Imagine if the telephone company changed your service so that instead of a busy signal it delivered an advertisement instead. Would you be happy about that?
Well, we know that such a thing is unlikely to happen unless regulators lose their collective minds. And that’s a good thing because when it comes to the core communications infrastructure, there is a fine line between what is commercially possible and a bad idea that is not in the public interest.
But when it comes to the Internet, there is no body with any power to stop rash commercial decisions from being put in place. Which leads me to my rant: the changes to the domain name server (DNS) that VeriSign Inc. recently implemented.
VeriSign is the company that acquired Network Solutions Inc. – which was created from InterNIC – and inherited the right to run the root name servers. Well, VeriSign last month lost its mind. It used to be that a failed DNS query would return a status of “no such name,” which was useful for all sorts of reasons including, not inconsequentially, that anti-spam systems easily could detect spam that used bogus domain names.
But on Sept. 15, VeriSign turned on a new feature. Now failed DNS queries for both the .com and .net domains return an IP address for sitefinder-idn.verisign.com. This URL is for a portal VeriSign owns and runs. The resultant Web page notifies you that the requested URL wasn’t found, provides the opportunity to search the Web for any text, offers up a URL that is close to the one you typed and features a list titled “Search Popular Categories.” Click on a popular category and the page returns lists of sponsored results for that category.
In other words, VeriSign has hijacked this process and turned it to its commercial advantage. This is not surprising, considering VeriSign’s recent poor financial performance, but the reason it matters is that apparently people mistype domain names an estimated 20 million times every day! VeriSign’s vice-president for naming services, Ben Turner, has said that Site Finder is a way to “improve overall usability of the Internet.” Do I need to make a comment about that? Nope.
Now, to some this might not seem that big a deal, and already the Internet Software Consortium, the nonprofit organization that owns and publishes Berkeley Internet Name Domain (the implementation of DNS that many domain name servers run), has released a patch that will block VeriSign’s “service.”
But at the heart of the matter is that the Internet is no longer a trivial communications service – it is a crucial part of our cultural infrastructure in much the same way that the telephone is.
If there was ever a good example of why the Internet needs regulation, VeriSign’s perversion of the way DNS works is it. And (surprise) I cannot think of any organization better suited for this job than the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers is not even a contender for this role). The FCC is the only one with the background and experience, and its renowned slowness would be a benefit rather than a drawback.
It is time to get serious about how the ‘Net is run because there are lots of organizations out there which don’t understand that just because you can do something it doesn’t mean you should.
The ‘Net must not be up for grabs by the least public-minded commercial players.
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