The group that holds the internet together

SAN FRANCISCO — It is invisible to the millions of people who use the World Wide Web, yet it helps hold the Internet together.

Type in any address in your browser's url box and you'll end up at your desired location, selected from more than 180 million options — a result ultimately made possible by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.

The little-known non-profit group, known as ICANN, oversees the domain name system that routes web traffic. Now it is under international pressure to loosen its ties to the United States in arcane negotiations coming up in September.

The fear is that if the U.S. doesn't begin to loosen its grip on ICANN, other countries, notably China or Russia, could begin to develop alternatives to the U.S.-controlled domain name system, creating confusion and a possible breakdown in one of the internet's core functions.

“It turns out a lot of people care about names because there can only be one name for a thing in cyberspace,” said Rod Beckstrom, chief executive of ICANN, a non-profit group based in Santa Monica, Calif.

With domain names a rare resource, ICANN is like the claims office in a gold rush, and in keeping with the internet's frontier spirit, it remains a work in progress. ICANN was founded in 1998 by computer scientist Jon Postel, one of the original architects of the internet. At the time time, the U.S. government wanted to turn what had been a government-run research project into a civilian network without losing complete control. Toward that end, the U.S. awarded the non-profit group a contract to oversee the vital domain name system.

That key contract remains in effect until 2011, but a second agreement, giving the U.S. scrutiny over ICANN 's internal operations, comes up for review in September. Now, more than a decade after the U.S. started to privatize the network, global Internet leaders want that oversight to end.

“It is very important that the U.S. government signal to the international internet community, and other governments in particular, that it is committed to freeing up its unilateral control over the unique identifiers of the Internet,” said Keith Davidson, executive director InternetNZ, a non-profit that oversees the network in New Zealand.

The internal oversight issue is mainly "symbolic" given that the U.S. still retains ultimate control over domain names through its main contract with ICANN, said Wolfgang Kleinwachter, a Danish expert on Internet governance.

But other world powers want to change that status quo when the second ICANN agreement comes up in 2011, Kleinwachter said. If the U.S. doesn't take this symbolic step now, he said, other countries could develop their own alternatives, “which could lead to a Balkanization of the Internet.”

To help assuage the concerns of the world's nations, ICANN has created a government advisory committee that can bring problems to the 15 voting board members who set domain name policies.

Stefano Trumpy, an Italian computer scientist who represents his country on this government advisory committee, said ICANN is ready to continue its role of settling name disputes without U.S. government supervision. He does not think the U.N. or some other international body should take over the U.S. role. “The problem of ICANN is not to substitute the oversight of one government with an oversight exercised by a multitude of government but rather to get rid of a single government,” Trumpy said.

Beckstrom said ICANN's board of directors, a majority of whom come from outside the United States, is still deciding how to approach the oversight issue come September, mindful of the more substantive negotiations pending in 2011.

“Other nations of the world would like to see ICANN be a truly global organization and either reduce or eliminate its relationship with the U.S. government over time,” he said diplomatically, adding that the nonprofit group will look for a way to “respect its historical commitments while also respecting the interests and aspirations of other governments vis-a-vis the Internet.”