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House subcommittee gives NSI a grilling

A highly charged hearing convened to scrutinize the nonprofit taking over administration of the critical Internet infrastructure ends up taking the dominant registrar to task as well.

WASHINGTON--A highly charged House subcommittee hearing convened to scrutinize the nonprofit taking over administration of the critical Internet infrastructure ended up taking the dominant registrar to task as well.

The House Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations convened the meeting to address allegations that the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) had overstepped its authority. ICANN is the nonprofit assuming administration of top-level domain names ending in ".com," ".net," and ".org" from NSI, the current government contractor running the bulk of the system.

But House members quickly turned their attention toward NSI, its domain name monopoly, and its alleged resistance to the transition to ICANN control.

Under heated questioning, NSI chief executive Jim Rutt claimed ownership over the domain registry database and left open a possible struggle for the database's control when the company's government contract expires in September 2000.

Rutt, who took over NSI's top post two months ago, denied that the company is a monopoly.

"We are in a fiercely competitive market," he said, adding that 248 domain registrars exist. Until recently, however, NSI was the only company permitted to register domain names ending in ".com," ".net," and ".org," which Rutt eventually conceded account for about 75 percent of the world's domain names.

Rep. Ron Klink (D-Pennsylvania) pushed Rutt on that point: "You are the only one that controls '.com'?"

Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Michigan) also accused NSI of intentionally holding up the transition to a competitive system by refusing to submit to ICANN's control.

"It seems to me that [NSI] questions the very authority of ICANN's existence," Reuters quoted Stupak as saying. "It sounds like a classic delay tactic."

Last year, the Clinton administration appointed ICANN to assume responsibility for maintaining a number of the Internet's core functions. In addition to bringing competition to the system for registering the three most popular types of domain names, ICANN recently took over the database--known as the "A" root server--that is responsible for routing traffic on the Internet.

Under the plan to bring competition to the system, NSI will maintain the master database, or registry, that new competitors must plug into to register addresses.

But ICANN's role has been fiercely contested by NSI and other critics, who say the nonprofit has overstepped its limited mandate. They point to closed board meetings and a plan to charge $1 per year for every domain name ending in ".com," ".net," and "org." ICANN earlier this week bowed to criticism by agreeing to suspend the fee and hold its next board meeting in public.

Still, ICANN did not escape criticism at today's hearing.

In a scene reminiscent of the Justice Department's legal brawl with Microsoft, House members redirected their criticism at ICANN, introducing damaging email that suggests ICANN tried to influence an investigation the Justice Department is directing at NSI. Trust busters are examining NSI's claims that it owns registration databases. Any action by Justice could give ICANN leverage with NSI.

The email, sent in March by ICANN attorney Joe Sims, urged a Justice Department official to "increase the level of pressure" on the Commerce Department, which at the time was negotiating with NSI over key details at the heart of the shared registration system. Issues--such as how much NSI may charge competitors to add names to the registry and who ultimately owns the registry--have yet to be resolved.

As reported by CNET News.com, the Justice Department stepped up its investigation of NSI in May, two months after Sims sent the email.

Reuters contributed to this report.