U.S. to Relinquish Control of Internet Address System

The U.S. said it plans to hand over control of the system for assigning website addresses to a non-government entity, the final phase in an effort to fully privatize and globalize management of the Internet’s backbone.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which has managed the system since 1998 under a U.S. government contract that expires next year, is being asked to convene interested groups from around the world to develop a proposal to transition the system. ICANN said it plans to begin a consultation process March 24 at a meeting in Singapore.

Pressure has been building internationally for the U.S. to give up the last vestiges of control over a system that gives websites the unique identifiers essential for users to find what they’re looking for online. Nations in the European Union have called for more global supervision of the system, a topic that has grown in importance amid an increase in cyber-attacks, censorship in some nations and government spying.

“We thank the U.S. government for its stewardship, for its guidance over the years,” Fadi Chehade, president and chief executive officer of Los Angeles-based ICANN, told reporters on a conference call yesterday. “And we thank them today for trusting the global community to replace their stewardship with appropriate oversight mechanisms.”

The transition in oversight isn’t being done in response to revelations about U.S. National Security Agency spying, revealed in leaks by former government contractor Edward Snowden, Chehade said.

“The world wants to participate increasingly in how we shape it together,” he said. “That’s why now.”

1998 Pledge

The U.S. is fulfilling a pledge it made as far back as 1998 to relinquish control of the Internet’s domain-name system. The contract that the ICANN-affiliated Internet Assigned Numbers Authority has with the government will be allowed to expire on Sept. 30, 2015, said Lawrence Strickling, administrator of the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

“We will not accept a proposal that replaces the NTIA role with a government or intergovernmental organization,” Strickling said on the conference call.

It isn’t clear yet what groups will take over the responsibilities to maintain the unique codes and numbering systems used in technical standards that underpin the Internet. Chehade said he’s confident companies and nonprofit groups with the proper qualifications will develop a transition process without disrupting Internet operations.

New Structure

“Since 1998, the U.S. has been committed to transitioning management of the Internet’s domain name system to an independent entity that reflects the broad diversity of the global Internet community,” Senator Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, said in a statement. Yesterday’s announcement “is the next phase in this transition.”

Created in 1998, ICANN manages the Web and has taken over Internet duties that used to be directly controlled by the U.S. government. The organization has primarily been responsible for opening up the Internet’s addressing system to new names to the right of the dot, known as domains, adding .biz, .info. and other domains to the original .com, .net and .org.

The U.S. will seek a new structure that involves groups that have a stake in the management of the Internet, such as the Internet Engineering Task Force, and that maintains the security, stability and openness of the Web, Strickling said.

The administration of President Barack Obama and several other nations refused to sign a telecommunications treaty at a United Nations conference in Dubai two years ago, saying new provisions could allow Internet regulation and censorship by governments.

Congress has favored efforts to promote a global Internet free from government control in order to advance the current decentralized model of Web governance by technical groups such as ICANN.

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