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The US is to retain its controversial control of the internet’s core addressing system, at least for now, though it moved a step closer on Friday to handing responsibility for this key part of the online medium to a fully independent body.

The Department of Commerce’s continuing influence over the internet’s root directory – the system that “glues” the global internet together, enabling a person anywhere in the world to find any page – came under fire last year from the European Union, which wanted broader international oversight. Icann, the body that runs the addressing system under licence from the US, has also been accused of secrecy, and of moving too slowly to extending the addressing system to languages other than English.

That has raised the spectre of rival, national-level addressing systems springing up outside Icann’s root directory, which would fragment the internet into a series of stand-alone networks.

The commerce department has repeatedly said it planned to hand control of the addressing system to the private sector, but only when it was sure that certain principles in the system were protected, such as technical stability, security, and competition.

On Friday, the department announced a new contract with Icann that provides for continued government authority, marking a step back from the indication it gave at the time of the last three-year agreement that it planned to work towards full independence. But it said it still planned to give up control eventually, and the new three-year agreement provided for a review after 18 months to see whether Icann has yet met the requirements.

Icann itself called its new relationship with the US government “a dramatic step” towards full management of the addressing system through what it called a “multi-stakeholder model of consultation”. It said the new agreement would allow it to act more autonomously, for instance by allowing it to set its own work agenda.

In congressional testimony last week, John Kneuer, a commerce department official, said a consultation process run by his department had revealed “strong support for a more specific focus on transparency and accountability in Icann’s internal procedures and decision-making processes”, as well as “the continued involvement of the Department of Commerce in this transition”.

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