Network Solutions Defends New Domain Policies

Some users may not like Network Solutions' new domain name registration policy, but Network Solutions says it's all about protecting users from "front-runners."

Many people are angry at Network Solutions' new domain name registration policy, but in an eWEEK interview, Network Solutions Senior Public Relations Representative Susan Wade said the company's goal was simply to "defend our customers against front-runners."

Wade explained, "We believe that some of our customers are having .com domain names taken from them because we've received a lot of customer complaints. They believe that they have come up with unique names, but after searching for them, they now find that the name has been taken."

In front-running, a company, usually a domain squatter, will discover that someone is searching for a given domain name. The domain squatter's automated search and register tools will see this happening and register the domain name. The domain squatter will then try for a small, quick score by placing an advertisement page on the newly acquired domain name, and hope for a bigger payoff by forcing the original searcher to pay a high price for the preferred site name.

Creditable reports of domain squatters front-running activities go back for years. Most domain companies and ISPs, however, deny that it's happening. Or, if it is happening, they say they would like to see some solid proof of it. For example, Ken Schafer, vice president of marketing for Canadian ISP Tucows, wrote in Tucow's corporate blog, "If Network Solutions has evidence of registries--or any service provider for that matter--actually being involved in front-running, I urge them to share this information with the Internet community so that we can all make sure that these people are called out for the practice and our customers can be told to avoid them in the future."

Wade's reply to this kind of question is that while Network Solutions has no hard proof, it does have the word of its customers that domain name stealing is happening. She also said Network Solutions' technical staff has looked into the matter and found numerous ways for an unscrupulous business to snatch domain names from people.

The list includes:

  • software (freeware and shareware client applications, Browser Helper Objects, extensions, plug-ins or cookies) that relays DNS (Domain Name System) look-ups, WHOIS look-ups and other system activities to software developers or their affiliates via undisclosed back channels;
  • third-party abuse of query data at WHOIS portals (any portal that runs a WHOIS query and records those names submitted that do not resolve to a Web site);
  • analysis of DNS data to target (NxD) nonexistent domain queries (obtaining a list of domains that do not resolve and are reported as a 404 error--front-runners obtain this error report to determine domains that are searched for);
  • exploitation of availability check data by registrars, resellers or registries (the selling of their own search data);
  • mining of cross-TLD (top-level domain) availability checks (if you search for a domain in one extension and then it is registered across other extensions); and
  • exploitation of unintentional or premature corporate information leaks.

Which methods are actually being used? Which companies are pulling any of these tricks? That's something Network Solutions doesn't know, Wade said. It's the company's position that the best it can do is to protect its customers by automatically registering any site searched for from its main page.

Wade said that by the end of the business day on Jan. 11, Network Solutions will no longer be automatically registering sites from searches that originate from its Whois page.

She also said, "We are including additional customer notification of our protection measure on our home and search Web pages." This notification is taking the form of an information page, which is now available on the company's Web site.

ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), the international body in charge of TLDs and Internet addressing, is continuing to look into the matter. Jason Keenan, ICANN's media advisor, told that ICANN has been considering Network Solutions' new registration policies since it adopted them several weeks ago.

Despite protests from many individuals that Network Solutions is itself front-running, Wade insists that this is not the case and that it's simply protecting its customers. She also added that, contrary to some rumors, Network Solutions has not jacked up its domain registry prices.