Who Controls Your Domain Names?

Who “owns” your domain names?  That is, who is the Registrant ofrecord for the domain names currently used or registered by you or yourorganization? And who has been granted access to make changes to them? It’s been an important issue that periodically gets press or blog time,but despite attempts to increase awareness I still regularly comeacross companies, professionals, and individuals that run into greatdifficulty trying to renew domains that were setup long ago by anemployee who has since left the organization, a long-lost outside ITconsultant, web designer, or, in one case, an ex-next door neighbour. 

In fact, the matter was made morecomplicated several years ago when domain registrars began to allowlonger than annual domain name renewal periods.  At least within anannual period it is usually not terribly difficult to find the personwith control over a domain and, provided you parted company onrelatively good terms, convince them to transfer control over thedomain back to the rightful registrant.  This can be markedly moredifficult when the person controlling the domain has been off the radarfor a decade or an angry ex-employee.

Many IT Consultants, web designers, and developers have the badhabit of simply registering a domain name on behalf of a customer forthe sake of hastle reduction.  And many of their clients have theequally bad habit of allowing (requesting, demanding) them to do it. It’s bad practice all around.  For most web properties – personal orprofessional – a domain name is worth far more than the annualregistration fee and it’s important to know who controls it.

Worse still, the advent of privacy services designed to hide theactual identity of the domain registrant has made it potentially moredifficult, time-consuming, and costly to track down the originalAdministrator of record when their services have been employed. 

Most domain names will have an official Registrant and three maincontacts (which can be the same, though it’s not typicallyrecommended): The Administrative Contact with full authority over thedomain, The Technical Contact that can change the domain name servers(for a web site hosted or managed by a third party, this is commonlywhere their information should go), and the Billing Contact who canupdate billing information and renewal contracts.

Both the Administrative and Technical Contact can move the domain toa new domain server, but only the Administrative Contact actuallycontrols the domain.  In a corporation the Administrative Contactshould be a trusted senior member of management.

It is also important to note here that no amount of ranting,screaming, or even threats of legal action will convince a domainregistrar to transfer control of a domain without the permission of theAdministrative Contact listed in their records.  They have a setprocedure to follow, and a dispute resolution process that can takeyears to complete.  You might as well scream at a dead hard drivebecause you forgot to back it up before it gave up the ghost.

Also relevant here is that while domain names are commonly referredto in terms of ownership, this is not actually the case.  TheRegistrant merely has exclusive right to use the domain name, evento transfer it to a different registrar as long as they pay the bill,but not ownership in the legal sense of the term.

So, given all this, I would urge everyone who uses a top leveldomain name to take a minute and have a quick look at who is listed asthe Administrative, Technical, and Billing Contacts according tothe WhoIs database and make sure the information listed is correct. Almost any domain registrar’s web page has a WhoIs search function,including Network Solutions and Register.com, or you can use third party tools such as DNSStuff.com’s WhoIs search (scrolldown to the free tools).  Just enter the domain name in question (nowww. or other prefixes), and examine the results.  Hopefully all willbe in order and you will not be forced to begin a search for that oldcollege roommate who years ago helped you with your first web site. Ofcourse, if you are it’s always better to at least begin the searchbefore the current domain registration period runs out.

Bonus points if you check your employer’s domain name as well. Double-bonus points if you took my hint about yelling at your dead harddrive and did a backup while you were at it.

The Wikipedia Entry for Domain Name
The Wikipedia Entry for Domain Registration

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