ICANN grills VeriSign over Site Finder

VeriSign Inc. faced a series of questions about the September launch of its Site Finder search page from members of an Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) committee Wednesday, with members questioning why the company didn’t poll the technology community about the possible effects before launching Site Finder.

Members of ICANN’s Security and Stability Advisory Committee have been tasked with finding out whether the Site Finder search page, designed to redirect mistyped URLs, affected the stability of the Internet by confusing some e-mail and Internet applications. The committee met twice with VeriSign officials in Washington, D.C., this month. Its next step is to make a recommendation about Site Finder to the ICANN board. Many of the questions Wednesday ventured away from security and into other territory, such as why VeriSign didn’t notify ICANN and other standards bodies sooner before launching the service Sept. 15 and why VeriSign polled Internet users but not technologists and domain name owners before launching Site Finder.

VeriSign pulled down the Site Finder service early this month after complaints from ICANN and other groups about the service causing problems for some e-mail and Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) servers, as the applications or servers didn’t receive traditional error messages. Other critics charged the company with trying to use its control of the .com and .net domains, for which VeriSign serves as the registrar under a contract with ICANN, to dominate the Web search market. [Please see VeriSign shuts down Site Finder and ICAAN asks VeriSign to suspend controversial service.]

Committee and audience members asked why VeriSign launched the service with little notice to ICANN and others and why the company didn’t want to share some of the details of polling it did regarding the launch of Site Finder. Polling questions and some internal testing is proprietary information, VeriSign officials answered.

“The Internet was really built not by a set of companies that built closed, proprietary systems but by a much more open system,” said committee Chairman Steve Crocker.

Others questioned if Site Finder was forcing other systems administrators to make changes to their systems, resulting in a kind of Site Finder tax. Of seven outstanding issues identified by VeriSign, only two require action by the company, noted audience member David Lesher, with most of the others requiring software updates on the user’s end.

“In the words of the current (U.S.) administration, this is a large cost-shifting, an unfunded mandate from VeriSign to the community,” Lesher said.

At Wednesday’s meeting, VeriSign officials defended the service, saying it complied with Internet standards. If they resurrect Site Finder, they plan to add a second DNS wildcard entry, called an MX wildcard, to allow e-mail servers to stop trying to send e-mail addressed to a nonexistent domain.

VeriSign has listened to the critiques of Site Finder and will work with the technical community if the service is launched again, said Russell Lewis, executive vice-president and general manager of VeriSign’s Naming and Directory Services.

“We’ve had a lot of constructive input from people in the technical community, and we’re very grateful for that,” Lewis told the ICANN committee. “Believe me, we want to assure you that we are listening, we do care, your input is important to us, and we plan to act upon it.”

VeriSign will also look into providing the Site Finder Web site search page in languages other than English, which was one of the criticisms, and would give the Web community a 30-day to 60-day notice before relaunching, Lewis said.

VeriSign also made a mistake by informing ICANN and other standards bodies only a few days before it launched Site Finder, he added. “The number one complaint, actually, that we heard across the board was this lack of notice,” Lewis said. “We do sincerely regret any inconvenience that the service created, notwithstanding that most of the concerns that we discussed today…were largely addressed within a matter of days, if not hours.”

VeriSign presented the results of a series of polls taken of Internet users, saying a majority of users preferred the Site Finder page to other error or search pages, such as those provided by America Online or MSN. Eight-four per cent of those polled in the U.S. preferred the Site Finder page over other options they’d seen, said Ben Turner, VeriSign’s vice-president for naming services. Another 33 per cent of users rated Site Finder “excellent” or “very good,” 43 per cent rated it “good” and only four per cent rated it “poor,” Turner said.

Turner’s survey results set off a series of questions from the ICANN committee members, with some questioning the wording of the surveys and others wanting more detailed results than the answers to four questions Turner provided them. Turner repeated that surveying methods were proprietary.

“What does this have to do with stability and security?” Turner said of the committee’s questions over survey methods.

Committee member Paul Vixie questioned why VeriSign didn’t survey other groups besides Internet users on the impact of Site Finder, such as companies that have registered domain names through VeriSign. “You surveyed some number of Web-browsing end users…however, other than by accident, that population is not your customers,” Vixie said. “So you didn’t specifically survey any of your customers, but rather third-party end users.”

Turner fired back at questions about who VeriSign surveyed. “If you guys don’t think consumers are relevant, we can move beyond this data set.”

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