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US Agreement With ICANN Leaves Much Undone

The oversight of the Internet's infrastructure will become more international under a new government agreement with ICANN. But many concerns remain unresolved.

The US government appears to be loosening its grip on the governance of the Internet, a move welcomed by many. But critics see the government shirking its obligations to support free expression and free trade.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the private corporation that coordinates the technical oversight of the Internet's Domain Name System through a longstanding agreement with the U.S. government, on Wednesday announced a new agreement with US Department of Commerce designed to make Internet governance less unilateral and more open to international input.

The international community has long chaffed at the fact the US government had de facto control of the Internet and has pushed for a greater say in its management. In June 2005, the Working Group on Internet Governance issued a report stating that Internet governance should be "multilateral, transparent, and democratic" and that "no single government should have a pre-eminent role in relation to international Internet governance."

But calls for change appeared to have little effect during the Bush administration.

The new agreement, the Affirmation of Commitments, supports ICANN's continued existence as a private, non-profit organization, one that's ostensibly independent and not controlled by any one entity. And it commits the organization to reviews by stakeholders, a step toward greater accountability.

Milton Mueller, professor and director of the telecommunications network management program at the Syracuse University School of Information Studies, said in a phone interview that the agreement represent a pretty important change in the way the US relates to ICANN. But he said that the US Department of Commerce still retains fundamental, high-level control over the domain name space.

While giving the Obama administration an "A" for effort, Mueller contends the agreement falls short by not defining clear rules under which ICANN operates and mechanisms for rules enforcement. Without such rules, inviting greater international participation risks becoming political process

As Mueller put it in a blog post, "What ICANN needs, and has always needed, is to adhere to basic liberal-democratic norms about rule by law, not rule by men."

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