The federal government appeared unlikely to relinquish oversight of the system for assigning and managing website domain names after a Commerce Department hearing Wednesday raised broad concerns about giving an obscure Marina del Rey nonprofit unsupervised control.
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers was created in 1998 to run the domain name system under the supervision of the Commerce Department. Domain names are the addresses ending in .com, .gov and other three-letter terms that allow users to navigate the World Wide Web.
The goal was to fully privatize the operation by 2000, giving ICANN total control. But that deadline has been extended five times because ICANN has failed to reach some performance standards, and the United States has been hesitant to let go.
With the latest deadline looming on Sept. 30, the Commerce Department held its only public hearing on continued oversight of ICANN on Wednesday. Although many speakers called the existing arrangement flawed, most said ICANN still wasn't ready to handle the task of administering the domain name system on its own.
"There certainly are still strong arguments that there's more work to be done," John M.R. Kneuer, the Commerce Department's acting assistant secretary for communications and information, said afterward. He wouldn't say whether the deadline would be extended, but he strongly hinted it.
The move wouldn't be popular around the world, where many people and governments are calling for the United States to allow more international control of the domain name system.
"No single government should have a preeminent role in Internet governance," Manal Ismail, Egypt's representative to ICANN's Governmental Advisory Committee, wrote in one of more than 700 submissions to the Commerce Department.
Some countries have threatened to establish their own domain name systems. That could balkanize the Internet, potentially creating a series of duplicative sites in other countries, such as the numerous versions of the popular MySpace.com.
"The continued stability of the Internet is important not just to us but to our users," said David Fares, vice president of global economic policy at News Corp., which owns MySpace.
Many speakers Wednesday called on ICANN to become less secretive in the way it operates. The recent decision by ICANN's board to reject a proposed .xxx domain for pornographic sites has been strongly criticized because of suggestions that the Bush administration had influenced the vote.
A spokeswoman for the European Union's commissioner for information society and media accused the U.S. at the time of "political interference" in the decision.
But political interference could become a bigger problem for ICANN if the U.S. government relinquishes oversight of the domain name system too soon.
ICANN could become susceptible to more heavy-handed influence by other countries or the United Nations, said Tim Ruiz, vice president of corporate development and policy planning for Go Daddy Group Inc., which holds the largest registrar of domain names.
But Lynn St. Amour, president and chief executive of the Internet Society, an international group that focuses on global cooperation and coordination of the network, said the United States could lessen its oversight of ICANN, serving only as a backstop in emergencies.
Kneuer said the U.S. was committed to eventually allowing ICANN to fully control the domain name system. But he reiterated a Commerce Department statement released last year that the U.S. would continue its oversight of one function of the system indefinitely -- authorizing changes to the master file of Internet addresses. Improper changes to what's known as the authoritative root zone file could destabilize the Internet.