ICANN downplays "inappropriate" talks with DOJ

The group overseeing the introduction of a new Internet address system has downplayed criticisms by a US Congressman that the group was involved in 'highly inappropriate' discussions with the US Department of Justice.

The group overseeing the introduction of a new Internet address system has downplayed criticisms by a US Congressman that the group was involved in "highly inappropriate" discussions with the US Department of Justice.

The concerns were raised Wednesday by Tom Bliley, chairman of the House Committee on Commerce, in letters he sent to US 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 DOJ official left the impression that the two parties have been colluding over their dealings with Network Solutions (NSI). 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 they're trying to hang on to their monopoly power and has trade barbs with ICANN recently over terms by which NSI will become a part of the new, competitive system.

In particular, Bliley questioned the timing of the ICANN-DOJ conversation with respect to the DOJ's decision the following month to step up its antitrust investigation of NSI, which has been going on since 1997. Bliley is a Republican Congressman from NSI's home state of Virginia.

Bliley's attack was prompted by an email written by Joe Sims, lead outside counsel for ICANN who had the discussion with the DOJ, to Dyson. It was unclear how the Commerce Committee obtained the email.

"I didn't ask them to investigate NSI," Sims said today. Instead, he said he urged the DOJ -- "in their role to promote competition" -- to put pressure on the U.S. Department of Commerce to reach a speedy conclusion in its affairs with ICANN and NSI. The DOC 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 said.

"The thrust of our conversation was our mutual frustration with the lack of aggressiveness on the part of DOC," Sims wrote in his email to Dyson, which he provided IDG with a copy of.

The DOJ 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," DOJ spokeswoman Gina Talamona said. "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 DOJ and ICANN have been improperly coordinating their activities. He has asked the DOJ and ICANN to provide his committee by Aug. 9 with a list and description of all communications between them.

The DOJ 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 DOC to begin opening the domain name system to competitors.

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

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