DOJ, ICANN accused of collusion

A leading Congressman criticizes officials for discussing an ongoing antitrust investigation into Network Solutions.

A leading Congressman complained of collusion between officials from the Justice Department and the nonprofit assuming control of core Internet functions, criticizing discussions about Justice's ongoing antitrust investigation into Network Solutions, the dominant registrar of domain names.

Rep. Tom Bliley (R-Virginia) leveled his charges in letters sent to Attorney General Janet Reno and Esther Dyson, interim chair of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). ICANN is the agency assuming administration of top-level domain names ending in ".com," ".net," and ".org" from NSI, the current government contractor running the bulk of the domain naming system.

Bliley, chair of the powerful House Commerce Committee, first raised the matter at a hearing called last week to explore whether ICANN has exceeded its limited authority in taking control of the domain name system. Members introduced an email in which ICANN attorney Joe Sims recounted a conversation he had with a senior Justice Department official in charge of the ongoing investigation into NSI.

According to portions of the March 1999 email, the two discussed ways to "increase the level of pressure" on Commerce Department officials negotiating a key contract between NSI and the competing domain registrars slated to use NSI's domain registration software. They also discussed "how desirable it would be to get control of the root [server] away from NSI," Bliley wrote in one of the letters today. The root server is the master database that routes traffic on the Internet.

The conversations between ICANN and Justice appear to be "highly inappropriate," Bliley wrote to both Dyson and Reno, surmising that ICANN appeared to be making an end run around Commerce, which authorized the nonprofit agency to phase out NSI's cooperative agreement with the government, which gave the company exclusive rights to register top-level domain names.

He also took Justice Department officials to task for "discussing an open enforcement matter with ICANN, a party with a decided interest in that case," noting that shortly after Sims' conversation with the official, the agency broadened its investigation into NSI.

"Whether warranted or not, [the timing] certainly gives the impression of collusion between ICANN and your department on this sensitive enforcement and Internet policy matter," Bliley wrote to Reno.

Bliley's charge is the latest criticism directed at ICANN, which also has come under fire for now-abandoned plans to collect a dollar per domain name from each of the domain registrars chosen to compete with NSI. The nonprofit also has been taken to task for conducting closed board meetings.

ICANN's Sims said that he in fact did have a conversation with a Justice Department official but said there was nothing inappropriate about it.

"All I was doing there--and I think it's perfectly ordinary--was urging them to do what they could to persuade Commerce of the importance of a procompetitive solution," Sims said in an interview. "Part of what the Department of Justice is supposed to do is to advocate for competitive solutions."

Justice Department spokeswoman Gina Talamona defended the conversation. The official "was having an appropriate conversation because he was discussing general competition policy and didn't talk about any investigation of any kind," she said.

Separately, Bliley also sent letters to officials at the Commerce Department and NSI concerning the latter's plans to launch its "Dot Com Directory."

Bliley, who hails from Virginia, where NSI is located, put tough questions to Commerce about the current impasse about the ownership of the Whois database, which lists contact information for more than 5 million domain names registered through NSI and forms the basis of the Dot Com Directory.

The vast majority of listings come from information collected while NSI was still operating under its cooperative agreement with the government. NSI contends that it owns the information and has the right to prevent competitors from using the database commercially. The Commerce Department, on the other hand, says NSI is required to unconditionally make the information available to anyone.

"I am concerned about whether the Department of Commerce could have devoted additional forethought and resources to address this specific issue earlier, possibly avoiding the present situation," Bliley wrote.

Commerce Department officials were not available for comment.

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