The move could roil governments and international businesses, analysts warned, as well as bring potential Internet chaos from dueling domain-name systems.
In an address covering the agencys latest policies on broadband, wireless spectrum allocation and other national infrastructure matters, Assistant Secretary of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration Michael Gallagher brought up the matter of the Internets DNS (Domain Name System) and the administrations relationship with ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.
Gallagher offered a set of principles that are to guide the administrations actions, including which body or country would retain control of the DNS system.
"Given the Internets importance to the worlds economy, it is essential that the underlying DNS of the Internet remain stable and secure," Gallagher said.
"As such, the United States is committed to taking no action that would have the potential to adversely impact the effective and efficient operation of the DNS, and will therefore maintain its historic role in authorizing changes or modifications to the authoritative root zone file," he said.
ICANN offered few details about how the Commerce Departments decision will impact its role with the DNS.
"Were reviewing the statement," an ICANN spokesperson said in a statement. "We will continue to successfully fulfill the requirements of the [Memorandum of Understanding with the Commerce Department]."
The United States will continue to work with ICANN, Gallagher said. However, ICANN is the "appropriate technical manager of the Internet DNS," not the final word. The United States will "continue to provide oversight so that ICANN maintains its focus and meets its core technical mission," he said.
While the agency recognizes that other governments have "public policy and sovereignty concerns" relating to the Internet and domain services, Gallagher said, those interests should be focused on the ccTDL (country code top level domains). He said that the United States is "committed to working with the international community to address these concerns, bearing in mind the fundamental need to ensure stability and security of the Internets DNS."
This statement flies in the face of an MOU (memorandum of understanding) between the Dept. of Commerce and ICANN, which would have transferred control over to the international body in September 2006.
In an address to ICANNs Working Group for Internet Governance in mid-June, CEO Paul Twomey said the organization was on track over the handoff of control.
"To date we have completed all milestones on or before the time stipulated. We are confident that not only will the MOU be completed, but that by doing so ICANN will have passed important tests related to its independence, its democratic and transparent functioning, efficient management, effective decision-making process, and having well-described roles and relationships with all its stakeholders," he said.
"As to what will be the relationship between the U.S. Department of Commerce and ICANN after the completion of the MOU, let me be clear that ICANN does not speak on behalf of the United States Government," Twomey said in June. "That said, the roles of all governments, including that of the U.S. Government, are important, as they share the same interest as all ICANNs stakeholders, namely a stable and secure Internet."
Michael Froomkin, a law professor at the University of Miami School of Law and critic of ICANN, views the Commerce Departments move more as an attempt to impact the upcoming meeting of the United Nations World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) than a specific snub against ICANN. Through WSIS, the UN has been trying to play a larger role in Internet governance
The federal governments decision also comes as ICANN prepares to open its next major meeting on July 11 in Luxembourg.
In a discussion with Ziff Davis Internet News, Froomkin said that whether the Commerce Departments move will cause an international uproar remains an open question. He views the decision as one that will maintain the status quo, where the U.S. government continues to exert limited oversight of ICANN.
"The real big question right now is how is the EU going to deal with this?" Froomkin said. "The EU has supported ICANN through thick and thin from the sense that it was the best way to get the U.S. [government] out of this."
Editors Note: This story was updated to include information and comments from analysts. Matt Hicks contributed to this story.