Typo-Squatting, DNS Wildcards and the Sucky State of Domain Affairs

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2006-08-28 Print this article Print

Opinion: There's more evidence that the domain registration system is failing to serve the public's interests, and it's going to get even worse.

Early in August someone on Circle ID noted that a wildcard entry had been added to the .cm country domain, which is the TLD (top-level domain) for the West African nation of Cameroon. Cameroon? Who cares, you may be thinking. But a wildcard entry in the DNS (Domain Name System) for a TLD lets the administrators define an entry to handle all failed lookups, and, in case you didnt notice already, ".cm" is a common typo for those who really wanted ".com". So, in other words, if you surfed to "www.eweek.cm" instead of "www.eweek.com" you would go to the page they defined. Some engineers from Cameroon found out (see the comment thread below the Circle ID posting) and raised a stink with the right people back home, and now the wildcard is down.
Of course, this is just a technically interesting example of the broader problem of "typo-squatting"—the use of domain names close enough to other well-known domain names that users often type them by accident. Check out http://www.googgle.com/ for an example, but please dont click on any of the links; youd only be encouraging them.
Click here to read about ICANNs way of handling a famous domain-name theft case. Wildcarding first came into the news three years ago when VeriSign wildcarded the entire .com and .net domains, in a "service" it called Sitefinder. There is a plausible argument that users are better off going to the Sitefinder page than getting "Cannot find server or DNS Error" in their browsers, but VeriSign withdrew Sitefinder after considerable criticism. Yet wildcarding remains: John Levine, author of "The Internet for Dummies," did a quick study and found 13 of them at the top DNS levels. According to Levine, half of them are harmless, or perhaps even helpful. Some of the others try to "help" you to register the domain name you just typed. The most incredible one is the .ws domain wildcard, which displays a get-rich-quick scheme. Try some obviously wrong domain like http://www.3dlk4fsjf3lksj5ds7aos.ws to see it. (Yes, duffel bags full of $100 bills are within your grasp through a proven Internet marketing method!) Three of the wildcards (*.cd—Democratic Republic of the Congo, *.ph—Philippines and *.vg—British Virgin Islands) redirect to a directory page with ad links through Yahoos Overture service. I have only a small amount of patience for the arguments of those who claim theyre just making a living in the same way that MSN and Yahoo and Google are when they take advantage of technical flaws in the system and user errors to mislead people. The folks behind these sites are simple frauds and vultures. In fact, while the .cm wildcard is down, several obvious typo-squats are up in that domain: Ask.cm, chase.cm, mapquest.cm, match.cm, weather.cm and youtube.cm are all up and serving ads. Many of the ads on these sites syndicate through Google Syndication and Yahoos Overture. I asked Google and Yahoo if their terms of service permitted ads through typo-squatted domains, but neither company responded to my question. Next page: But wait, it gets worse!

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.

Submit a Comment

Loading Comments...
Manage your Newsletters: Login   Register My Newsletters

Rocket Fuel