Internet overseeing organisation ICANN will become an autonomous body, free from any form of government control, on 1 October 2008, if plans drawn up between it and the US government go according to plan.
The current agreement between ICANN and the US Department of Commerce (DoC) is due to expire next week, but speculation has been mounting for months over what will happen to management of the Internet's vital domain name system (DNS).
The US government official in charge of the agreement, Assistant Secretary John Kneuer made clear in a Senate hearing on Wednesday that the "memorandum of understanding" (MoU) between it and ICANN would be extended on 30 September, but refused to give any more details.
A second Senate meeting in Washington yesterday saw more details leak out, although both Kneuer and ICANN CEO Paul Twomey remain tight-lipped. It is now expected that the new MoU will last two years, although both parties stressed that discussions were still ongoing and the decision was not finalised.
More signficantly however, at the end of that agreement, the expectation is that ICANN will finally become an autonomous body, 10 years after it was first created and eight since it was supposed to break free from government control. The issue of control over ICANN has become a topic of international controversy because of the US government's failure to stick to a promise to remove itself from ICANN's structure.
With the Internet now a global resource, opposition to US control has gradually built up, culminating in weeks of intense diplomatic discussion just prior to a World Summit on the Information Society in November. The outcome of those talks was the retention of the ICANN/DoC model but since then, tension has never been far from the surface. Evidence that the Bush Administration had interfered with ICANN's processes to prevent the creation of a new .xxx top-level domain was the final straw for many. Also, the unresolved issue of control risked destabilising vital international discussions over other, wider Internet issues such as spam, access and security.
Domestic US feeling is hard-set against suggestions that ICANN be pulled into the United Nations. A compromise solution proposed by the EU that would see a flexible and lightweight governmental body take over the US government's role was rejected in Geneva a year ago. Nonetheless, that EU model has taken root in most people's minds as the end game if the singular Internet system or "root" isn't to fracture across national borders. Such a split would effectively destroying the Internet's greatest asset - interconnection.
The DoC and ICANN will try to avoid handing over any oversight power to governments by giving a larger role to the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC) within ICANN and then allow the organisation to become autonomous at the expiration of the new MoU.
Despite claims earlier in the week, quoting US Ambassador David Gross as saying that the US government would not hand over control of ICANN anytime soon, ICANN CEO Twomey said the situation is very different. "Firstly, the Administration has committed itself to private sector management of the DNS and said that it would transition its role to the private sector. Secondly, it has said it is supporting ICANN in its function for doing that. And thirdly, as John [Kneuer] said today, it sees the MoU as the instrument to that transition," he told us.
Asked if he could therefore see an autonomous ICANN, with all governmental control run through the GAC, at the end of the next MoU, Twomey was unequivocal: "Yes."
But he recognised that there is still much to do before the DoC will cut its ties with the organisation. In particular, Secretary Kneuer has consistently and publicly questioned ICANN's accountability and transparency.
Twomey assured us that the ICANN Board was "very aware" of the issues and in the next few months would issue a "set of principles" that will revamp the way it carries out its role and hopefully answer accusations of back-room dealing. He said the transparency issue is one more of accessibility. The information is all available on the organisation website but it is not made accessible, is the argument. In response, ICANN has started redesigning its website and yesterday announced the hiring of two dedicated staff to improve its site's content and approach.
Twomey also promised that the much-derided appeals process within ICANN would be made easier to locate and run through. The first report to be released by ICANN's Ombudsman has also added to the sense that ICANN has started listening to its critics. And a report out last week by the London School of Economics lends weight to Twomey's claim to be building ICANN in preparation for autonomy. It makes some bold statements and stark recommendations for changes to the GNSO, the constituency within ICANN that makes most of its important policy decisions.
But several stumbling blocks remain. Despite persuading the sceptical owners of country top-level domains such as .uk and .de to recognise ICANN, the organisation has still to formalise its relationship with regional Internet registries or with the organisations that run the Internet's fundamental root servers. Until this is done, ICANN is unable to act as an independent force across the whole Net infratructure.
Also there remains the risk of renewed hostilities between ICANN and VeriSign, the Internet's most powerful company, which runs the dotcom and dotnet registries. Through judicious use of lawsuits, VeriSign prevented ICANN from expanding its reach for years. But last year the two finally reached agreement.
The problem is that the agreement - which hands VeriSign effective permanent control of all dotcoms and allows it to raise prices at a time when prices everywhere else are going down - has angered the rest of the Internet community as well as US politicians. The deal has been held up in Congress where it is accused of being anti-competitive. ICANN will fear that if the deal falls apart, all its hard work could fall apart. However as each day passes, VeriSign has less chance of going back on the deal, even if it is forced to make concessions to get it through.
At the moment, with those problems a short distance into the future, Paul Twomey is revelling in having pulled off a job many thought impossible - pulling administration of the Internet passed VeriSign, the US government and the United Nations without losing most of it on the way. "I think it went reasonably well," he told us on his mobile from outside the US Senate.