To millions of users around the globe, creation of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers two and a half years ago signaled — for better or worse — a bold experiment in governing for the Internet age.
Its creator, Clinton adviser Ira Magaziner, proudly touted the private, international nonprofit group as one that would take the government out of the Internet business and put tough new policy and technical decisions where they belonged — in the hands of Internet companies and users around the world.
But three years later — and six months after the U.S. aimed to cut loose its control of the group — the Department of Commerce maintains oversight of both ICANN and what was supposed to be its prize: the Internets "A" root server, the database that makes up the Internets domain name system.
And even as ICANN continues its long struggle toward stability and legitimacy — taking the brunt of criticism for controversial domain name policies mandated by its agreement with Commerce — the government has apparently laid no plans for removing itself from the picture.
In short, Internet users and the industry that has grown up around them may never get the truly private international network they have wanted. What began in the late 1960s as a U.S. government project may remain under nominal government authority for the foreseeable future.
That means the bureaucracy of the U.S. government retains a powerful veto over key decisions about expansion of the Internet, especially how quickly and to whom new domains are given to compete with the lucrative dot-com, dot-org and dot-net. And in so doing, it threatens to deepen the tensions between U.S. and foreign governments, users and business.
Whether that position will change under the new Bush administration remains anyones guess. But recent admissions by key officials, at the Department of Commerce and others, have ignited debates about whether the government really ever intended to give ICANN complete control of the Internets root, or whether it was just punting tough policy decisions under international pressure to break the U.S. monopoly on the Internets architecture and the lucrative business of registering domain names.
Indeed, one source close to the process said that at times it seemed that what ICANN was handed was "undone government homework."
Others speculate that the delay in what had originally been targeted as a complete transfer of control last fall is less a conspiracy revealed than a combination of several factors: an overly ambitious plan by Magaziner, a series of missteps by the groups initial, appointed board and a changing perception about what the governments role should be in Internet policies.
"The process proved a lot more problematic and controversial than the folks in the government hoped," said Jonathan Weinberg, a law professor at Wayne State University. "Whether or not they wanted to do it, at the time . . . it was politically expedient to say that was their plan."
Sources close to the issue told Interactive Week that Clinton administration officials came to the conclusion that the U.S. government should maintain some oversight authority even if officials allow ICANN, at some point, to take over the day-to-day management of the root server system. For granting ICANN both technical and policy control of the root server system would involve giving the nonprofit corporation not only the duty to ensure the stable and secure function of the domain name system but also the authority to decide which groups of domain names would be recognized by those who surf the Internet and which would not.
"For it to happen, it would require some serious policy decision that involved a commitment to globalization of resources that the U.S. government controls," said Milton Mueller, an information studies professor at Syracuse University. "Its political and controversial."
"Control of the root potentially confers substantial economic and political power," University of Miami law professor A. Michael Froomkin wrote last year.
There is also danger to the federal government in relinquishing its Internet role to ICANN as long as there is any chance the still fragile organization might fail.
"I have trouble visualizing the transfer of the root to ICANN in its current state," said Don Telage, an executive advisor at VeriSign, which now owns Network Solutions, and a key player in ICANNs formation. "Theres a lot to be proved yet before any administration would be comfortable doing that transfer because the risk of a failure would be catastrophic for the U.S. economy," given the millions of dollars that companies, governments and others have invested in establishing an Internet presence.
Even top ICANN executives acknowledged the corporation is still too weak to assume that control.
"We need to get ourselves stabilized before we can have any claim over the root," said Joe Sims, ICANNs outside counsel and a central figure in the companys birth.
That job now falls largely to Vint Cerf, one of the Internets founding fathers. Cerf replaced Esther Dyson as chair of the 18-member ICANN board in November.
For now, Cerf said ICANN is proceeding with preparations to take over the technical management of the root and increase the systems security. ICANN hopes to make a formal proposal to the Bush administration in a few months.
"I am confident we will get there. Its important we get there," Cerf said. "It is a source of continuing concern among other parts of the world outside the U.S. that there is this continual linkage" with the U.S. government.