The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is starting to look at how the organization might function after its current memorandum of understanding with the US Department of Commerce expires in September 2009.

ICANN, the nonprofit group that manages the internet domain name system, has suggested it should become independent of Commerce Department oversight when the current Joint Project Agreement (JPA) with the agency expires. The agency's memorandum of understanding with ICANN has been in place since 1998, but in recent years, representatives of some other countries have questioned why the US government should have primary oversight of the organisation.

ICANN has made significant improvements in accountability, transparency and other issues since the Commerce Department renewed the agreement in September 2006, said Paul Levins, ICANN's executive officer and vice president of corporate affairs. ICANN's goal after the Commerce Department agreement ends, he said, is to expand a global governance model that allows input from a broad range of internet communities.

"What we're trying to do is ensure that the accountabilities that the organisation has now, the responsibilities to all the stakeholders, are locked in place forever," Levins said Friday. "We want to try to lock in the existing model over the long term."

Some people have suggested the JPA should remain in place to provide accountability. "The fact that ICANN is making progress toward meeting its responsibilities does not imply that the JPA is no longer needed," Thomas Lenard, president and senior fellow at conservative think tank iGrowthGlobal, wrote in comments about the agreement. "Indeed, it may demonstrate the value of the JPA. The JPA and the continuing tie to the Department of Commerce may account for ICANN's good performance."

Questions about ICANN's future have come up during a midterm review of the Commerce Department agreement. The public was invited to comment on the agreement and the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration hosted a public hearing on the agreement in late February.

As a nonprofit, ICANN operates with "almost no oversight," Lenard added in his comments. "ICANN is a unique organisation," he wrote. "It is a nonprofit corporation under California law, but unlike literally any other nonprofit, ICANN makes decisions of major economic and social consequence throughout the world."

The Center for Democracy and Technology and TechNet, a trade group representing tech senior executives, both advocated for a continued agreement with the Commerce Department.

But the expiration of the agreement would still leave ICANN with accountability, Levins said. ICANN still has a contract with the US to operate the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), and its board members are elected by several groups. The organization must follow California law governing nonprofits, Levins said, and in a "next steps" document, it has proposed a procedure for removing the board if enough of the nominating groups agree on removal.

Some other people commenting on ICANN's performance have suggested the organization hasn't made enough progress on its goals under the Commerce Department agreement. The organization hasn't done enough work on internationalized domain names "to empower local non-English speaking communities," wrote Khaled Fattal, chairman and CEO of Live Multilingual Translator, a company providing online English-to-Arabic translations. ICANN's inactivity on internationalized domain names has "seriously damaged potential good faith, trust, and belief in ICANN's competence in the eyes of the very people ICANN is seeking to appeal to today," Fattal wrote.

But many of the comments on ICANN during the midterm review were positive. "It is our opinion that ICANN is living up to its mandate and that the endeavour of transitioning ICANN into a private sector entity is taking shape," wrote Anthony Mugambi, chairman of the Kenya Network Information Centre. "Conclusion of the JPA would, however, provide the next logical step toward full transition some time in the future."

ICANN's Levins said the organisation is paying attention to criticisms. ICANN "could and should always do more," he said. "Is there even a point where you can say ... security and stability are done?"

But the organisation also wants to more toward being more autonomous, as has been the stated goal of the agreement with the Commerce Department, he said. ICANN will begin engaging stakeholders about how a transition should work in the coming months, he said.

"The [Internet] addressing system is so fundamental," he said. "We need to make sure that can't change and there isn't a point at which any one entity is able to change that, or can reconfigure that somewhere down the track."