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

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.

/zimages/3/28571.gifClick 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!