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updated 9/20/2006 3:42:37 PM ET 2006-09-20T19:42:37

The U.S. Commerce Department said Wednesday it will extend its oversight of the California organization that handles domain name policies, while finding ways to improve the group's accountability and transparency.

John Kneuer, the department's acting assistant secretary for communications and information, said the government's current agreement with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers works and should continue.

Commerce plans to renew a memorandum of understanding with ICANN, but it will likely add provisions designed to address complaints that the group is sometimes too secret and makes decisions that don't reflect the Internet community at large, Kneuer said.

The current agreement expires at the end of the month, but neither Kneuer nor Paul Twomey, ICANN's president and chief executive, provided details about the length of such an extension or about any changes.

ICANN, based in Marina del Ray, Calif., with international board members, was selected in 1998 to handle the Internet's addressing issues, including the key directories that help Web browsers and e-mail programs find other computers on the Internet.

The U.S. government, which funded the Internet's early development, kept veto powers over ICANN decisions, though it has stayed largely hands-off in day-to-day operations.

A key question remains to what extent that will continue with a renewal. Many have called for Commerce to wield even less oversight of ICANN, while not cutting it off completely.

The agreement "is extremely important in that it dictates the extent to which the U.S. government will continue to play a unique role in the oversight of the Internet's Domain Name System," David McGuire of the Center for Democracy and Technology said in an interview. "This has become something that's been increasingly a bout of contention internationally.'

When Commerce last renewed the agreement, in 2003, it suggested ICANN would be ready for self-sufficiency by Sept. 30, 2006. But even advocates of independence believe ICANN is still not ready.

"What we ultimately would love to see would be a completely non-governmental, bottoms-up management body," McGuire said. "At this point, that's just ... not something we think is necessarily even viable."

Paul Kane, chairman of an organization for mostly European country-code domain suffixes, said Commerce still must guide ICANN to revamp its internal structures and enhance participation among its constituents, such as civil society.

Otherwise, he said, ICANN risks becoming irrelevant, and its duties could be taken over by another organization entirely, potentially letting the world's governments meddle even more with the Internet.

In recent years, many countries frustrated with U.S. control of a global resource have called for a takeover by an international body like the United Nations, but the United States resisted and during a U.N. summit in November won an endorsement from world leaders for keeping control.

Instead, the United States agreed to join in a newly created international forum to discuss matters ICANN wouldn't normally handle. That forum is scheduled to convene in Athens Oct. 30 to Nov. 2.

Kneuer told a Senate Commerce subcommittee Wednesday that stakeholders who had submitted comments on the government's agreement with ICANN generally favored the Commerce Department's continued involvement but wanted "a more specific focus on transparency and accountability in ICANN's internal procedures and decision-making processes."

Christine Jones, general counsel for domain registration company GoDaddy.com Inc., recommended the pact's renewal with a roadmap for ICANN "to regain the confidence of the community it serves."

She complained to the Senate panel that ICANN's recent decision to extend a contract with VeriSign Inc. to manage ".com" and ".net" names came without enough input from the Internet community.

Other critics have complained that many decisions take place behind closed doors, with minutes from meetings often late and incomplete.

Twomey defended the extent to which ICANN discloses its dealings but acknowledged the available materials are "not easy to understand." He said one of ICANN's top priorities will be to make such issues and decisions easier for participants to digest.

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