The era of U.S. government oversight of the infrastructure that makes the Internet run is destined to end. Eventually.
At stake is the oversight of the infrastructure and processes by which Internet protocol address and the Web site domain names that correspond to them are assigned. Currently that's the job of a nonprofit private entity called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, created in 1998 and overseen by the U.S. Commerce Department. The plan back then was to privatize Internet oversight by 2000. That date has moved several times.
The next major deadline is Sept. 30, when the agreement between the U.S. and ICANN is set to expire, and the question hanging in the air is whether the U.S. will renew the arrangement or step back from its role.
The government's point man on the issue is John Kneuer, the acting assistant secretary for communications and information at the Commerce Dept., and he's been sending confusing signals. According to press reports, he said on July 26 that the government remains committed to private management of the Domain Name Servers that form the technical underpinnings of the Internet. Yet the Bush Administration doesn't appear willing to wash its hands entirely—at least not yet.
The U.S. argues that the Internet—as it has evolved from the virtual workplace of scientists to the playground of geeks and finally a venue where a billion people or more communicate and do business—has benefited from Uncle Sam's benign guidance. Many others would like to see oversight of ICANN handed over to an international body such as the United Nations. Still others want a fully independent private sector entity to maintain control.
"There's certainly no indication that the U.S. government is going to walk away and sever its ties to ICANN anytime soon," says David McGuire, a spokesman for the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington-based think tank.
But someday it might. What then? That's a tougher question. So far, McGuire says, ICANN has done several things right: Since it was created eight years ago, ICANN has kept the Internet running. It has also instituted processes for resolving disputes over domain names and done a pretty good job of spurring competition in the domain name registration business, which is handled by companies such as Verisign (VRSN), Yahoo! (YHOO), and privately held GoDaddy.com and hundreds of others.
Even Google (GOOG) has become an ICANN-approved domain registrar, but has yet to offer its own domain registration service.
But where it has lagged, McGuire says, is in representation. An election for several board members in 2000 was a fiasco. Then there was the case of the .xxx top-level domain for pornographic material, which ICANN rejected after receiving a letter from a U.S. government agency. Critics railed that the .xxx decision showed the U.S. intended to interfere with the Internet's natural market-driven progressions (see BusinessWeek.com, 5/23/06, "Domain Wars Rage On").
Then there's the privacy debate. Companies that sell domain name registrations, for instance, are required to collect certain information from everyone who registers a domain, like BusinessWeek.com, for example, and then add that information into a huge global database called Whois that's a little like a phone book. By plugging a domain name into that database, you can find out who is supposedly behind a particular Web site, often including phone numbers and e-mail addresses.
Some critics say that's disclosing too much information in a way that weakens personal privacy, but others say it's a necessary tool. One of those who supports it is Doug Isenberg, an Atlanta intellectual property attorney and founder of the Internet legal policy Web site Gigalaw.com.
"People like me and those in law enforcement see the Whois database as a critical tool for getting our jobs done," he says. "The kinds of people I represent would find it significantly more difficult to enforce their intellectual property rights [without it]."