U.S. to give up oversight of web policy-making body

The U.S. government is preparing to relinquish oversight of a key body that manages domain names and addresses for the Internet.

The Commerce Department said Friday that it is planning to transition out of its oversight role for the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN. The move is viewed as a response to increasing international concern about U.S. control over the Internet’s structure, particularly in light of the recent disclosures about surveillance by the NSA and other U.S. intelligence agencies.

Other governments have complained that the department’s contract with ICANN gives the U.S. unique influence over the Web, which it could use for a wide variety of purposes. In response to those concerns, the Obama administration is planning a process to transition oversight of the contract when it runs out in September 2015.

ICANN manages a number of technical functions regarding Internet protocol addresses and the domain system, which serve as signposts to help computers locate the correct servers and websites.

The administration’s main concern is that the new governance model for ICANN be free from any government interference, whether a single nation or coalitions of governments like the United Nation’s International Telecommunications Union. Any new governance model must fulfill several conditions, with independence from government influence being the primary factor. The new governance plan must also preserve the security and stability of the Internet while keeping it open and free from censorship.

The impact of the change remains unclear, because the Commerce Department’s day-to-day role in overseeing the contract with ICANN is largely clerical. However, other nations have suggested the U.S. can still use its current authority to block certain websites for reasons like copyright infringement or having links to known terrorists. One goal of transitioning ICANN to nongovernmental oversight would be to provide more transparency to all nations into how the Internet’s root structure operates.

Until 1998, the functions were managed by Jon Postel, a computer scientist at the University of Southern California, one of the early pioneers of the World Wide Web. Upon Postel’s death in 1998, the Commerce Department issued a contract to ICANN to take over those functions, making ICANN the primary body in charge of setting policy for Internet domains and addresses.