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At a U.S. Department of Commerce (DoC) hearing on Wednesday to assess whether the Internet's Domain Name System (DNS) should be handed over to the private sector, most panelists indicated a preference for continued U.S. government involvement in the management of the Net.
"In terms of realistic alternatives, we think it's the best of some potentially unappealing options," said panelist David McGuire, director of communications for the Center for Democracy and Technology, a non-profit Internet advocacy group.
Such "unappealing options" were raised last November, at the United Nations-sponsored World Summit on the Information Society in Tunisia, when representatives of some of the non-democratic governments in attendance such as Cuba, China, Iran, and Syria pressed for greater say in the administration of the Internet.
In a report last summer, the U.N.'s Working Group on Internet Governance argued that "no single government should have a pre-eminent role in relation to international Internet governance."
Such sentiments prompted three U.S. congressmen—Rick Boucher, D-Va.; John Doolittle, R-Calif.; and Bob Goodlatte, R-Va.—to introduce a non-binding House resolution last October to keep the DNS servers under the control of the not-for-profit Internet Corporation for Assigned Numbers and Names (ICANN) and the DoC.
In a far-fetched warning on his Web site, Congressman Goodlatte raised the possibility of U.N. soldiers surrounding ICANN's office in Marina del Rey, Calif., to wrest control of the Internet and turn it over "to the infamous international bureaucracy of the U.N."
Loath though U.S. officials may be to surrender the Net to foreign bureaucrats, greater international involvement in overseeing the Internet has long been anticipated. In 1997, President Clinton directed the DoC to privatize the management of the DNS to increase competition and facilitate international participation.
Since then, ICANN has administered the DNS under an agreement with the DoC. That agreement, known as a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), establishes certain criteria that must be met before the U.S. government steps away from DNS management.
The current MOU expires on Sept. 30, 2006. The DoC will almost certainly extend it or craft a new one. The Bush administration said last year that it intended to maintain oversight of ICANN and the DNS.
That would be fine with many in the business community who worry that change could destabilize the Net. "The continued stability of the Internet is essential to not just us, but our users," said panelist David Fares, VP of e-commerce policy at News Corporation and the director of electronic commerce for the United States Council for International Business.
Though the panelists acknowledged that ICANN has been doing a good job keeping the Net up and running, they gave the organization low marks for lack of transparency and disinterest in public involvement.
Panelist Michael Heltzer, external relations manager for the International Trademark Association, expressed concern that ICANN needed a stronger set of sanctions to deal with rogue Internet registrars that assist in cyber-squatting and domain name speculation.
On Monday, EURid, the organization that administers the .eu top-level domain under an agreement with ICANN, suspended 74,000 .eu domain names and sued 400 registrars for breach of contract. EURid said it had taken this action to curb "abusive behavior from a syndicate of registrars who have systematically acquired domain names with the obvious intent of selling them."
Panelist David Maher, senior VP of law and policy for the Public Interest Registry (PIR), the group that manages the .org top-level domain name, took ICANN to task for failing to deal with the privacy implications of the WHOIS database, which lists the personal information of Web site registrants worldwide. "It's a disgrace that the issue of personal privacy has been booted around for three years and nothing has been done," he said.
Judging by the sentiments of the panelists at the Department of Commerce hearing, not to mention the Bush administration's avowed plan to keep control of the Net, it looks like ICANN can count on a few more years to improve its job performance.