For the last ten years, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers - ICANN - has managed certain aspects of internet governance, most notably the assignment of domain names. But on Wednesday, ICANN's mandate expires, and many interested parties are concerned about the less-than-comprehensive plans for its replacement.
Up to now, a series of agreements have given the US government a high level of control over ICANN, and have gone into some detail over its management. But the replacement deal - an Affirmation of Commitments - is much shorter, and gives ICANN much more autonomy. It also has no fixed term.
What it does do is give more involvement to foreign governments, creating oversight panels that will review ICANN's performance in competition amongst generic domains, data protection, security, transparency, accountability and the public interest. But these oversight groups have almost no teeth - for example, while they can call for board decision to be reviewed, they have no power to dismiss that board.
"The issue is how to transform ICANN or any entity dealing with the management of internet resources into one that allows the participation of all those affected by its decisions," comments Karen Banks of APC - a member of the Working Group on Internet Governance - who has been involved in the ICANN discussions. "Largely, governments feel - and in some ways rightly so - that they have a right to be involved in the development of the internet."
But while most discussion on the future of ICANN has centered around whether the US should hand over more control to foreign governments, there is also increasing concern about the commercialisation of the organisation.
"One big problem is that ICANN is still under the official oversight of the US government. I think an even larger problem is that it's dominated by private commercial interests," says Banks.
A lot more domain names are due to be created and sold over the next year, including names in other scripts, so that full web addresses can be written in Chinese and Arabic, for example. There are no limits on the number of gTLDs that can potentially be created - anyone can apply for one, at a cost of about $100,000.
Banks believes that ICANN is focusing too much on such money-making opportunities.
"The organisation is totally interested in selling new domains. It's largely industry lobbies. There's no non-governmental, non-profit interest there. They're commercial trade shows, which is so far from the origins of the internet," she says. "The problem is, is it any better to leave the US government and be run by commercial interests that control through power, money and lobbying?"
CADNA - the Coalition Against Domain Name Abuse, set up to fight cybersquatting - is one of the strongest opponents of ICANN in its present form.
"ICANN is broken," says CADNA president Josh Bourne, who lists ten main faults with the organisation. "ICANN is more interested in making a profit than working for the benefit of internet users:
ICANN's funding structure, which raises revenue through fees on every registered and renewed domain name, creates conflicts of interests and forces ICANN to support policies favoring the sales of domain names."
Says CADNA, "Expanding the number of gTLDs [generic Top Level Domains], the latest of a series of risky policies, will make it easier for those who pose threats to national security to conceal their online operations and identities." It aslso means, of course, that companies that want to maintain control of their brand names will be forced to buy many, many domains.
As a result, CADNA is calling for a full-scale audit of ICANN. While the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Courts and Competition Policy is examining the effect that the gTLD expansion will have on competition, CADNA believes the US government should go further.
It suggests that, after the expiry of the current agreement on Wednesday, ICANN should be allowed to carry on operating on the same basis as before, but purely to give time for a federal commission to examine its governance, structure and policies.
"This federal commission should take six to twelve months to fully audit ICANN and develop recommendations for a revised and updated JPA [Joint Project Agreement]. The commission should draw from businesses, government, academics, and other experts. A commission can be established through simple legislation passed in the US Congress," says CADNA.
"What we need is some kind of managed transition procedure, either to an internationalized insitution similar to the Red Cross in Switzerland, or that it carries on as an independent public interest company, but with greatly improved accountability and transparency," says Banks. "But the huge imbalance of power of the various consitituencies within ICANN is hard to address."