Reversing a course that had it on track to cede control of the Internet’s main pipelines, the U.S. government now says it will not cede oversight of the computers that control most Web traffic.
The U.S. had been weighing whether to turn over control of the 13 so-called “root” servers, the source where top-level domains are maintained and traffic is sent to and from, to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).
However, Assistant Commerce Secretary Michael Gallagher told a gathering of the Wireless Communication Association (WCA) that the Bush administration recognizes that turning over control of the core of the Internet could create security concerns.
“The U.S. government intends to preserve the security and stability of the Internet’s Domain Name and Addressing System (DNS),” Gallagher said. He went on to add that ICANN is the “appropriate technical manager of the Internet DNS.”
Gallagher said a clear policy was necessary because of the rising importance of the Internet for various forms of communication and commerce.
The news will likely be greeted with mixed reactions from various quarters. ICANN’s plentiful critics had expressed concern about that group receiving more authority over the domain name system. On the other hand, foreign governments were quick to condemn the U.S. decision.
The root servers themselves are in private ownership, but the government has kept policy control, approving through ICANN and its hand-chosen registrars the millions of domain names allowed to be established in domains such as .com and .net.
ICANN was tapped by the Commerce Department to oversee the domain system in 1998. At the time, the plan was for the U.S. government to step aside once ICANN had established policies, processes and technology adequate to handle the system autonomously. Many observers thought the handover would take place in September of 2006, when the current contract with ICANN expires.
The United Nations has been studying the issue of Internet governance and is expected to issue a report later this year calling for some aspects of Web oversight to be granted to a UN-sponsored agency such as the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).
Such a move would likely enjoy strong international support from nations increasingly concerned that the Internet is becoming a U.S.-centric infrastructure.
Acknowledging those international concerns, the Commerce Department said it was “committed to working with the international community to address these concerns, bearing in mind the fundamental need to ensure stability and security of the Internet’s DNS” while also giving individual countries a say in the management of the system, especially when their own country-specific domains are involved.
However, Gallagher also made it clear that the U.S. feels that total control over the Internet cannot be effectively centralized, saying “there is no one venue to appropriately address Internet governance in its entirety.”
Michael Froomkin, who runs the ICANN Watch blog, said the timing was “weird” given that the UN is still at work on its proposal for changing the governance structure.
“Nothing will change immediately as a result,” Froomkin said. “The short and medium term, the implications of this statement are political, not operational as the status quo for operations remains unchanged.”
The policy statement will likely come as a shock to the international community, including U.S. allies. “Some of them are going to be very upset with this change in policy,” Froomkin added.
ICANN has been said to have been gearing up for the expected handover of root server control in a year’s time. However, some recent events might have convinced the Bush administration that the agency wasn’t ready for the prime-time role.
The group has drawn loud and sustained criticism for some of its moves, including a decision on establishing new top-level domains such as the controversial .xxx domain for pornography sites. It also drew barbs for its decision to let Verisign continue running the .net domain after a controversial review process that did not include much in the way of public input.
Also, ICANN might have taken it on the chin a bit when domain name servers were hit with a domain-hijacking attack in January of this year, Jupiter Research analyst Joe Laszlo noted.
Laszlo told the E-Commerce Times that while the attacks probably couldn’t be laid at the feet of ICANN, it could have been viewed by some as evidence their governance of domain names was not as strong and secure as it should be.