The US government will remain involved with the management of the internet's DNS (domain-name system) after its current agreement with Icann, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, expired on Saturday.

The decision comes despite international pressure for the US government to bow out and make Icann a totally autonomous entity.

The US Commerce Department will retain Icann oversight for three more years, although there will be a review in 18 months of Icann's progress toward becoming a more stable, transparent and accountable organisation, the government agency said in a statement last week. A spokesman for Icann said that at this 18-month review a decision could be taken to give Icann total autonomy.

The MOU (memorandum of understanding) that has been in place between Icann and the Commerce Department since 1998 has now been modified in several ways that represent a 'dramatic step' towards full autonomy, Icann said in a separate statement.

For example, the MOU had outlined the US government's role as "prescriptive", but now, Icann will determine how it works and what it works on. Furthermore, the requirement for Icann to submit a progress report to the Commerce Department every six months has been lifted. Instead, it will publish an annual progress report aimed at the entire internet community, not just the Commerce Department.

"We do have a new agreement, but it's a much lighter one. And it does show there's clearly light at the end of this tunnel [towards full autonomy]," said Paul Twomey, Icann's president and CEO, during a press conference.

Duties retained by the Commerce Department include helping Icann achieve greater transparency and accountability in how it evaluates and adopts policies, the government agency said. In addition, the Commerce Department said it will continue its oversight of the security and operation of root name servers.

"I'm very comfortable with where we are at this point, yet eager to get on with the remaining steps that will allow us to function without any additional assistance," said Vint Cerf, Icann's board chairman.

The Commerce Department remains committed toward eventually giving Icann full autonomy, it said. However, many observers believe that this full autonomy should have been granted already, because having the US involved in DNS management creates political friction and ultimately slows down the international development of the web.

On the other hand, others believe continued US government oversight of Icann is necessary because Icann hasn't proven it can handle the entire task of DNS management alone, and that if the US government withdraws, the internet's security and stability could be compromised.

Icann is a private, non-profit organisation based in California.

The Commerce Department held a hearing on the matter in July and previously called for written comments, receiving about 700 of them. Last Friday, the agency said that consultation process revealed broad support for continuing the transition towards a fully autonomous Icann but with the Commerce Department's continued involvement.