U.S. Renews Contract for Oversight Of Internet

By Arshad Mohammed
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 20, 2006

The Bush administration plans to renew its exclusive contract with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the U.S.-based nonprofit group that oversees key technical matters governing how computers communicate over the Internet.

The intention to give ICANN a sole-source contract, disclosed on a federal government contracting Web site Thursday, reflects the Commerce Department's belief that the group, based in Marina del Rey, Calif., is the only entity capable of the unglamorous but necessary responsibility of managing the Internet's basic plumbing.

"We continue to believe ICANN is uniquely qualified to perform the services," said Ranjit de Silva, a spokesman for the department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

The decision may revive international debate about the Commerce Department's role overseeing ICANN's work, a source of resentment among countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Brazil. Even the European Union has called for phasing out the department's oversight in favor of some model that would increase international input.

That puts the Bush administration in something of a bind as it tries to balance the demands of U.S. lawmakers adamant that the United States retain its oversight with those of other countries that want more of a say.

"The people in the government have one eye on the domestic situation, where the Internet is the American flag," said Michael D. Gallagher, a former assistant secretary of commerce for communications and information who is now a partner at the law firm Perkins Coie LLP. "Internationally, we can't appear too strong or too much in charge, because that's exactly what drives the international community to distraction."

Under the contract, which would run for one year with four one-year options, ICANN would keep its core function of managing the Internet's domain name system -- essentially overseeing the master list at the heart of the Internet that helps users find their way around and ensures that traffic goes to the right addresses.

In its notice, the Commerce Department said other groups had until June 17 to make the case that they were capable of meeting the contract's technical demands and overcome the agency's presumption that ICANN is best suited to the task.

"Most people in the Internet space believe that despite its flaws, ICANN is the only organization that could conceivably fill its role in the Internet management space," said David McGuire, a spokesman for the Center for Democracy & Technology, a Washington public policy group that often is critical of the government.

"We would like to see ICANN get better, we would like to see ICANN become more transparent and more representative . . . but we tend to agree that ICANN is the only reasonable option at this point for managing the Internet's domain name system," he said.

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