Ending Front-Running

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2008-01-17 Print this article Print

Back to front-running. As I've said above, front-running is basically done in advance of tasting. When someone front-runs a domain, he or she is taking a risk on it: The front-runner is not the person interested in it, the person from whom the search was stolen. That search acts as a screening process indicating that someone was interested in the domain, and therefore there may be potential to monetize it.

Is the chance to monetize a domain worth committing funds to it? The answer to that is "up to a point." Let's assume that the average front-run domain has more potential than the average domain name generated algorithmically or from dictionaries. Is it 20 cents' worth of potential? How about a buck? I really doubt it's worth a dollar. To get that level of confidence with a domain, you really can't automate; you have to run the domain past a human judge of value. There are two problems with that: It's expensive and it's time-sensitive. Remember, you have to make the decision and register the domain before the person who thought of it first does so.

So we impose the ICANN fee, although the actual money from it won't be substantial, because its very presence will deter tasting. And we impose an extra "restocking" fee, as discussed in many venues for this problem. That money probably goes to the registry, even though it's even easier money than registries get for domains that are actually registered. Perhaps ICANN could come up with some neutral use for it, like the money in the middle of the board in Monopoly.

The idea behind the grace period was to allow mistakes to be corrected. As a general rule, this is not how it is used. If you make a mistake registering a domain, your registrar is not going to let you "undo" the registration and them register the right name. In general, it's only used by tasters to speculate on monetized domains. But it appears that some registrars have used the grace period in some extraordinary cases, such as when the customer's credit card is determined to have been stolen. Such cases are rare enough that the restock and ICANN fees are just the cost of doing business.

And there's plenty of evidence that imposing a restock fee will deter tasting. In 2007, PIR (Public Interest Registry), the operator of the .org registry, imposed an "excess deletion fee" for that domain. Registrars that delete more than 90 percent of their registrations within the grace period are charged a 5-cent USD fee for each domain deleted. This is about as gentle as you can get, but it reduced deleted domains from 2.4 million in May 2007 to 152,700 in June. Domain tasting in .org hasn't ended, but it's been cut back massively.

And according to Alexa Raad, CEO of PIR, these significant changes happened without much fuss. It's hard to imagine how they could have been more unobtrusive about it. Personally, I don't think they go far enough. Perhaps a change like PIR's could be pushed through the process, even at ICANN, without encountering serious resistance, but I think it's worth going for closer to 100 percent.

For instance, a serious restock fee on all deletes would put a quick end to Network Solutions' "domain protection" feature, just as it would put an end to the front-running and domain tasting of lower-profile outfits. PIR's approach would not stop Network Solutions, since deletes will never be 90 percent of their registrations. And PIR's fee doesn't end tasting, it just causes a restructuring of it. If you can find a way to do some legitimate registration business, you can keep a large tasting business too.

The way the arguments proceed is likely to show where people's interests lie. It's hard to imagine a big "legit" player, other than VeriSign, with an interest in perpetuating domain tasting and opposing the restock fee.

Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983.

Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

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