As Internet use expands worldwide, the United States said Wednesday it will give other governments and the private sector a greater oversight role in an organization whose decisions affect how computers relay traffic such as e-mail and Twitter posts.
The move comes after European regulators and other critics have said the U.S. government could wield too much influence over a system used by hundreds of millions of people worldwide. Those critics have complained, among other things, about the slow rollout of Internet addresses in languages other than English.
However, the U.S. government stopped short Wednesday of cutting its ties completely with the Internet organization, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN. The government agreed instead to establish advisory panels made up of government and private-sector representatives around the world.
The panels will review how well ICANN decisions are made openly, reflect the public interest, ensure stability and promote competition for domain names, which are the monikers ending in ".com" and other suffixes. ICANN decisions could influence what domain names are available, what languages they are in and how much they cost.
"The Internet is on a long-term arch from being 100 percent American to being 100 percent global," said Rod Beckstrom, the former U.S. cybersecurity chief who joined ICANN as chief executive in July. "This is a significant step along that arch to becoming more global."
The U.S. Commerce Department has a guaranteed seat on only one of those panels, with the remaining representatives to be picked by leaders from ICANN and its advisory committee of government officials.
But the panels' recommendations won't be binding on ICANN. And Commerce retains oversight through a separate contract for ICANN to handle the nuts-and-bolts of domain name administration. That contract runs through 2011; the new one taking effect Thursday covers ICANN's broader role in setting guidelines and policies.
ICANN also agreed to remain a nonprofit headquartered in the United States it's based in Marina del Rey, Calif. with offices around the world.
Beckstrom said some critics abroad might take that to mean Internet governance still isn't truly global, but the arrangement should ultimately bolster ICANN's standing internationally.
"The U.S. government is saying, `OK, you have become a multistakeholder body. Congratulations. Now on to the next set of challenges,'" Beckstrom said.
Although the United States will be sharing oversight on these review panels, Commerce officials expect to be more active than before. In the past, the U.S. rarely exercised its veto power over ICANN decisions, and it didn't conduct the formal, public reviews envisioned by the new agreement.
"In the early years we were focused on building ICANN as an institution," Lawrence E. Strickling, assistant commerce secretary for communications and information, said in an interview. "We now are about to turn our attention to focusing on ICANN's performance."
ICANN has had oversight over domain names under a series of loose agreements with the U.S. government, which funded much of the Internet's development. The latest was expiring Wednesday.
Many critics of ICANN and its U.S. oversight, including the European Union's Internet chief, Viviane Reding, saw the expiration as an opportunity to revamp Internet governance.
Under the compromise in the new agreement, the review panels are to issue reports every three or four years. Their makeup will largely fall on ICANN's chief executive, an American; its chairman, who is from New Zealand; and the chairman of the Governmental Advisory Committee, currently a Latvian.
Reding praised the new framework in a statement, and said the governments that now have more of a say in ICANN should take advantage of the opportunity.
In the coming months ICANN hopes to revamp procedures for adding domain name suffixes, which likely would spawn hundreds or thousands of new Internet addresses. A launch has been delayed because of objections over such issues as whether trademark owners could wind up having to buy thousands of new domain names simply to protect their intellectual-property rights.
ICANN also is close to allowing entire Internet addresses to be in languages other than English for the first time, potentially easing the way online for people who now must type English characters to reach Web sites in their tongues. ICANN officials say they've needed time to come up with ways to reduce fraud and fairly assign new suffixes in other languages.