The U.S. government announced Friday it was giving up its key role in charge of the Internet's technical operations, handing over those functions to "the global multistakeholder community."
The US Commerce Department said it would seek "to convene global stakeholders to develop a proposal" for a transition away from US government oversight of the Internet's domain name system.
The move "marks the final phase of the privatization" of the Internet domain system, a statement said.
In 1997, the Internet domain system was handed over by the US government to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, a non-profit group.
The decision comes with Washington under pressure following revelations about vast surveillance programs operated by the secretive National Security Agency to collect data through a variety of methods.
The end of the US oversight role has no immediate impact for Internet users, and ICANN will continue to administer the network's key technical functions.
The shift seeks "to support and enhance the multistakeholder model of Internet policymaking and governance," said the statement from the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).
The US agency's role administering changes to the so-called "root zone" of databases underlying the Internet makes it a steward of that system, even though the functions are contracted out to ICANN and the infrastructure company Verisign.
"The timing is right to start the transition process," said Assistant Commerce Secretary Lawrence Strickling.
"We look forward to ICANN convening stakeholders across the global Internet community to craft an appropriate transition plan."
The statement said the US hopes to "support and enhance the multistakeholder model," and "maintain the openness of the Internet" under any new system.
ICANN welcomed the announcement and said it was moving forward on a transition plan.
"We are inviting governments, the private sector, civil society and other Internet organizations from the whole world to join us in developing this transition process," said ICANN president and CEO Fadi Chehade.
"All stakeholders deserve a voice in the management and governance of this global resource as equal partners."
- ICANN administrator role unchanged -
ICANN said its role as administrator of the Internet's unique identifier system remains unchanged.
"The Internet's Unique Identifier functions are not apparent to most Internet users, but they play a critical role in maintaining a single, global, unified and interoperable Internet." ICANN said.
But the change leaves some questions unanswered on the future stewardship of the Internet.
Daniel Castro, analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, criticized the "negative" move.
"And the government knows it's negative," he told AFP. "That's why they released it on a Friday afternoon."
Castro said the change opens the door to other governments modifying the Internet architecture for political reasons.
"It's one thing for the US government to step back," he said.
"The concern is how do we make it work in practice. Given that other countries have said they will use the Internet for political purposes this threatens the long-term stability of the basic technical functions of the Internet."
In a blog post, Castro said the US has been a force for openness of the Internet.
"Internet users and businesses worry that countries such as Russia or China may manipulate ICANN to censor online content that is outside their borders," he wrote.
"Currently, the US government acts as a deterrent... It is unreasonable, however, to expect all foreign governments to continue to respect ICANN's operating principles in the absence of the US government's oversight and protection of core values."
The leaders of the Internet technical organizations welcomed the news.
"The transition of the US government stewardship has been envisaged since the early days of (ICANN) functions contract," said a statement from the World Wide Web Consortium, Internet Engineering Task Force and other groups.
"This transition is now feasible due to the maturity of the Internet technical organizations."