ICANN asks VeriSign to suspend controversial service

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) has asked VeriSign Inc. to suspend its new Site Finder service while it conducts an investigation into the system, however VeriSign has rejected the request.

Instead, the company is forming a committee to assess the issues raised by the new service, called Site Finder, and find ways to address technical issues with the service, according to Tom Galvin, a VeriSign spokesperson.

ICANN had requested on Friday that VeriSign suspend the controversial “wildcarding” service, which was introduced last week. Site Finder is a Web service that appears when users attempt to reach a Web site whose domain name does not exist. This mostly happens as a result of mistyping and Site Finder offers users a search engine, a list of existing domains with related spellings and a directory of Web sites. To enable the service, VeriSign has had to create a wildcard address record so that all attempts to reach sites in the .com and .net address space, except those with valid domain names, results in redirection to Site Finder.

When VeriSign launched the service on Sept. 15 complaints began to flow from many people, especially those involved with the technical side of the Internet and those operating competing search services, because they saw it as an attempt to hijack Web traffic that would otherwise result in an error message or redirection to a search service of the user’s preference. [Please see VeriSign changes prompt privacy warnings, anger.]

ICANN said, in a statement issued on Friday, that it has been “monitoring community reaction” to the service and is also “carefully reviewing the terms of the .com and .net Registry Agreements.” It also asked its Security and Stability Advisory Committee and the Internet Architecture Board to produce a report on the subject which was issued Saturday.

The report noted a long list of concerns with the service.

These include the loss of local-language error messages to VeriSign’s English-language Site Finder; additional load for e-mail servers and the failure of some spam filters that check for valid domain names. It also noted that users who pay for data based on the volume sent and received will see higher costs as a result a single “domain not found” packet being replaced by the 17KB Site Finder home page and said the system represented a single point of failure and raised privacy concerns.

The IAB report did not conclude that the use of wildcard records, such as that by VeriSign, be prohibited but rather such a system is “dangerous” and should only be enabled with a full understanding of the impact on the network.

The statement issued by VeriSign came on the same day that another company, Web domain hosting company Go Daddy Software Inc. of Scottsdale, Ariz., said that it filed a lawsuit against VeriSign in Federal District Court in Arizona over Site Finder, the second such lawsuit in as many weeks.

Like the earlier suit, which was brought by Popular Enterprises LLC, of Orlando, Fla., Go Daddy’s lawsuit claims that VeriSign is misusing its role as the .com and .net domain registry to muscle out competition.

VeriSign is capitalizing on user confusion to direct Web browsers to the sites of VeriSign customers instead of others who might benefit from the mistypes. To counter the Site Finder effect, Web site owners will be forced to register every misspelled version of their domain name to prevent losing customers to paid links provided by Site Finder, Go Daddy said.

VeriSign is sensitive to criticisms of Site Finder and is working with the Internet community to resolve technical issues, Galvin said.

However, in a letter to ICANN President and CEO Paul Twomey dated Sept. 21, VeriSign Executive Vice-President Russell Lewis said it would be “premature to decide on any course of action until we first have had an opportunity to collect and review the available data.”

VeriSign would take appropriate steps regarding Site Finder “after completing an assessment of any operational impact of our wildcard implementation,” he said.

The company has already made improvements to Site Finder that address some problems with e-mail systems and is planning others, Galvin said.

The Site Finder committee will further guide the company’s response. Although the committee has not been selected, it will be made up of individuals from the Internet community and will address technical issues and other complaints about the service, Galvin said.

VeriSign is pleased with the performance of Site Finder thus far, he said.

The site has received more than 20 million unique visitors since the service was introduced last week, averaging between 4 million and seven million per day. Many of those users took advantage of the site’s suggested links, which are grouped under the heading “Did you mean?” Galvin said.

A lesser number used the site’s Search the Web and Search Popular Categories features, which include “sponsored” links paid for by VeriSign customers.

Asked Monday about VeriSign’s refusal to take down the service, ICANN spokesperson Mary Hewitt said that the organization stands by its request.

ICANN attorneys are currently reviewing the .com and .net contracts VeriSign signed with ICANN to see if Site Finder violates any provisions of those agreements, Hewitt said.

ICANN could not comment on the status of those reviews or on what steps ICANN might take if VeriSign refused to abide by the organization’s request, Hewitt said.

“It’s kind of uncharted waters,” she said.

Harald Alvestrand, a Cisco Systems Inc. fellow and IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force) chair, was less circumspect in his comments about Site Finder.

“VeriSign is taking choice away from users, and this is especially acute in the non-English (speakers’) context. If you had error messages that were coming up in Korean or Thai and are now in English, that’s not something you’d be happy with,” he said.

Alvestrand, who helped put together the IAB report on domain wildcarding, said the organization missed an opportunity to speak out against the use of wildcards before Site Finder was announced.

Currently about ten different top-level domains use wildcard systems similar to Site Finder, but most are low-profile country codes, he said.

The IAB didn’t issue a position paper on the practice earlier because it “didn’t get around to it,” and because the managers of many of those country domains were “rogue operators” who were unlikely to be swayed by the group’s opinion.

IAB members never considered that VeriSign would institute wildcarding for the leading .com and .net domains, he said.

“It’s technically stupid and harmful to the Internet. We though (VeriSign) would realize that without us telling them,” he said.

The IAB report can be found online at: www.iab.org/documents/docs/2003-09-20-dns-wildcards.html.