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Obama administration joins critics of U.S. nonprofit group that oversees Internet

Chris Disspain, chairman of an ICANN internal group and an executive who oversees Australian domain names, said the prospect of governments running the Web would be calamitous. "China, Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia and number of others have said in meetings they believe ICANN shouldn't be in existence, or be replaced by some U.N. body," he said. "Frankly, that would be a disaster."

Some countries fear that the United States has, at the very least, the appearance of too much power by owning the contract to run the master database of Web addresses.

"One concern is that if the U.S. decides Syria is behaving badly, then they could make all Web sites using Syria's country code domain - .sy - point to freedom of expression sites, for example," said Avri Doria, an ICANN group chairman. "Countries say, 'How can we subject ourselves to that?'"

Crocker, the ICANN board's vice chairman, said the chances of the United States tinkering with the master Web database are "nil." ICANN can only request changes in the master database; the U.S. government reviews those decisions, then the Dulles-based company VeriSign executes the change.

The Commerce Department, however, worries that other countries might soon lobby en masse for the U.N. to take over instead. Commerce officials prefer a nimble private-sector organization to run the Web's addressing system, but the government doesn't believe ICANN is listening enough to the international community.

Some ICANN officials worry that, if tensions continue with the Commerce Department, the nonprofit organization might lose its contract to run the Web's master database. That contract, which the Commerce Department last gave to ICANN in a no-bid process, comes up for renewal in the fall. Commerce officials have yet to decide whether they will ask for other organizations to compete for it.

In mid-February at a technology conference in Colorado, Lawrence Strickling, an assistant secretary in the Commerce Department, put ICANN on notice, declaring it "must act" by June on a set of accountability guidelines made by him and international leaders who will continue to "monitor" it. Strickling warned about the "forces at play" lobbying for the United Nations to run the Web.

Strickling said he met privately in December with ICANN board members in Colombia, where he urged ICANN to be more transparent and open to recommendations from foreign nations. "It's not out of hostility . . . but I am trying to nudge ICANN to be its best," Strickling said in an interview. "It's important that this model have buy-in from other governments in order to support the global growth of the Internet."

ICANN scored one minor victory in February. Its advisory body of foreign nations rejected the Obama administration's proposal that would have required ICANN to make it easier for nations to object to controversial new Web suffixes such as .gay or .xxx.

The United States proposed that any country within ICANN's advisory council should be able to recommend eliminating any new domain name. If no other country objected to that nation's veto recommendation, then ICANN's board would have to follow suit. ICANN, however, wants those challenges to go before three experts guiding the International Chamber of Commerce.

But ICANN's advisory body of foreign countries recently decided that any nation's objection will be considered as non-binding advice to ICANN's board.

Commerce Department officials worry that if foreign governments feel they have no role in the process, they will start ignoring ICANN, blocking Web sites and splitting up the Internet so that only certain domains can be accessed, depending on the country.

Critics of the Commerce Department say the agency is bending too much to other nations' preferences. "The U.S. government was pushing hard to give any country the power to object and have that right be decisive," said Milton Mueller, a Syracuse University professor who has chaired and participated in several groups that developed ICANN policies that would be overridden by the U.S. intervention. "We think they were playing a geopolitical game of placating governments."

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