October 20, 1998 4:05 PM PDT

Domain plan a step closer

The United States government today took an important step toward transferring its power over the Internet to the private sector.

Just four days after the death of Net luminary Jon Postel, the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration gave the nod to a plan presented by Postel, who headed the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA).

In a letter to the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration said the government had reviewed and essentially approved its plan to set up a new private corporation to run the domain name system--the underpinnings of the Internet, said Becky Burr, associate administrator of the agency.

That corporation--the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN)--would be run by a board of 19 people. The board will be chosen by an initial group of nine people, including members from Europe and Asia.

Burr said that comments submitted to the agency about the plan generally supported the ICANN, but had some concerns that the agency is hoping the IANA will resolve, under the leadership of Herb Schorr.

His task will not be easy. The domain name system--and the cumbersome and lengthy process of handing over control over it from the U.S. government to the private sector--has been plagued with controversy.

While many are happy with the ICANN, others have accused the IANA and those behind the process of operating in a closed-door fashion, leaving them out of the important decision-making process.

For instance, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has worried that without government oversight, the ICANN will be able to operate under a shroud of secrecy.

Specifically, the Electronic Frontier Foundation called for rules that require open meetings and public disclosure, for example.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration specifically asked the IANA to look into many of these issues, according to Burr.

"The public submissions and comments indicate that there are remaining concerns in the area of accountability (representational and financial), transparent decision-making processes, conflict of interest, and ICANN's proposed role with respect to country-code top-level domains," the letter states.

"We believe ICANN's submission represents a significant step forward, but there were a lot of questions and concerns about the specifics of their submission," Burr said. "The letter details specific areas related to their accountability, conflict of interest, and decision-making process," she said.

The IANA, under Schorr, will report back to the agency, which ultimately will hand over the reins to the new organization. The process could take weeks, rather than months.

Burr said that after Postel's death, the agency's staff contacted several people who have been involved in the process to gauge how the government should move forward and whether it should delay the process.

"The consensus was that we should proceed," she said. "While it's going to be hard to replace Jon, he had technical staff that he trained and were in place and were perfectly capable of running this. It's important to move forward to preserve the stability of the Internet and to privatize the management of domain names."

While the government is working on transition plan, Network Solutions has received a two-year extension on its monopolist government contract to administer the domain naming system.

The deal, which lasts until September 2000, requires the publicly traded firm to open up its Net name registration coffers to competitors by next summer but start transferring technical control of top-level domains to an international nonprofit board by March.

 

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