The hearing before a House subcommittee yesterday was supposed be a long-awaited opportunity for Network Solutions Inc., the Herndon firm that assigns most of world's Internet addresses, to publicly attack a nonprofit corporation that is trying to inject competition into the address business.
Organizers had billed the hearing as an inquiry into whether the corporation, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, is "out of control." Industry executives figured Network Solutions would get a boost in a policy debate over just how big its role should be in the Internet of the future.
But in a twist of political maneuvering, Republican members' questioning of ICANN was vastly overshadowed by Democrats' fierce criticism of Network Solutions and by the company's sometimes malapropos responses.
"In our economic system, no one can support the continued existence of such a monopoly," Rep. Ron Klink (D-Pa.) said about Network Solutions' current dominance of the address business. He criticized the firm for a "schoolyard-bully approach" in dealing with ICANN.
The Clinton administration decided last year to transfer its responsibility for the assignment of Internet addresses and technical issues on the global network to the private sector, through ICANN. Under the administration's plan, Network Solutions -- which had an exclusive arrangement to register addresses that end with ".com," ".org" and ".net" -- would have to open its business to competitors and work with ICANN, which would manage the competitive process.
But thus far, Network Solutions has refused to recognize ICANN. The company argues that ICANN is trying to become a regulatory agency for the traditionally free-flowing Internet.
ICANN denies that and contends that Network Solutions is not working with ICANN because it wants to prolong its monopoly -- an argument that resonated yesterday with Democratic members of the House Commerce Committee's subcommittee on oversight and investigations.
"It sounds to me like it's a classic delay tactic," Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) said of Network Solutions' refusal to recognize ICANN.
"I'll leave that question to the lawyers," responded James P. Rutt, Network Solutions' chief executive, who was called to testify along with ICANN Chairman Esther Dyson and two Commerce Department officials.
Other Democrats followed with hostile questions for Rutt. When asked by Klink what incentive Network Solutions (NSI) had to move negotiations forward with ICANN and the administration, Rutt responded: "As the new CEO of NSI, I didn't come here to fight border wars with lawyers," saying that he joined the company to work on "growing our business . . . and become an aggressive competitor in a fair and open market rather than wasting my time on, frankly, small-change matters."
"Are you saying that the kind of money that NSI has been is making off its virtual monopoly is small change?" Klink asked.
Rutt responded that Network Solutions would make even more money as competitors help expand the address-registration market and the firm diversifies into other businesses.
"But you're walking away from a sure thing which has brought a lot of value," Klink shot back. "The longer you hold that, that's gravy running all over your plate."
Republicans, particularly Commerce Chairman Thomas J. Bliley Jr. of Virginia, had been critical of several recent ICANN actions, including the board's decision to meet behind closed doors and charge a $1 fee on every address to fund its operations. But ICANN on Monday decided to open its meetings and rescind the $1 fee, allowing Dyson to deflect some criticism yesterday.
Bliley called the $1 fee and the closed meetings "misguided ideas." He also took aim at the administration for not fully anticipating difficulties between Network Solutions and ICANN in bringing about competition.
"Have they been terrifically executed?" Commerce official Becky Burr said of the administration's plans. "I'm afraid not. But I think we are moving forward to get it straightened out."
Trying to shift the focus back to ICANN, committee staff members released an electronic-mail message written by ICANN attorney Joe Sims relating a conversation he had with a Justice Department official in which Sims said he encouraged Justice to "increase the level of pressure" on Commerce to take a hard-line stance with Network Solutions.
The Justice Department has been investigating whether Network Solutions' conduct is violating antitrust laws. But Burr said Commerce "has not been following" the Justice investigation.