies. Instead, it will function like the Supreme Court and will vote on issues in private, releasing within 21 days an explanation of its decisions along with board members' recorded votes.

If a dispute arises, ICANN "will establish a mechanism for the reconsideration of decisions by independent third parties in cases where it is thought that ICANN or its staff has not followed its own bylaws or rules of procedure."

Despite today's official hand-off, the transition has been in the works since April of last year, when the National Science Foundation announced that it wanted out of the game.

The Clinton administration called for proposals to take on the task, and ICANN almost immediately became the front-runner for handling it. The nonprofit was created by the two main forces in the Net's addressing system: domain name registrar Network Solutions and Jon Postel, who before he died in October headed the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA). Both now have the exclusive NSF contracts to run the Net's directory.

At stake is the overall stability of the entire Internet, as well as a significant sum of money. The lucrative business of registering ".com" and other top-level domains is up for grabs, and the board also must resolve complicated issues such as whether the domain name "" can be trademarked and whether new top-level domains, such as ".firm," should be created.

Now that ICANN has the green light, Roberts said the next step is to set up its membership base, which will vote in a 19-member board when the interim board steps down next September. Also, Roberts has to complete a financial plan for the nonprofit.

So the online industry shouldn't expect the roll-out of new top-level domains, or to see fierce competition in the domain name registry business anytime soon.

"We're going to decide how we go about making those decisions--but we will not actually make [those choices]," Roberts said.