The US government will indefinitely retain oversight of the main computers that control traffic on the Internet, ignoring calls by some countries to turn the function over to an international body, a senior official said.
The announcement Thursday marked a departure from previously stated US policy.
Michael Gallagher, assistant secretary for communications and information at the Commerce Department, shied away from terming the declaration a reversal, calling it instead "the foundation of US policy going forward."
"The signals and words and intentions and policies need to be clear so all of us benefiting in the world from the Internet and in the US economy can have confidence there will be continued stewardship," Gallagher said.
He said the declaration, officially made in a four-paragraph statement posted online, was in response to growing security threats and increased reliance on the Internet globally for communications and commerce.
Gallagher said Commerce endorses having foreign governments manage their own country-code suffixes, such as ".fr" for France.
The computers in question serve as the Internet's master directories and tell Web browsers and e-mail programs how to direct traffic.
Internet users around the world interact with them every day, likely without knowing it. Policy decisions could at a stroke make all Web sites ending in a specific suffix essentially unreachable.
Though the computers themselves -- 13 in all, known as "root" servers -- are in private hands, they contain government-approved lists of the 260 or so Internet suffixes, such as ".com."
In 1998, the Commerce Department selected a private organization with international board members, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), to decide what goes on those lists.
Commerce kept veto power, but indicated it would let go once ICANN met a number of conditions.
Thursday's declaration means Commerce would keep that control, regardless of whether and when those conditions are met.
"It's completely an about-face if you consider the original commitment made when ICANN was created," said Milton Mueller, a Syracuse University professor who has written about policies surrounding the Internet's root servers.
ICANN officials said they were still reviewing Commerce's statement, which also expressed continued support of ICANN for day-to-day operations.
The declaration won't immediately affect Internet users, but it could have political ramifications by putting in writing what some critics had already feared.
Michael Froomkin, a University of Miami professor who helps run an independent ICANN watchdog site, said the date for relinquishing control has continually slipped.
Some countries, he said, might withdraw support they had for ICANN on the premise it would one day take over the root servers.
In a worst-case scenario, countries refusing to accept US control could establish their own separate Domain Name System and thus fracture the Internet into more than one network. That means two users typing the same domain name could reach entirely different Web sites, depending on where they are.
The announcement comes just weeks before a UN panel is to release a report on Internet governance, addressing such issues as oversight of the root servers, ahead of November's UN World Summit on the Information Society in Tunisia.
Some countries have pressed to move oversight to an international body, such as the UN International Telecommunication Union, although the US government has historically had that role because it funded much of the Internet's early development.
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