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Feds renew contract with Net oversight body

Under the new agreement, ICANN will remain under U.S. supervision until up to 2011.

The U.S. government this week renewed its contract with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, effectively extending its grip on the administrative body that coordinates Net addressing until up to 2011.

The new contract (click for PDF) between the Marina Del Ray, Calif.-based nonprofit and the U.S. Department of Commerce covers technical functions related to the Internet domain name system (DNS) and is scheduled to go into effect on Oct. 1, one day after the existing contract expires. Technically, the agreement lasts for one year, and the government has the option of renewing it each year for up to four additional years.

"In executing this contract the Department of Commerce has confirmed that ICANN is uniquely positioned to perform this function," Paul Twomey, the organization's CEO, said in a statement.

The move appears to be consistent with a set of Internet governance principles issued last summer by the Commerce Department that ignited a worldwide debate. In addition to asserting its plans to retain control over the Internet's "root," the master file that lists what top-level domains are authorized, the Bush administration said it planned to maintain its supervision over ICANN.

For years, the U.S. government has been saying it ultimately intends to unleash ICANN from its control. It has operated the Net addressing system under an agreement with U.S. authorities since 1998. At a recent public hearing, John Kneuer, the department's acting assistant secretary for communications and information, said the agency remained "committed" to that transition but gave no indication of when that may happen.

The contract awarded this week covers only technical tasks performed by ICANN, such as allocating DNS numbers and performing certain responsibilities related to managing the Internet root zone. Also set to expire on Sept. 30, but not yet addressed formally by the Commerce Department, is a separate agreement known as a "memorandum of understanding," which has been repeatedly amended and renewed.

The MoU, designed to pave the way for an eventual shift away from U.S. oversight, outlines more specific obligations for ICANN, such as procedures for establishing new top-level domain names, for keeping tabs on "Whois" registry information, and for fostering greater transparency in the organization's dealings. A Commerce Department spokesman told CNET on Wednesday that he had "no idea" how the agency would proceed with that agreement.

Over the years, controversy has plagued ICANN, which grew out of a clandestine meeting in Cambridge, Mass. Critics in the past have accused it of lacking transparency in its operations and moving sluggishly to approve new top-level domain names. More recently, Capitol Hill politicians and advocacy groups have criticized the organization for agreeing to what amounts to a perpetual contract with VeriSign to run the .com registry, which some say would result in unnecessary price hikes and a veritable monopoly.

Some organizations, such as domain name registrar and the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Democracy and Technology, charged at the recent hearing that the administrative body hasn't yet proven it's ready to function on its own.

Despite that "rough start," ICANN has "come a long way over the past couple of years," said Will Rodger, public policy director for the Computer & Communications Industry Association, whose members include Google, Microsoft, Verizon Communications and Yahoo.

U.S. authorities should let the contract lapse after two years, Rodger suggested, adding that "ICANN should have earned its independence by then."

Meanwhile, suspicion of the United States' cozy relationship with ICANN appears to persist. During a

Representing about a dozen countries--including Australia, Canada, Germany, Luxembourg, Morocco, Nigeria, Sweden, Trinidad and Tobago, and the United States--they wrote, "No single government should have a pre-eminent role in Internet governance."