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ICANN downplays 'inappropriate' DOJ talks

August 3, 1999
Web posted at: 11:46 a.m. EDT (1546 GMT)

by James Niccolai

Network World Fusion
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(IDG) -- The group overseeing the introduction of a new Internet address system downplayed criticisms recently made by a U.S. Congressman. The criticisms indicated that the group was involved in "highly inappropriate" discussions with the Department of Justice.

Chairman of the House Committee on Commerce Tom Bliley last week sent letters, indicating his concern, to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno and Esther Dyson, interim chair of the nonprofit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).

Bliley said a conversation that took place in March between the chief counsel for ICANN and a Justice Department official left the impression that the two parties have been colluding over their dealings with Network Solutions Inc. NSI was the sole registrar of .com, .org and .net top-level domain names until a few months ago operating under a contract with the U.S. government. The company has come under heavy criticism by rivals who claim that NSI is trying to hang on to its monopoly power and has recently traded barbs with ICANN over terms by which NSI will become a part of the new, competitive system.

In particular, Bliley questioned the timing of the ICANN/Justice Department conversation with respect to the Justice Department's decision the following month to step up its antitrust investigation of NSI, which has been going on since 1997. Bliley [R-Va.] is congressman from NSI's home state.
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Bliley's attack was prompted by an e-mail written by Joe Sims, lead outside counsel for ICANN who had the discussion with the Justice Department, to Dyson. It was unclear how the Commerce Committee obtained the e-mail.

"I didn't ask them to investigate NSI," Sims says. Instead, he said he urged the Justice Department -- "in their role to promote competition" -- to put pressure on the Department of Commerce to reach a speedy conclusion in its affairs with ICANN and NSI. The Commerce Department negotiates the contracts with NSI and approved ICANN's formation.

"The notion that there is something improper about advocating your client's position is kind of strange," Sims says.

"The thrust of our conversation was our mutual frustration with the lack of aggressiveness on the part of DOC," Sims wrote in his e-mail to Dyson, a copy that he gave to the IDG News Service.

The Justice Department also said there was nothing untoward about the conversation.

"They were in general discussions about general competition advocacy and they didn't refer in any way to the case against NSI," says Justice Department Spokeswoman Gina Talamona. "If you're talking generally about competition advocacy, then that's appropriate."

Bliley deemed the conversation "highly inappropriate" and said it raises "significant questions" about whether the Justice Department and ICANN have been improperly coordinating their activities. He has asked the Justice Department and ICANN to provide his committee with a list and description of all communications between them by Aug. 9.

The Justice Department began exploring NSI's affairs two years ago out of concern that NSI was behaving anticompetitively to protect its monopoly but reportedly put the investigation on hold late last year after NSI reached an agreement with the Commerce Department to begin opening the domain name system to competitors.

Bliley also asked for an explanation as to why the Justice Department resumed its antitrust investigation of NSI in April.

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