Who will watch the registrars?

Almost 2,000 years ago, the poet Juvenal posed the question, “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” — “Who will watch the watchers?” Juvenal was actually riffing on Plato’s “Republic” and with a good reason: The question was, and still is, profound because it concerns a basic problem with the machineries of government and governance and, by extension, applies to any authority that has little or no oversight.

In the IT world a great example of a lack of oversight of an authority is the situation that we have with Network Solutions Inc. (NSI). NSI is the domain name registrar that was allowed to have sole control over the .com, .net, and .org top-level domains up until 1999, and for which it gouged the public with the permission and support of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.

In the last few days, NSI was found to be doing something completely and unequivocally unethical: Holding unregistered domain names hostage and, once again, gouging the public.

Here’s what the furor is all about. Let’s say you were starting a new company and you were going to, oh, I don’t know, say, sell VoIP to retired sailors. You might have an “ah ha” marketing moment and decide that “callmeishmael.com” was the perfect domain name. (I use this name merely as an example because it amuses me; someone currently owns it and wants US$2,288 for it. Good luck to them.)

So, with dreams of naming perfection and a subsequent IPO dancing in your head, you might well have gone to Network Solutions and searched the Whois service to see if the name was available. Should you have done so you would have run up against what others discovered: The name you just searched for was available but with a four-day “lock” on it set by Network Solutions. This lock meant that you couldn’t register the domain with a more reasonably priced registry service.

Moreover, should you not have ponied up Network Solutions hugely inflated registration fee — $34.99, about four or five times what most registrars charge — you would have risked losing the name to a domain “taster”, someone who snaps up potentially valuable names the millisecond they emerge from being locked to resell at a profit.

But how would a domain taster know you were trying to register some obscure name? Simple, Network Solutions is happy to tell anyone who cares to look what names visitors searched for: all NSI domain name searches were immediately registered on NSI’s special name servers, easily identified by the domain name reserveddomainname.com.

The process of locking up names, often called “domain name front running,” is generally recognized to be unethical (and possibly illegal in the way that NSI was doing it).

In the last few days, Network Solutions has ceased this practice and tried to spin the issue saying that it was “a security measure to protect our customers.” But a) that’s just transparent bull, and b) two important questions remain.

First, how could NSI management condone such obviously unethical and dubious business practices? Perhaps they just can’t help themselves; there’s a long and ugly corporate history of registry service mismanagement, which includes not preventing domain name piracy, frequently making serious administrative mistakes that cost users insane amounts of time and money . . . it goes on and on.

Second, why doesn’t ICANN do something about NSI? Why is it that ICANN is so ridiculously wimpy about reining in the mismanagement and abuse of registry services that NSI seems to indulge in regularly?

Perhaps we need a new version of Juvenal’s question: “Quis custodiet ipsos subcriptio?” . . . “Who will watch the registrars?”

Gibbs watches from Ventura, Calif. Your observations to backspin@gibbs.com.

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